As pandemic-weary residents shed their masks, skip their booster shots and head to summertime parties, experts have a warning: COVID-19 is still infecting people — sometimes with fatal results.
Roughly two years after the pandemic claimed its first New Bedford victim in April of 2020, the city’s COVID-related death toll has climbed to 507. And there have been 219 fatal cases between April 2021 and April of this year, adding to the nationwide death toll that has now surpassed one million.
The reason for the continued fatalities, say medical experts, is that omicron and its sub variants spread faster and infect more people. And while omicron may present milder cases for the young and middle-aged, that’s not the case for elderly residents, some of whom are still dying from COVID-19. And the virus is constantly changing.
Two new omicron sub variants, BA.4 and BA.5, have been spreading throughout the summer and now make up the majority of the COVID-19 cases in America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. The new variants also appear to be more resistant to the immunity provided by previous COVID infections, as well as by vaccines and boosters.
According to information on death certificates obtained from the state Registry of Vital Statistics, New Bedford residents over the age of 65 made up roughly 63% of all COVID-19 related deaths since April 2021 — even though they make up just 16% of the city’s population.
But the statistics only tell one story. Each number represents a mother, a father, a child, or friend — a nursing home volunteer, a fisherman with a heart of gold, a three-time cancer survivor, a non-profit board member, a retail worker and others — all cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
These deaths are due in part to the wider reach of omicron, said Cheryl Bartlett, Greater New Bedford Community Health Center CEO.
“We know it’s becoming more contagious and less virulent, so people are getting it more readily … but they’re not getting as sick,” she said. “Now some people are getting sick because … if you spread something to a large group of people, there are going to be people with weak immune systems and other chronic conditions that put them at a higher risk.”
According to Dr. Erin Bromage, associate professor of infection and immunology at UMass Dartmouth, COVID-19 has mutated in a relatively favorable way. “Over the last two years, the virus started to adapt to moving through people, and it’s gotten better and better and better at it over time,” he said. “And we’ve been really lucky. It’s gotten better at moving through people, but at the same time, it hasn’t improved its deadliness.”
How quickly is omicron spreading? The seven-day moving average of new COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts is 1,383 as of July 7, according to CDC data. This time last year, the seven-day moving average of new COVID-19 cases was 156.
“Because of the new variants that are going around, we've actually seen quite elevated rates,” said Bromage. “Massachusetts and New England — I won't say are getting rocked — but the level of infections that we have, and have had for the last three months, are second only to what we had in January.”
In January of this year, COVID-19 cases in Bristol County skyrocketed to more than 1,500 daily cases, higher than any previous spike, according to data collected by the Massachusetts Department of Health.
Although cases shot up this year, attitudes are relaxed. On any given day in local supermarkets or downtown bars, most customers remain maskless and few, if any, practice social distancing.
Still, said Bartlett, despite the high rates of infections this year, vaccinations — especially among the elderly — have done their part to keep the death rate low in New Bedford, compared to earlier months in the pandemic.
Waning interest in getting vaccinated
Initially, there was a lot of enthusiasm for vaccinations, said Bartlett. “We would have about 300 people a day. It was huge. We did one clinic down at the EPA building … and we did 1,000 in one day.”
But the turnout at vaccination clinics slowed and then plateaued. In New Bedford, just 59% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Massachusetts DPH, and only 26% of New Bedford residents have received booster doses. Vaccinations declined despite campaigns in English, Spanish and Portuguese designed to reach those who may be distrustful of the government or misinformed about the vaccine, said Bartlett.
Rates of people getting their booster doses fell even lower. “I would say that compared to the number of people vaccinated, it's probably half the number that should have gotten a booster,” said Bartlett. “And second boosters — even less than the first.”
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Since the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available, the city of New Bedford has held weekly vaccine clinics at locations across the city, from former Fire Station 11 and the Community Economic Development Center, to pop-up clinics during AHA! Nights, summer festivals and one-time events. In addition, Walgreens and CVS locations, as well as grocery stores and pharmacies, have offered vaccinations for months. Despite widespread availability, the vaccination rate in the city has been stuck at 59% since early April.
With the omicron variant, said Bromage, vaccines can help, but they are not a “miracle cure” if a person has comorbidities — especially for those over 65.
“We know when you get older, things aren't working as well,” he said. “So if you’re carrying high blood pressure and too much extra weight … even with vaccination, it's not going to be a get-out-of-jail-free card from infection. Vaccination [makes] your immune system act like it's 20 years younger for this virus. But it can't get rid of a lifetime of comorbidity or other problems that are actually there.” In fact, as of July 7, vaccinated individuals made up 64% of all hospitalizations in the state, according to DPH data.
Bartlett says that with fewer hospitalizations, medical professionals have the space to accommodate those experiencing life-threatening symptoms, but even with ample room in medical facilities, the virus is still deadly. “If you pass something along to enough people, there are going to be some people that do have bad reactions and don't do well.”
Deaths still occur among younger people
The elderly aren’t the only ones affected. A higher proportion of younger New Bedford residents died from COVID-related illnesses between April 2021 and March of this year than in the pandemic’s first year. At a rate of 27% this is higher than the statewide number of 14.6% of younger people who died from COVID-related illnesses.
In the early days of the pandemic, a disproportionate number of younger Hispanic people died, often due to employment as frontline workers where COVID-19 precautions could be lax. Confined living conditions which made social distancing impossible also contributed, said Bartlett. Now, she sees COVID-19 as “an equal opportunity virus,” that is not affecting any one racial demographic more than another.
Living with COVID-19
As New Bedford and the nation learn to cope with the pandemic, many experts say that COVID-19 is far from over. Rather, it will soon become an endemic — a virus that maintains a baseline level of infection, similar to the flu or common cold.
“It's not going anywhere. It's going to be here,” said Bromage, referring to the continued presence of COVID-19 and its variants in the United States. “I think that going forward, it's going to join the other four human Coronaviruses as a seasonal cold.”
According to Bromage, the future of COVID-19 will look similar to how it operates now, just on a larger time scale. There will be years where infections are low — where COVID-19 symptoms consist of colds and congestion. However, some years will be worse than others.
“It might be one in every four or one in every eight years, just like we see with influenza,” he said. “Where there is a variant that comes through that just makes people more sick.”
The key to avoiding the worst of COVID-19 in the future, said Bromage, is balance, and preparation for surges. “A big part of local public health and local government is finding the balance between not having disruptions to schools and to businesses because of a massive surge locally, versus either shutting things down or just ignoring it.”
And according to Damon Chaplin, director of the New Bedford Health Department, that balance extends to maintaining positive mental health while also continuing COVID-19 precautions.
“Our community, like many others, has been experiencing COVID fatigue for some time, as this pandemic exceeds the two-year mark. Many people are grasping to return to normal,” said Chaplin.
“It is important for everyone’s mental health to find a sense of normal as this pandemic linger. However, our community must remain informed and diligent to protect themselves and our most vulnerable populations by getting vaccinated and boosted when eligible, and by accessing testing and treatment when experiencing symptoms.”
Bromage said recognizing that everyone has a different experience with the virus is paramount. Understanding that as partial immunity becomes more common, sickness during infection and the lingering effects of long COVID can take a toll on communities.
“People need to not just focus on the number of deaths,” he said. “How much sickness are we getting? How much productivity are we losing? How much quality of life are you losing after infection that people are not appreciating right now?”
Sawyer Smook-Pollitt is a New Bedford-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Bedford Light.