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Berkshire County Politicians, Health Care Providers Respond To Baker’s New Vaccine Mandate

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Berkshire Health Systems
Berkshire Health Systems' COVID-19 statistics as of August 4th, 2021.

Facing a COVID-19 outbreak at a North Adams, Massachusetts nursing home, Berkshire County health care providers and politicians are reacting to Governor Charlie Baker’s new vaccine mandate for staffers at long-term care facilities.

Berkshire Healthcare operates the North Adams Commons nursing home, where there are roughly 50 current cases between mostly vaccinated residents and staffers after the outbreak began in late July.

While state epidemiologists haven’t delivered a final report on the outbreak, they’ve told Berkshire Healthcare to assume it’s the product of the potent Delta variant of the coronavirus, which has spiked COVID rates across the country. Company spokesperson Lisa Gaudet says Baker’s mandate – which gives unvaccinated long-term care facility staffers until October to get the jab – is too limited.

“Unfortunately, the mandate doesn't go far enough in terms of touching all health care workers, it really needs to include home care, hospice, hospitals, anybody that's caring for a patient," she told WAMC. "This mandate really should touch all of those employees.”

The Baker administration did not respond to request for comment on this story by air time.

3rd Berkshire District State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier says she wasn’t surprised by a leaked memo from Berkshire Health Systems first reported by WAMC that showed the county’s largest health care provider had around 800 of about 3,600 employees unvaccinated.

“That number is in context of the fact that it's a large organization, and they are at about, my understanding is that they're about 80% vaccinated, which as we know, is higher than the community average. That being said, of course, I would like to think that health care workers and those who work around health care would be getting vaccinated at even at a higher rate.”

The Democrat backs Baker’s mandate announced Wednesday for long-term care facility workers.

“I believe that vaccine mandates, you know, are coming," she told WAMC. "And there's a lot to be said about having workers at long-term care facilities vaccinated. And of course, we're living our own reality here in North Adams with what's happened up in North Adams Commons. And so the more people we get vaccinated, the safer that we will be. And I think that there's nobody more vulnerable than those living in long-term care. And so this was an appropriate first step.”

Fellow Democrat State Senator Adam Hinds of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden district agrees.

“I absolutely support this, especially because we're, we need to be very deliberate and strategic," he told WAMC. "I mean, we're at a point right now, where we're staring down the Delta variant that threatening to undo the progress we've made. And we are seeing that with the numbers are very stubborn right now in Berkshire County, in terms of trying to make progress to get to something of a sweet spot of, let's say, 80% of residents being vaccinated- Eligible residents, by age. And so we've now seen that the numbers are only slightly ticking up, we've seen an increase since the Delta variant has made itself known.”

Hinds says vaccination efforts aren’t moving fast enough to meet that challenge.

“To get to that 80% number, it'll still take months at the current pace," said the Senator. "And so we have to be more aggressive about getting certain cohorts, by age, especially, to get the vaccination, and I'm particularly looking at the 40 and under numbers are incredibly sluggish. And that's where we need to make progress as well. So I think this is a first step. Look, I'm willing to go further, I think, being very clear about what are the next areas we would at least require, you know, establish mass vaccination requirements, including for certain indoor activities, clubs, large gatherings, etc. So I think we should be clear in saying, where are we going to go next if we start to continue to see this uptick?”

Like Farley-Bouvier, Hinds thinks COVID-19 vaccination mandates are coming.

“Before COVID, with flu vaccines, they're now required for medical personnel in hospitals," he said. "They were not. Before they were mandated, the numbers would be around 80%. It's only when it's mandated that you get up to the 99%. There are some exemptions. And so, that's honestly what it takes to having everybody vaccinated even in a in a health care facility. And so, I think that's probably a step to take, I think, being clear on how we get to higher numbers where we see people just not getting vaccinated is, takes a little more strategy, I would say, as well. And so I would imagine, for example, employers, at least in the meantime, taking on incentive campaigns and the like.”

In the meantime, the Senator says he’s back to masking when he’s out and about.

“Here's what's scary with the breakthrough cases in North Adams, is that almost all of those folks who were, tested positive had a vaccine," said Hinds. "And so we need to rethink our guidelines for how we're going to prevent this. So, for example, only testing people who are unvaccinated is not the answer anymore. We know that now from studying the Provincetown cases and CDC recognition that even those folks who are vaccinated are still spreading the Delta variant and so it really speaks to not just getting the vaccine, also wearing masks and the like.”

Berkshire Health Systems has reported 120 new unique patients with positive tests over the past 14 days, with a 2.4% rate of positive tests. 10 people have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 in that time, nine in the past week.

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