Maybe we all just have COVID PTSD.
Maybe, no matter how great the health threat, no matter how much the family and societal disruption, no matter how much our desire to always be prepared and careful, we just can’t sustain being on constant COVID watch at all times and on all days for 21 straight months.
So when the very predictable spike in the number of COVID absences in the schools, police, fire and hospital rooms blossomed this Monday morning after our long Christmas break, the local authorities-that-be had precious little to say.
There were no fresh press releases from Mayor Jon Mitchell, no latest marketing spin by Southcoast Health, no word from the School Department about how things were going in our virus-ravaged world as we ramped up again after our — no pun intended — holiday spreading season.
Personally, I had a forewarning of how bad it was going to be when two members of my own extended family tested COVID positive before winter vacation was even over.
And then, as I prepared to report on the race to become the next New Bedford City Council president, I was shocked to learn that as many as five of 11 city councilors may have tested COVID positive since Christmas.
By the time the council’s inauguration took place, it turned out that only three of the 11 were in a state where they had to quarantine. But still. It very much looked like omicron was every bit as contagious on the Southcoast as in the rest of the Northeast.
As the responses to the press inquiries slowly came in, we learned that positive COVID tests, not to mention real illnesses, were indeed stressing every local institution — from the hospital systems to the school systems to the public safety institutions. No doubt it was the same on the waterfront and the industrial park businesses.
Southcoast Health would not answer New Bedford Light reporter Anastasia Lennon’s inquiry as to how many people in its three-hospital chain had called in sick over the last two weeks. But their press spokesperson did quickly provide numbers that illustrated a sharp uptick in the number of in-patients. There were a total of 147 on Jan. 4 vs. 93 on Dec. 23.
By midday Tuesday, the school department had issued a press release announcing all athletic practices and competitions would be canceled until Friday due to the increase in positive COVID cases. It was the first direct acknowledgement of what was certainly going on in the school system with an increase in cases. Social media was alive with comments about the shortage of bus drivers from those who had called in sick.
Late in the day, the school spokesperson provided numbers on “student-facing staff” that indicated absences had doubled since the week before Christmas. About 15% of both staff and students in the almost 13,000 student district were out of school Monday, said Superintendent Thomas Anderson in a press statement. That would be hundreds, if not more than a thousand students and staff.
Anderson also acknowledged that the system has yet to negotiate a vaccination agreement with the teacher and other educational unions whose members work in the system. You think that has anything to do with the numbers?
To be fair, the local institutions have all made a concerted effort to educate people about the dangers of COVID spread over the holiday gatherings. The mayor in the lead up to New Year’s did his customary Friday night robocall outlining safety protocols and he also did an extended interview outlining safe behavior on the city’s cable access channel. (One wonders about the viewership numbers for the latter, however.)
Over at Southcoast Health, the institution was an early follower of President Joe Biden’s mandate for all employers of more than 100 people to require vaccines. The three-hospital system has terminated 200-plus employees who refused to be vaccinated among its 5,000-plus staff. For its part, the school department has a Daily COVID-19 Tracker that provides a number for combined staff and student “reported” cases, although nothing that says which are students and which are staff. Those numbers have doubled since just before Christmas, but with only 23 new cases reported on Jan. 2, one has to wonder about the accuracy of this data.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt we are in COVID fatigue.
Even the city’s Health Department charts and graphs seemed hopelessly outdated or non-functional this week.
Its latest date for the number of hospitalizations was Dec. 16. Its latest date for the total number of COVID-19 cases was Sept. 30. The charts that break down cases by race, ethnicity and age didn’t give any latest date at all for the time span they were measuring.
There was even an old announcement on the site that the Buttonwood Senior Center would be re-opening on Nov. 8. With the rise of omicron, the Buttonwood center has since closed again but you would not know it from the website. The city has made an announcement, but if you missed it and went looking for the information on the Health Department site, you wouldn’t find it.
Perhaps most discouraging, a very fine city chart that provides the daily case numbers, including the meaningful “7-day moving average” sometimes has numbers and sometimes it does not. As of late Wednesday, the seven-day moving average of cases had jumped from 107 to 213.71 in the last week. But the public can not always see that information. Perhaps, it goes down when the numbers are updated?
“We are working with the Health Department and MIS (the city’s computer programming department) to renovate a lot of this content,” said city spokesman Mike Lawrence.
There have been victories too, as Lawrence pointed out. Because of its low vaccination rate, the city received some 30,000 test kits from the state two weeks ago and had them all distributed within five days. Unfortunately, the test shortage is a nationwide problem and many, many more tests are going to be needed to get New Bedford through the expected January/February omicron surge.
How much longer can we all keep gazing at these COVID numbers? How much longer can we worry about whether this place is safe or that place is not? Do I have the right mask? How can I possibly get more tests?
They say maybe this all will start to wind down by spring. But they said the same thing last fall.
With COVID, it’s all a nightmare that we never seem to wake up from. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to keep our effort up all the time. It’s been a long war. Sometimes we just need a rest.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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