Health Bulletin: Responses to COVID-19 yield gratitude, worry


Chair, Westfield Board of Health

By Juanita Carnes FNP, Board of Health chair

Thanksgiving is an American holiday centered around a harvest feast, celebrating communities coming together 400 years ago. Along with eating a bountiful meal, it is a time for families to gather and reflect upon what they are thankful for. Fast forward to Thanksgiving of 2021, and many are receiving mixed signals on pandemic guidelines, gathering together and traveling. It seems people have just moved on. It would have been nice to sit at the table and give thanks for this pandemic being over. Instead, we discussed the reality and fear of the winter surge that is clearly evident.

Globally, there are 259 million confirmed cases and 5 million dead. Austria, Germany, Israel and other countries are seeing high surges despite higher vaccination rates than the US. They are strengthening measures to stop the spread. Nationally, there are 48 million cases and 774,000 deaths. The number of COVID-19 deaths in 2021 now exceeds the total number in 2020. COVID-19 cases in children are on the rise with 142,000 last week. The governor of New York is forewarning stricter restrictions as numbers spike. Infections are up in half of all states. In Massachusetts, cases have increased by 80 percent last week. Massachusetts hospitals have been restricted by Governor Baker to reduce non-essential, non-urgent scheduled procedures. In Westfield, cases this week are up to 161 (75 percent unvaccinated) from 100 last week. Cases have not been this high since January. School-age children make up 32 percent of the cases. Thankfully, no deaths. Unthankfully, we have only a 55 percent vaccination rate.

Many states have ICU beds fully occupied by COVID patients, and these numbers are higher than one year ago at this time. A study has shown increased ICU COVID-19 occupancy is directly correlated with an increased mortality rate two to six weeks later. An ICU capacity of 75 percent will result in an additional 12,000 deaths two weeks later. High ICU rates mean high Emergency Department census and boarding of inpatients. Hospitals are less prepared to deal with another surge due to severe staffing shortages, especially nurses, coupled with pandemic fatigue of health care workers.

We are at crisis levels, but without all the precautions that were in place last year, and low vaccination rates. Americans are moving around more than ever. We are inundated with misguided messages that the pandemic is winding down. The truth is, with people spending more time indoors, immunity waning from vaccines and natural immunity, delta variant more contagious, potential for future mutations and basic human nature of wanting this to be over, we are facing more cases and deaths. Since the last surge, we all hoped and thought we were moving in a positive direction. Epidemiologists state the virus has repeatedly defied prediction and continues to do so.

What can we be thankful for? Vaccines for children 5 years old and up are readily available. Vaccines for children under 5 should be available by spring. In Massachusetts, everyone over 18 is eligible for a booster. The governor’s office listed 1,000 locations with appointments available. The risk of infection, severe illness, hospitalization and death are much lower for vaccinated people compared to unvaccinated. A Texas doctor has been suspended for spreading anti-vaccination misinformation. Public health and other municipal agencies, health care workers, researchers, first responders, teachers remain indomitable in fighting against this virus and its consequences. More than half our city is doing their share and getting vaccinated. The many readers who have shared their gratitude for this column and the Health Department. Henry David Thoreau said, “I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.” I hope for everyone to be able to feel that way.

Maybe next Thanksgiving, like the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, this community can celebrate all of us coming together, despite our vast differences, to overcome the devastation and deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Continue to follow public health measures of avoiding large gatherings, wear masks, use hand sanitizer, get vaccinated, encourage others to get vaccinated, spread scientific information not the virus. Please use the following link to determine eligibility and availability of the vaccine:

Take care of yourself and someone else.

Dedicated health department members have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic, as well as Board of Health members Juanita Carnes, FNP, Margaret Doody, and Stan Strzempko, M.D.

We keep working to keep you safe.

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