PITTSFIELD — They lined up outside in the cold hoping another shot will slay a pandemic dragon that continues to rebound, breathing fire on the world and incinerating social and academic life for the young.
“We’re all really worried,” said Belen Galvez, 15, whose father brought her Saturday morning to Berkshire Community College’s Patterson Field House for a pop-up vaccine clinic after Pfizer coronavirus boosters were approved Jan. 3 for 12- to 15-year-olds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging the boosters for everyone over age 12.
Between 1,400 and 1,600 people came to the clinic hosted by the Berkshire Vaccination Collaborative, said Leslie Drager, lead public health nurse for the Berkshire Public Health Alliance.
“I didn’t even get my lunch today it was so busy,” she said. The group is working to hold another clinic at the end of the month.
The clinic comes amid daily positive test results in the county that have surged more than 200 percent since two weeks ago.
The increase is attributed mainly to the omicron variant, which is more contagious and penetrates basic face masks more easily, according to health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Vaccines are, in many cases, preventing serious illness, but are not necessarily reducing transmission, and the fully vaccinated are dying according to a recent Massachusetts Department of Health Study. It reported that, as of Dec. 25, 134,565 fully vaccinated people in the state contracted COVID-19, according to an Eagle review of the data.
Hence, a booster push. Health officials say these can help prevent serious illness if infected.
Galvez, a sophomore at Mt. Greylock Regional High School, said she and her friends are not just worried about themselves, but about everyone, especially “the most vulnerable people.”
“I hope everything kind of goes back to normal,” she said. “I hope everybody does their part.”
It wasn’t just teenagers who came for shots and boosters.
Meghan Dorso brought her son, Ryder Jackson, 6, to get his very first inoculation. Dorso said this is out of concern for immune-compromised family members. When asked how he felt about the shot, he got quiet and leaned against his mother. He would soon find some solace with Winston, the Pittsfield Police Department’s comfort dog.
Maya Berthelly-Jimenez, 10, came for a second shot. The Hoosac Valley Elementary School student said the pandemic has been hard socially, and she’s hopeful the vaccines will end the crisis.
“I just want to be free from masks,” she said.
Therein lies another problem. Cloth and surgical masks “are better than nothing,” but aren’t doing the trick against Omicron, said Dr. Charles Wohl, a retired physician who volunteered at Saturday’s clinic wearing a KN95 mask — which can better filter particles.
“It’s really almost as contagious as measles,” he said, as he directed a steady stream of people into the clinic. “You need fewer viral particles to get infected.” He suggested doubling up with a cloth mask over a surgical mask “to prevent gaps” if one can’t find KN95 or N95 masks.
Wohl is constantly studying up; a medical school classmate is sending him COVID-19 literature every day.
“How often does an old doctor get to read about a whole new disease,” he said. “Intellectually, it’s been a feast, though tragic.”
What does he make of all the breakthrough cases, and studies showing the vaccinated and unvaccinated have similar viral loads? He explained that “the unvaccinated carry the viral load longer, so they’re infectious for a longer period of time, and they’re also more likely to get sick, unfortunately.”
He said boosters are very protective against severe illness from all variants, and that this is the most important benefit of any type of vaccine.
Where COVID-19 boosters and even the vaccines aren’t very helpful is in reducing the spread from one person to another of the Omicron variant, he added, citing recent studies.
Wohl said social distancing, avoiding crowds indoors and good masks will be the key to evading Omicron.
“People should not be complacent,” he said.