Woman is vaccinated in New Bedford.
A popup vaccination clinic on Acushnet Avenue last month. Photo by Jack Spillane

NEW BEDFORD — COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising in the city and across Bristol County, prompting Mayor Jon Mitchell to require vaccinations or testing for all municipal employees, except those working in the public schools and the Port Authority.

The number of new daily COVID-19 cases in New Bedford spiked last month from single numbers during the final week of June to an average of 38 last week, according to city officials. On Aug. 4, the city recorded an alarming 61 new COVID-19 cases.

As of Friday, there were 14 patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 being treated at St. Luke’s Hospital. Of those, four were in the Intensive Care Unit, said Shawn Badgley, spokesman for Southcoast Health. There were also two patients at St. Luke’s Hospital who were under investigation for having symptoms consistent with COVID-19 but had not yet tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

By comparison, on June 15, St. Luke’s Hospital had seven patients admitted for COVID-19, none of them in the ICU.


Average number of daily new COVID cases in New Bedford last week

“There’s no doubt we’ve seen a steady uptick in patients,” said Badgley, adding, “the vast majority of recent patients have been unvaccinated.” He also said recent patients are younger — between the ages of 20 and 50 — than in previous waves.

Amid the rising cases and hospitalizations, New Bedford’s vaccination rate remains at roughly 42%, far below the statewide rate of 64.2%, according to Massachusetts Department of Public Health data. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now lists Bristol County, which includes the cities of New Bedford, Fall River and Taunton, as a region with a “high level of community transmission.” Bristol County had been ranked as an area of “substantial” transmission last week.

The CDC recommends that even those who are fully vaccinated should wear protective facemasks when attending indoor public events in areas of high or substantial transmission. Five other Massachusetts counties — Barnstable, Dukes, Hampden, Nantucket and Suffolk — are also listed by the CDC as counties with high transmission.

State and federal health officials repeatedly stress that the best way to stem the spread of novel coronavirus, including the new more transmissible delta variant, is by getting vaccinated. To that end, New Bedford has staged numerous pop-up vaccine clinics around the city during the summer and even conducted home visits to encourage more residents to get the vaccine. The city also offers a $20 Dunkin’ gift card to anyone receiving a first dose of the vaccine.

Bar chart comparing city's vaccination rate to state's - 42% for New Bedford vs 64.2% for the state as of Aug. 4..
New Bedford’s vaccination rate vs. the state’s, as of Aug. 4. Source: Massachusetts Department of Public Health

City officials stress that case numbers are surging primarily among the unvaccinated. 

Those who are becoming seriously ill, including patients requiring hospitalizations from COVID-19, are overwhelmingly unvaccinated individuals, and the low vaccination rate is contributing to the spread, Mitchell said in a statement announcing the city’s new vaccination policy.

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On July 10, a DJ party held inside a downtown nightclub resulted in a small cluster of five COVID-19 cases. By the end of July, the cluster had expanded to 39 people who were at the event and six more who later came into close contact with some of them. In that cluster, 34 of the 39 people who tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the party, held at The Vault on Purchase Street, were unvaccinated, health officials said. On Friday, the city reported that contact tracers had found no additional cases arising from The Vault cluster beyond the 45 reported by The Light in July.


New Bedford COVID-19 cluster surges to 45

Among the 39 people who attended the July 10 event and tested positive, only 5 were vaccinated. Six others, who later came in close contact with 39 partiers, also tested positive.

Mitchell said that with local vaccination rates, the early adoption of a municipal employee vaccination/testing requirement sends a clear signal that the city’s proactive pandemic response will continue.

“It is hoped that the city’s leadership on this issue will encourage other local institutions and employers to adopt similar policies for their employees,” he said.

Details about the vaccine or testing requirement will be released in the near future, Mitchell said, but the process is expected to align closely with those being contemplated by other public and private organizations. The new policy will address timing and vaccination deadlines, testing procedures, and reasonable accommodations that will be provided for medical or religious reasons. Those who do not choose to be vaccinated can instead opt for regular testing for the novel coronavirus.

Bar chart showing daily new COVID cases in New Bedford from past two weeks. Tuesday, July 20: 30 cases  Wednesday, July 21: 24 cases  Thursday, July 22: 28 cases  Friday, July 23: 14 cases  Monday, July 26: 45 cases  Tuesday, July 27: 10 cases  Wednesday, July 28: 41 cases  Thursday, July 29: 30 cases  Friday, July 30: 30 cases  Monday, Aug. 2: 49 cases  Tuesday, Aug. 3: 27 cases  Wednesday, Aug: 4: 61 cases  Thursday, Aug. 5: 31 cases  Friday, Aug. 6: 31 cases.
Daily new cases of COVID-19 in New Bedford, July 20-Aug. 6
Source: City of New Bedford
(Note: Due to timing of reports, municipal data can vary slightly from state figures)

Mitchell said the city’s vaccination/testing requirement does not extend to employees of New Bedford Public Schools or the New Bedford Port Authority. The city will also work with its public employee unions so that the policy conforms with collective bargaining agreements.

“With its lower vaccination rates, Greater New Bedford is especially vulnerable to the delta variant,” Mitchell said. “We’ve made the vaccines readily available, but to ensure that the vulnerable in our region are fully protected, we need to do more.

With the federal government now requiring a vaccination or testing for all of its employees, and with the recent announcement that the Pfizer vaccine is close to full approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a consensus among public health experts has emerged that mandatory vaccination is the most effective remaining strategy for bringing overall vaccination rates to a level that protects the vulnerable and returns stability and normalcy to daily life and the economy, Mitchell’s office noted.

“By requiring the city’s employees to be vaccinated, we can protect our workforce and their families, and encourage other employers to follow suit,” Mitchell said.

Andy Tomolonis contributed to this report.

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