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With omicron front of mind, a community vaccination clinic fills up quickly in Pittsfield

PITTSFIELD — Demand for coronavirus vaccines and booster appointments has flooded local pharmacies and hospitals in recent weeks as the new omicron variant makes its way through the country.

When calls for appointments became too much, Berkshire Health Systems called on one of the county's stalwarts in its vaccination efforts.

"The hospital actually asked us to run this because they're so swamped at their clinics," said Leslie Drager, lead public health nurse with the Berkshire Public Health Alliance. "They said, 'If you can take some of the boosters off of our plate, we can handle the rest.'"

On Saturday, the Berkshire Vaccine Collaborative hosted its first community vaccine clinic in months, giving shots to about 1,000 people under the light of the Paterson Field House at Berkshire Community College. 

"I think omicron might be the driving force for people to get their boosters," Drager said. "People that were vaccine-hesitant are starting to get vaccinated, and I think it has to do with the same thing — the changes, the variants and increases in transmissibility."

Vaccination rates have ticked up slightly in recent weeks as towns have launched efforts to vaccinate newly eligible children. Data from the state released Tuesday shows that 86 percent of the eligible population in Berkshire County has received one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. About 71 percent of the county's total population is vaccinated fully.

Case rates continue to rise, despite renewed vaccination efforts. On Wednesday, the state's coronavirus report noted that the 14-day daily average case rate for Berkshire County was 63.4 cases per 100,000 people, up from the previous report.

Drager said the clinic reached its capacity right away, filling up almost all of its available appointments before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded the eligibility for booster shots to 16- and 17-year-olds Dec. 9. 

"As soon as we book a clinic, they always change the rules," Drager said, laughing. "So, now we have a lot of 16, -17-year-olds that need boosters that weren't able to register — we got some, but not a lot."

Maggie Burke, 17, was one of the teenagers who nabbed a slot at the clinic Saturday. She said that as soon as the national guidance changed, she and her family started looking for an appointment. Burke's mother, Kate, said that with Maggie's Pfizer booster shot and her 18-year-old brother's booster appointment later that day, the whole family will have gotten their boosters.

"It feels like, before, you felt safe, but now, especially with the holidays coming up, you just feel totally protected," Maggie Burke said. "And it just really shows you how many people care about being boosted, seeing how many people are here today."

Holiday gatherings were front of mind for many at the clinic, where the atmosphere was closer to that of a festive holiday market than a doctor's office. Nurses, scribes and Medical Reserve Corps members greeted patients in their best holiday sweaters and reindeer antlers.

table of colorful kids bandages

A large selection of fun bandages was available to choose from for children ages 5 to 11 after receiving their shot.

For Rachel D'avella, a nursing student who on Saturday joined her 9-year-old son, Anthony, at his second vaccine appointment, said that, this holiday season, she is hoping the vaccines can bring a bit more normalcy into her family's life. 

"I have a high-risk daughter, so, we've been trying to get everybody vaccinated," Rachel D'avella said. "Hopefully, it'll bring a little more normalcy to our household. Having a high-risk kid has really made the last two years very daunting."

"Now, we have just a little bit more comfort knowing that we've everything we can to protect her and ourselves and everybody else."

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

Pittsfield Reporter

Meg Britton-Mehlisch is the Pittsfield reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, she previously worked at the Prior Lake American and its sister publications under the Southwest News Media umbrella in Savage, Minnesota.

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