Vaccine workers at the Taylor Elementary School sit by refrigerated doses before they are configured for administration. Left to right: Paramedic Eric Blanchette and nurses Cheryl Sulyma-Masson and Holly Giray. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

NEW BEDFORD — Every day in this coldest of January weeks, the city has run COVID  vaccine and booster clinics. And it has especially focused on advertising them to parents and their children.

For the young kids, 5-11, there’s been the vaccine clinics, and for the teenagers, 12-17, and the adults, the clinics have offered either vaccines or booster shots.

From Centro Communitario’s headquarters in the North End to the Verdean Vets Hall just off the downtown. From the Taylor Elementary School on the South End peninsula to the Andrea McCoy and PAACA centers, the clinics are still running.

They are badly needed. New Bedford’s fully vaccinated rate for the general population has inched its way up to 56%, but many of those vaccines are rapidly becoming outdated and the city’s booster rate has lagged at a phenomenally low 21%.

The numbers are startlingly bad — even senior citizens in New Bedford are only boosted at the rate of 50% for those 65-74 and even fewer, 49% for those over 75 years of age. But among the youngest kids the story is the worst.

In New Bedford, just 13% of 5- to 11-year-olds are fully vaccinated; just 10% of kids 12-15 are boosted; and the same 10% of teens ages 16 to 19 are boosted.

“It’s been quite the pandemic,” said Dr. Mike Rocha, sounding a bit discouraged. “Unfortunately our community has been well behind the rest of the state,” he added, acknowledging the obvious.

Syringes with the Moderna and Pediatric Pfizer vaccines sit in bins at the Taylor Elementary School on Thursday. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Rocha is perhaps the finest medical educator on the South Coast. He has long been tireless in looking for ways to bring the importance of exercise and diet to the large number of Greater New Bedford area folks with heart disease. And when the pandemic struck, Rocha did not miss a beat and became a leader in education on that front, too. He’s our own unpaid Sanjay Gupta, and we’re more than lucky to have him.

Rocha, a cardiologist, said he still sees patients in his own practice who haven’t received their first shots, never mind their boosters. He never talks to them about government issues or politics, he said. He accepts that some folks have made an ironclad decision.

Rocha said he thinks a few things have hurt the public’s confidence, such as the early reversal on whether masks help to prevent the disease’s spread, and widespread publicity about a very small number of people who suffered blood clots from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But he observed that COVID is a new disease, and the knowledge develops over time.

And then there’s the power of social media. 

“People are listening to their own Facebook channels and their own myths,” Rocha said.

To the power of social media, I’ll add the power of electronic mass media. Both local and national talk radio, and powerful national cable television shows pump out a constant stream of conspiracy stories about the vaccines and masks. So, even though millions of folks have been vaccinated with an infinitesimal number of side effects, people will continue to seek treatments with unproven drugs like Ivermectin and other courses of action for which there have been no scientific-method studies.

Astonishingly, Rocha said, even when people have a loved one who becomes seriously ill or dies, it does not seem to change their behavior. “No matter how many times the nurses and doctors plead or ask, there’s still people who just don’t believe it.”

A little knowledge can go a long way in misleading people. For instance, the fact that the omicron variant is less virulent has been widely misunderstood, Rocha said. Because the variant is far more infectious than previous mutations, the sheer number of people who are getting sick means that even a small percentage of people getting seriously ill or dying is a lot of people.

We’ve seen that in the numbers from Southcoast Health where, as of the first week of January, there were 147 patients hospitalized in the three-hospital system. Twelve percent of those patients were in the Intensive Care Unit, and 78% of the ICU patients were unvaccinated.

Astonishingly, Rocha said, even when people have a loved one who becomes seriously ill or dies, it does not seem to change their behavior. “No matter how many times the nurses and doctors plead or ask, there’s still people who just don’t believe it.”

The truth is that the city and the local health systems have at least tried to step up during the pandemic, but the people in many cases have not.

Why does the city of New Bedford lag some 21% behind the rest of the state in its vaccination rate? Why are the South Coast suburbs not far behind New Bedford when it comes to lagging?

I looked at the numbers for the city of Newton, the Boston suburb with a population of 88,000, a comparable size to New Bedford’s 101,000. 

Newton has an overall vaccination rate of 87% vs. New Bedford’s 56%. Newton has 55% of its residents boosted vs. New Bedford’s 21%.

That, in a nutshell, is the importance of quality education. We have a ways to go in New Bedford and around the South Coast in that matter.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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