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Springfield health commissioner worries people are too 'comfortable' as COVID virus lurks

Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris with a chart
Paul Tuthill
Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris presents data on COVID-19 in the city in this file photo from 2020

Masking mandates end, testing and vaccination sites closing

The number of COVID-19 cases in Springfield, Massachusetts is down sharply from the Omicron-fueled winter surge. The city’s top public health official worries people will let their guard down.

During the month of January, the city of Springfield recorded almost 9,500 new COVID-19 cases. In February, the number of new infections was just under 1,500. And with a few days left in March, the city has so far recorded about 300 cases for the month.

It is obviously a very encouraging trend – one that has been seen in plunging infections rates statewide and nationally. But Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris said it would be a mistake to declare victory over the virus.

“My concern is that our residents are getting extremely comfortable in environments and not understanding that COVID is going to be with us for a while and that we have to behalf in a way that protects ourselves,” she said.

The city ended an indoor mask mandate at the beginning of March. A decision is expected Thursday on whether or not to continue the face mask requirement in the Springfield Public Schools.

As personal protection requirements are being relaxed, government resources put in place to stop, or at least slow, the spread of the highly-contagious coronavirus are also being withdrawn. Free COVID-19 test sites sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health will close at several locations in western Massachusetts at the end of the month. Although, the current plan is to keep two sites in Springfield open until mid-May.

Caulton-Harris said Springfield remains vulnerable to a new wave of infections because its vaccination rate is still relatively low.

“65 percent for Springfield, 80 percent average for the Commonwealth… we still have work to do and we will continue to do that work,” Caulton-Harris said.

Speaking at a meeting of the Springfield City Council’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Committee, Caulton-Harris said her office will continue to stand up vaccination clinics, do outreach to overcome vaccine hesitancy, and distribute free at-home COVID-19 test kits.

“Our job is to watch the numbers and be ready to sound the alarm if we see things going in a direction that is really very concerning to us,” Caulton-Harris said.

After steadily declining for six weeks, there was an uptick in new COVID-19 cases during the week of March 20th – 71 cases compared to 48 the week before. Caulton-Harris said it was nothing to be alarmed about given the small number of cases.

City Councilor Melvin Edwards speculated the uptick might have to do with college students returning to the city after spring break or perhaps St. Patrick’s celebrations.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are also down from record-setting January patient counts. Baystate Health reported Tuesday that there were 22 patients with COVID-19 being cared for in the hospital network with three in intensive care.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.