NEW BEDFORD — Cases of COVID-19 are steadily increasing in the city as national alarm mounts due to a recent spike in infections driven by the Omicron variant.
With intensive care units nearing capacity and a “critical” shortage in health care staffing, state officials have activated the National Guard and required hospitals to cancel any “non-essential” procedures.
Public Health officials in New Bedford said Tuesday they could neither confirm nor deny if the Omicron variant has been detected in the area, but pointed to a recent CDC report that states Omicron now accounts for 73 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the United States.
“People should assume that it’s here,” Mayor Jon Mitchell said of the Omicron variant, speaking to reporters in front of City Hall on Tuesday. “It’s going to be here inevitably. It’s all the more reason to mask up, avoid folks that are vulnerable and, most importantly, get vaccinated.”
There is still much unknown about Omicron. Federal health officials report that the variant “could be more transmissible than other COVID-19 variants,” even transmissible to those who are vaccinated, but say vaccinations “have shown to be highly protective against severe disease resulting in hospitalization or death due to known COVID-19 variants.”
Between Dec. 10 and Dec. 17, the state DPH reported 1,024 new cases of COVID-19 in New Bedford. Over the last week, Bristol County has averaged about 3.3 COVID-19 related deaths per day, according to data-tracking by the Department of Health and Human Services — a rate similar to November of 2020, before cases and death rates spiked the following winter.
New Bedford remains among the least vaccinated cities in the state, with 53 percent of the population fully vaccinated. The city has begun working with community organizations to distribute more than 37,700 at-home COVID-19 testing kits ahead of the holiday season.
In New Bedford Public Schools, 121 new COVID-19 cases were reported last week, with 30 of those cases reported on Monday. Mayor Mitchell, who also chairs the School Committee, said classes are still expected to resume in person when students return from winter break in January, though school officials will continue to monitor the situation over the break.
UMass Dartmouth similarly plans to resume classes in person in January, according to Michael Goodman, acting provost and co-chair of the school’s pandemic emergency response team. According to school data, more than 95 percent of faculty and staff are vaccinated.
In Bristol County hospitals, intensive care units are at 92 percent capacity, crossing above the “critical” threshold for the first time since February of 2021. There are currently 159 patients hospitalized due to COVID-19 with 28 of those patients in intensive care units, according to data-tracking by HHS.
The surge in cases comes as health care systems statewide are facing a staffing shortage, according to HHS secretary Marylou Sudders. In early December, Southcoast Health fired 216 of its 7,500 employees for failing to comply with the federal vaccine mandate for health care workers.
Mitchell said the city is in conversation with the state about reopening surge facilities that closed down last spring, though there is no official plan yet to reopen them.
On Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker activated up to 500 National Guard personnel to relieve pressure on the state’s understaffed hospitals. They will be deployed starting Dec. 27 to help with transport, observation of patients harming themselves, security, food services and logistics.
Southcoast Health spokesperson Kaitlyn Cox did not return requests for comment related to ICU capacity and staff shortages at Southcoast hospital systems. She did confirm that elective procedures scheduled between Dec. 17 and Dec. 31 will be postponed and rescheduled. Emergency care will continue.
The DPH released updated COVID breakthrough data this week showing that 97% of COVID breakthrough cases in Massachusetts have not resulted in hospitalization or death. Unvaccinated individuals are five times more likely to contract COVID than fully vaccinated individuals and 31 times more likely to contract COVID than individuals who have a booster, according to the report.
“The vaccine is designed to prevent premature death and hospitalizations, and we are seeing that be effective,” said Damon Chaplin, city director of public health. Chaplin and Mayor Mitchell echoed President Joe Biden’s sentiments of concern, but not panic.
“We are seeing a spike like we saw last year, but it’s not the same kind of spike,” Chaplin said. “It might not be at the rate we would like it to be, but many people have been vaccinated.”
Email Will Sennott at email@example.com.
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