NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Health officials are trying to determine if a significant outbreak of COVID-19 at a local nursing home is the highly transmissible Delta variant.
North Adams Commons reported three vaccinated residents with infections as of Friday morning. The total is now 20 residents and two staff members, said Lisa Gaudet, a spokesperson for Berkshire Healthcare that operates the nursing home. Only one of those is unvaccinated, she said.
The 119-bed skilled nursing facility is now closed to visitors and new admissions as health officials track down the source of the infection and determine if it’s a variant. Gaudet said all residents and staff were being tested so the numbers may change.
“Clearly we’re hearing in the national and local news about variants that are creating these breakthrough cases,” Gaudet said. “We benefited from this vaccination when we saw all of our infections go down … So this is something that is obviously concerning to us.”
The numbers were posed in a leaked internal email from Berkshire Health Systems’ Dr. James W. Lederer that was posted on Facebook.
The system’s chief medical officer, who on Thursday stressed to iBerkshires that anyone who had not been vaccinated should do so immediately, said six of those infected were now patients at BMC.
The Delta variant has been moving across the state and there have been significant outbreaks in the eastern portion of the state, particularly parts of Cape Cod. While most of those vaccinated may only be slightly affected if at all, it may cause more serious illness particularly in those with compromised immune systems.
Public health officials say vaccination is the best way to prevent spread; the majority of those hospitalized across the nation are not vaccinated.
“Within the past 48 hours, we have seen a significant increase in positive COVID test results in the county,” Lederer wrote in the email. “We can expect that the Delta variant is the predominant strain now in Berkshire County. The CDC’s data does support that vaccination decreases the likelihood of severe illness/death and hospitalization with the Delta strain even if not fully protective against contracting the infection.”
The hospital’s updated COVID-19 page Friday lists six positive patients and another 11 inpatients pending tests. In the last seven days, the medical center has had 49 positives.
Berkshire County reported 12 new cases since Thursday for a total to date of 6,660. There were seven cases reported Wednesday, and 11 Thursday, for a total of 30 in the last three days.
The health system reportedly has anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 employees and, according to Lederer’s email, about 800 are still not vaccinated. The health system is separate from Berkshire Healthcare, which operates a number of skilled nursing and rehabilitation homes in Western Mass.
The nursing home system struggled during the first year of the pandemic to prevent spread but major breakouts in Williamstown and Pittsfield killed upwards of 50 residents.
Gaudet said the nursing care facility will use a number of new tools at its disposal, including monoclonal antibody therapy (a program that BMC participated in) and is following state Department of Public Health guidelines.
“This is kind of new territory, as you can imagine,” she said, since the facility knows how to deal with unvaccinated residents but not with vaccinated who are now infected. “This just creates another, I would say, change in what we understand about the virus and how it can get in and, yeah, it’s disappointing.”
Lederer told WAMC that the hospital system does not have a vaccination mandate pending full Federal Drug Administration approval of the vaccines; Gaudet said a mandate is under discussion at Berkshire Healthcare, which also has to weigh its ability to recruit and retain staff.
“We have good vaccination rates throughout Berkshire County, in our facilities, but also at North Adams, with 89 percent of the residents being vaccinated and 67 percent of the staff,” she said.
The governor on Friday reiterated that at-risk individuals should begin wearing face coverings indoors, even if vaccinated.
“If you have a serious health condition or are at serious risk of developing severe illness from COVID, you should take extra precautions,” Gov. Charlie Baker said during Friday’s press conference at the Dewitt Center in Roxbury.
The recommendation follows the guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control earlier this week that fully vaccinated residents wear a mask or face covering when indoors if they have a weakened immune system, an increased risk for disease based on age or an underlying health condition, or a household member that has such conditions or is not vaccinated.
“If you have a close friend or family member with a serious health condition or a serious risk of developing severe disease or illness from COVID, you should take extra precautions. If you’re not sure, or you have concerns about your personal health or that of a family member, you should consult your health care provider.”
The conference was held during the Boston Youth BBQ Vax and Basketball Bash at the Dewitt Center, which is a community-focused event to encourage youth vaccinations.
Massachusetts currently stands at second in the country below Vermont for the percentage of fully vaccinated residents. The state is 63.75 percent vaccinated, which amounts to 4,393,827 people.
Baker strongly urged all eligible residents to get vaccinated if they are not already. He said this is the “single most powerful tool we have” in fighting the pandemic.
“I can’t stress this enough now more than ever, it’s important for anybody who isn’t vaccinated to get vaccinated, it’s free, it’s safe, it’s available to anyone who lives or works in Massachusetts, you don’t need an ID or insurance, and this clinic is one of 900 sites, people can get their shots in every corner of the commonwealth,” he explained.
“We’re making this as easy as we possibly can for everyone so that everyone who has a chance will get vaccinated, and that is why Massachusetts continues to be a national leader in vaccinations, in fact, we’ll even come to your home if you can’t make it to a clinic.”
The statewide seven-day average of confirmed cases is currently at 428.4. The lowest observed value was 64.3 on June 25.
Only 0.15 percent of the 4.3 million fully vaccinated residents have tested positive for COVID and only 0.008 percent of those individuals, or 361 people have been hospitalized.
“These vaccines are why we have been and will continue to move forward here in Massachusetts,” Baker said. “They’re your best protection, they’re your parents’ best protection, they’re your family’s best protection against COVID so please, if you haven’t gotten vaccinated, get vaccinated.”
He explained that the new face-covering guidance is designed to be as simple and straightforward as possible and was tailored to fit the state. His administration will continue with best efforts to get all willing residents vaccinated and releasing the best public guidance they can.
The state is likely to see additional positive cases but because of its high vaccination rate, will see fewer residents hospitalized.
“Going forward, we’re going to do everything we can to make vaccines and COVID testing available,” Baker said.
“We’re also going to monitor the data and give the people in Massachusetts the best possible public health information, and as simple and straightforward way as we possibly can. That way everyone can take the right precautions for their specific healthcare needs, and that’s what today’s guidance is all about.”
With respect to public schools, the top priority is keeping children in schools to prevent the negative effects of remote learning that many children have experienced, he said.
The state Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education and of Public Health just released recommendations for public schools in the fall based on CDC information. These standards highlight schools being open to every student, every day,
“The documented negative impact on children that resulted from the uneven unpredictable and a profoundly difficult year that students had last year cannot and must not happen again,” Baker said.
“In-person learning is the only available option for Massachusetts schools and their students, and hopefully today’s guidance will help local officials finish their preparations as they get ready to welcome back their students in the fall.”
Baker also referenced the state’s effort to mitigate the spread of the recent Provincetown cluster outbreak, which is now approaching around 900 cases. Because of the cluster, daily testing is being conducted on unvaccinated long-term care facility employees in Barnstable county.
The CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center and CIC Health Timothy Rowe and Chief Medical Officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield Dr. Sandhya Rao joined Baker at the event. CIC and Blue Cross Blue Shield were among the partners who made the vaccination event possible and continue to provide vaccination outreach.
Rao asserted that with the prominence of the Delta variant and the start of the school year around the corner, vaccination is incredibly important in the fight against COVID-19.
“We know the science has shown that the vaccine is effective and safe, including for children who are 12 and up, which is why we are so proud to be a part of events like today that are aiming to bring the vaccine out to as many residents as we can,” She said.
“We’re really proud to be a part of really innovative partnerships like this one, and as it’s been said, while Massachusetts remains a leader in the overall vaccination rate, we know there are disparities, and today is really about boosting vaccine confidence and bringing the vaccine out to communities that are in greatest need.”
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