NEW BEDFORD — The week after Easter, about 25 employees of the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center called out sick due to COVID-19.

Most health center staff have since returned to work, an administrator says, and earlier this week, only a few had called out sick. But as a result of the recent spike, the health center returned to masking in most situations. 

Health center CEO Cheryl Bartlett noted the omicron variant, particularly its subvariant, is moving faster and quicker; the recent cluster is a likely illustration of that.

Coronavirus cases across the country have been back on the rise due to the highly infectious omicron variant and its newer subvariant, BA.2, and New Bedford is no exception.

City spokesperson Mike Lawrence said that while there has been a recent “blip,” which he noted was on par with this time last year (though not as many people were vaccinated at that point), the metrics city officials are more concerned with remain low: hospitalizations and the number of people in the intensive care unit due to COVID.

As of April 26, there were 19 patients with COVID across Southcoast Health’s three hospitals; 26% of the patients were unvaccinated and 15% were in the ICU, according to Southcoast Health spokesperson Katie Cox.

The hospital system saw its highest hospitalization count since the start of the pandemic in mid-January with 175 COVID patients, Cox said. During that surge, St. Luke’s Hospital had 100 COVID patients at one time.

In January, omicron was the primary variant, but since then the BA.2 subvariant has risen in occurrence. As of mid-April, it accounted for more than 90% of the cases in the Northeast, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early research shows it is even more transmissible than the omicron variant.

New daily COVID cases have been rising in the city after sharply declining from early January and remaining mostly steady through March. The state Department of Public Health reported a total of 127 cases in New Bedford from April 20-25.

The citywide count of new daily cases is much lower than during January’s omicron surge, when state public health officials in one week reported nearly 3,350 new cases and New Bedford EMS reported non-stop calls.

The Light requested interviews with New Bedford EMS Director Mike Thomas and Health Department Assistant Director Stephanie Sloan (Director Damon Chaplin was out of office this week). Lawrence did not respond before publication on their availability for interviews.

While hospital data is still being collected and reported to the state, case counts are less reliable (and could be higher) for New Bedford, due to the availability of at-home rapid antigen tests. In January, the Boston Globe reported that most at-home tests are “not reportable” as positive cases, according to the state health department.

Testing programs adopted by departments, such as New Bedford Public Schools, have also relaxed. NBPS ceased its “Test and Stay” program and contact tracing for in-school close contacts in late February, and instead adopted a voluntary at-home testing program.

About 16.5% of families opted into the at-home testing, according to school spokesperson Arthur Motta.

Superintendent Thomas Anderson in an email statement said he is in constant communication with health officials and will continue reviewing past and current strategies to ensure New Bedford students have a healthy environment.

Bartlett said there is “absolutely” an undercount of COVID cases due to at-home rapid tests. She noted most of her staff in the post-Easter COVID cluster used at-home tests, which the state would likely deem not reportable.

Health officials continue to stress the importance of vaccines as New Bedford still trails behind the state with its vaccination rate of 59%, according to Mass. DPH statistics from last week.

As of April 19, 68% of New Bedford’s residents had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In Bristol County, 65% of residents are fully vaccinated and 73% have received at least one dose. Statewide, 78.7% of residents are fully vaccinated, and 97.8% have received at least one dose.

Asked if city officials believe New Bedford has hit a ceiling with its vaccination rate, Lawrence said he had no comment. Meanwhile, the city has continued to hold vaccination clinics each week.

The clinic at the Community Economic Development Center on Acushnet Avenue was mostly empty Wednesday afternoon. Over the past two months, about 10 to 20 people have come in during a given clinic to get a vaccination, whether it be their first, second or a booster, said Meredith McCartin, one of the nurses administering vaccines.

Corinn Williams, executive director of the center, said both she and health officials have expressed interest in continuing at least another month of vaccine clinics at the center.

Previously, those who got themselves or their children vaccinated would receive YMCA memberships or have fees covered to enter their kids into children’s sports leagues, Williams said. Center staff were also mentioning the vaccine during recent tax appointments with community members, and in some cases the participants would go on to get their vaccine afterwards.

In a March video update to the city, Mayor Mitchell noted that COVID will be around for the foreseeable future, and that booster shots are one of the city’s best offenses, especially given that protection from the vaccine may wane over time.

Southcoast Health offered the same encouragement, asking the community to be proactive through vaccinations, booster shots and mask wearing when social distancing is not possible.

Symptoms of this latest variant include a runny nose, congestion, sore throat, fatigue, headache and body aches. But as hospital data show, both unvaccinated and vaccinated people are still requiring hospitalization for more severe cases.

Bartlett hopes that any future variants will cause milder cases, and that COVID will slowly become more like the common cold or the flu. The message right now, though, is that “we are not there yet,” she said, as people are still getting sick and vulnerable populations are at risk of getting sicker.

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