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Hospitals In Western Massachusetts See COVID-19 Cases Plateau

While Gov. Charlie Baker said Massachusetts is seeing a surge in coronavirus infections and federal health officials have characterized Boston as a worrisome hotspot in the pandemic, there are signs the worst might be over in western Massachusetts. 

While the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase on an almost daily basis in western Massachusetts -- along with a rise in deaths – hospitalizations for the disease have plateaued in the region and may in fact be falling.

Baystate Health reported Monday the number of COVID-19 cases at its hospitals in Springfield, Greenfield, Westfield, and Palmer totaled 147.    The number of people being treated for the disease at the four hospitals was 170 on April 8th -- the highest daily total reported in the last two weeks.

Other hospitals in western Massachusetts are seeing the same leveling off, or a slight drop, in cases, according to Baystate Health President and CEO Dr. Mark Keroack.

" What this does not mean is that we are through the woods," Keroack said.

 The region’s hospitals currently have available about half the capacity that was created to treat the expected surge in COVID-19 cases.

"This is the reason we did not ask the state to build a field hospital at the MassMutual Center as they have in other parts of the state because we felt we had capacity within our four hospital walls as a western Mass community," said Keroack.

 He cautioned that people still need to remain at home as much as possible, practice social distancing when out in public, and wash hands frequently.  But, Keroac said the hospital community is planning for when some loosening of restrictions might occur.

"We understand the governor in collaboration with the other six governors in the northeast will have the final say about how we open up the state of Massachusetts, but based on what we are seeing here in terms of caseload we believe we will soon be ready to take that first step," Keroack said.

Gov. Charlie Baker has directed non-essential businesses and all schools to remain closed until at least May 4th.

Dr. Robert Roose, Chief Medical Officer at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield said testing needs to expand in order to contain future outbreaks of the virus.  He said testing needs to be more widespread in vulnerable populations including the homless , people in nursing homes, and congregate housing.

"(Testing) is essential to help continue to guide our efforts," said Roose.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said the city has placed orders for coronavirus testing kits through the state, but has no idea when any will become available.

" I think slowly be surely we are getting what (we order), but I want more," Sarno said.

Boston and Worcester have done widespread testing of the homeless population – and found high numbers of asymptomatic infection.  But Springfield won’t start testing until later this week at the tent complex that was built by the city to care for the homeless.  

Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris said 300 COVID-19 test kits for the homeless triage center were obtained last week only after the city reached out to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal for help.

"I believe there is a regional disparity," said Caulton-Harris. " The fact we had to reach out to Congressman Neal in order to get what we needed  would simply tell you we were not able to make a phone call and get what we needed."

Another key to holding outbreaks of the coronavirus in check during the coming months in addition to testing, is contact tracing, according to Caulton-Harris.   The city has enlisted school nurses and others to phone people who have disease and question them in an effort to find out who they might have caught it from, or given it to. 

Data released by the city Monday in the form of a map of Springfield with red dots marking the location, but not the exact address, of each confirmed COVID-19 case indicates that, while no part of the city has been spared, high-density high-poverty neighborhoods have been hit hardest.

The Massachusetts Health Department is now compiling demographic data including race and ethnicity of COVID-19 cases and plans to make the information public.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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