With the arrival of two new COVID-19 sub-variants, caseloads are rising in Berkshire County, especially in Pittsfield, several North County communities and much of South County, reflecting statewide and national trends.
“We are on an upswing, like the rest of the country,” said Dr. James Lederer, chief medical officer and chief quality officer at Berkshire Health Systems in Pittsfield. “We can call it a surge, a wave, but most states are seeing an increase in cases and positivity rate admissions. Fortunately, deaths haven’t followed as closely.”
“That’s the good news,” he pointed out. “Since we’re not seeing deaths yet from this, maybe it’s a less virulent strain, but it is certainly present.”
According to BHS data, at the worst of the pandemic, 1,000 patients a day were tested, and 25 percent were positive. That dropped to the low 300s, with positivity ranging from 2 to 8 percent, Lederer noted. Currently, 500-plus daily tests conducted countywide by the hospital are showing 22 percent positive results for the disease, he told The Eagle on Thursday.
Although that’s high, fewer hospital patients are in the intensive care unit or the progressive care setting. On Thursday, BMC was treating eight people for COVID, with two more at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, and probably half had been admitted for other reasons. “That makes it, by and large, a community problem, not a hospital problem,” he said.
In Pittsfield, 245 confirmed cases were reported on Thursday on the city’s dashboard, and the positivity rate for COVID tests was a high 12.2 percent, based on a two-week average, up from a recent low of 2.1 percent on March 23. The current rate of positive tests places the city in the CDC’s “red zone” for risk.
The latest state Department of Health dashboard showed Williamstown with the highest case count in the county, based on a two-week daily average — 138, including those at Williams College, where classroom masking has resumed in response.
North Adams reported an average of 40 cases, while Adams had 36 and 21 were logged in Cheshire and Clarksburg.
As the upswing continues, Berkshire Health Systems' hospitals will continue to test and provide monoclonal antibody treatments and oral therapies to high-risk patients, Lederer stated.
There are more “breakthrough” infections involving people previously vaccinated, and less response from natural immunity, leading to more repeat infections, he said.
Statewide surveys indicate 53 percent of Massachusetts residents have contracted the coronavirus. “Even though we’re a very highly vaccinated state, these new variants are allowing people who are unvaccinated, and people who have been vaccinated, to get the disease,” Lederer said. “We’re not done yet; we’re going to see increases in numbers.”
In response to the upswing, he suggested that masking should be a personal decision, based on an individual’s specific health issues.
“We should not be eyeing each other so much anymore,” Lederer said. “If I want to wear a mask, you shouldn’t think badly of me, and if I don’t want to wear a mask, you shouldn’t think badly of me either.”
In South Berkshire, the BA.4 and BA.5 strains of the virus are more resistant to vaccines and boosters, more contagious, and they can more easily reinfect people who have had COVID previously, said Amy Hardt, lead nurse at the Southern Berkshire Public Health Collaborative, which covers 10 towns.
She also cited “the general lack of public will for effective reduction strategies such as indoor masking, social distancing or attendance limits.”
However, because hospitalizations and deaths remain relatively low, the county remains in the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “medium risk” category — a notch up from “low risk” last month. Most recent cases have been mild, compared to previous outbreaks.
Infections in the county are increasing and are “extremely high,” according to the New York Times coronavirus tracker. A seven-day average of 89 cases per day were reported in Berkshire County as of Thursday’s update, a 70 percent increase from the weekly average two weeks ago.
New cases reported on Wednesday totaled 122. Since the beginning of the pandemic, at least one in six residents have been infected, a total of 24,944 reported cases.
Because most positive home test results are not reported to health agencies or the state, the official case totals are likely a significant undercount.
“Whatever level we’re at, we’re not going to be coming down much,” Hardt predicted, referring to new cases. “The reinfection probability is much higher with these two sub-variants, and they are going to become more dominant more quickly because they are more transmissible than the previous BA.1 and BA.2 variants.”
The Southern Berkshire Public Health Collaborative, funded by the state, encompasses Alford, Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Monterey, Mount Washington, New Marlborough, Otis, Sheffield and Stockbridge. It is administered by Tri-Town Health, based in Lee.