You may have noticed it at the supermarket — more people are wearing masks again. Or you may have concluded it was inevitable as SouthCoast vaccination numbers have consistently lagged behind the rest of the state all summer.
The delta variant is here, and COVID-19 is increasing in New Bedford once again.
What you may not know is that the low vaccination rates that have plagued the region and played a key role in this latest surge, have even been a problem at the city’s biggest health care providers.
Those declining to be vaccinated locally include significant portions of individuals who work for the region’s largest health providers. Southcoast Health — which employs upwards of 7,500 people at its three hospitals in New Bedford, Fall River and Wareham — reports that some 500 of its employees remain unvaccinated. Up until recently, it was 700. Greater New Bedford Community Health says that 34 of its 280 employees are unvaccinated.
Eighty-one percent of the Southcoast employees are now vaccinated, but it has taken a big effort on behalf of Southcoast to get to that number.
Since around Fourth of July, the number of COVID cases in the city of New Bedford has steadily increased. Between June 24 and June 30, the state Department of Public Health recorded only 11 new cases of COVID-19 in New Bedford. Contrast that with the week between Sept. 9 and Sept. 15 when the state recorded 287 cases in New Bedford. The sharpest upticks occurred around mid-July, when the number of new cases jumped by 35 on July 19, and the first week of September, when they jumped by 81 on Sept. 7.
It is difficult to track exact dates when COVID cases climb because the state rolls multiple days into one report after weekends and holidays, but it is safe to say that the rate steadily climbed over the summer.
One of the big challenges on SouthCoast is that despite a concerted effort by the city of New Bedford, local nonprofits and health care providers, the city’s rate of fully vaccinated individuals has continued to be far lower than the state as a whole, with less than half its population, 46%, having received the full protection. Another 8% have received partial vaccination.
In the nearby suburbs, the situation has also lagged behind the rest of the state, with fully vaccinated numbers, ranging from 52% in Dartmouth to 60% in Fairhaven.
Statewide the fully vaccinated number is 67% as of Sept. 19.
Meanwhile, the metrics involving COVID patients at St. Luke’s are worrisome.
Between Sept. 1 and Sept. 17, St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford had a noticeable uptick in the number of COVID-positive cases, from 11 to 23. The number of patients under investigation for COVID declined slightly, from six to four; the number of patients in the intensive care unit and on ventilators stayed about the same, with four in the ICU and four on ventilators on Sept. 1 and four in ICU and three on ventilators on Sept. 17.
COVID-19 patients at St. Luke’s, Sept. 1-17, 2021
Dr. Dani Hackner, physician-in-chief at Southcoast Health, noted that the RNA signal of COVID found in Massachusetts sewer system has plateaued, which he said, indicates that the current COVID surge is not declining yet. In addition, the positivity rate for those tested for COVID in the city is 7.1%.
“That’s quite high,” he said.
As a hospital system, the patients that Southcoast Health encounters are slightly older than the average COVID-positive person statewide who is in their mid-20s right now, Hackner said. The largest number of people the hospital system sees are unvaccinated and with minimum co-morbidities.
There is “a disproportionate” number of individuals who are of Hispanic or Latinx background, he acknowledged. Southcoast Health is concerned about the lack of access to health care, the vaccination rate and dense living conditions in parts of that community, according to the physician-in-chief.
While Southcoast has not come to a point where it is unable to treat people with non-COVID conditions, as happened in other parts of the country, Hackner said that what is going on in places like Idaho and the South has resulted in countrywide shortages of medical staff.
“Southcoast is really feeling the tremendous disruption that COVID is creating,” he said.
Cheryl Bartlett, chief executive officer at Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, takes a long-range approach to the ups and downs of COVID. She referenced a recent New York Times’ article that explored whether the current delta variant, like others, runs in two-month cycles.
She said GNBCHC has seen an uptick this summer but not as great as the previous surges this past winter and in the late spring of 2020.
Like Hackner, Bartlett said that a younger population has been turning up sick in this surge than the previous ones. It may be because the virus got all the older people and sick people in its previous cycles and who’s left and vulnerable now are younger people, she said.
“I think this is a very worrisome pandemic. We’re still in it,” she said.
Adrian Ventura, whose group Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores advocates for the health and safety of Latino immigrant workers, said he’s definitely seen a spike in COVID in recent weeks, though also not as bad as last year.
“I know of eight families where the whole family got sick,” he told The Light, as UMass Dartmouth professor Lisa Maya Knauer translated his interview from the Spanish.
Some of those who got sick ended up in the hospital and some spent 15 to 20 days shut up in their homes, Ventura said.
Paranoia about vaccines is widespread in many different communities, he noted.
“Whatever the social class, people are showing their fear,” he said.
Hackner said that Southcoast has embarked on a multi-part strategy to reduce the number of unvaccinated employees, according to the CDC’s guidelines.
Currently, the system is in the first phase, in which it is attempting to educate individuals about the vaccines. The second phase will involve compliance in which staff will be given the opportunity to obtain the vaccine through direct assistance.
The final phase will involve implementation of the vaccine requests. In order to be on site at a Southcoast Health workplace, one will have to be vaccinated, except in rare instances of medical or religious exemptions.
The process will be administered equitably, Hackner said. “We very much want to be consistent and fair across the board.”
Bartlett said that GNBCHC is also committed to following the CDC guidelines for employers of more than 100 people.
According to Bartlett, mandates both on a personal and employer level, work and they are already causing an increase in vaccinations.
“I think mandates are an effective tool,” she said.
Bartlett said GNBCHC does not want the mandates to be punitive, given the fact that everyone in the country has undergone a traumatic experience in the last couple years.
“I’d rather work on a persuasive approach than put down the gauntlet and hammer it home,” she said.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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