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Top Baystate Health doctor sees future of COVID as a low simmer without large surges

Baystate Health
Higher vaccination rates and widespread exposure to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus earlier this year are helping keep hospitalizations for COVID-19 relatively low during a current uptick in new infections.

Despite an uptick in cases, hospitalization rates remain low

One of the last places where universal masking was mandated – public transportation – has largely withdrawn the requirement in the last 24 hours. A top health official in western Massachusetts is urging people to remain cautious.

Within hours of a federal judge’s ruling the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had exceeded its authority with a universal mask mandate on public transportation, carriers ranging from the big airlines to Peter Pan bus lines and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority announced face mask wearing would no longer be enforced.

But, Dr. Mark Keroack, the president and CEO of Baystate Health still recommends people wear masks on public transportation.

“Any kind of crowded poorly ventilated space where you don’t know the vaccination status (of other people) – that describes a plane or a bus – so if you find yourself in that kind of risky situation you ought to put a mask on,” Keroack said.

The end of what really was the last universal masking requirement outside of health care settings came as COVID-19 cases counts are again on the rise in many places including Massachusetts.

New cases in the state have gone from roughly 600 per day in mid-March to 1,500 now – a far cry from the average of 23,000 new daily cases during the Omicron surge in January.

Hospitalization rates have not been rising as rapidly. At Baystate, the region’s largest hospital system, the number of patients with COVID-19 was holding in the mid-20s for several days in late March and is now roughly double that number. Still, nowhere close to the daily COVID-19 patient counts that toped 300 in January.

“There is a lot of virus out there but it is not causing as much serious disease as earlier surges,” Keroack said. He noted that of the 50 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at a Baystate facility Tuesday, just one was in the ICU.

Among the factors helping keep hospitalizations down, said Keroack, are vaccinations and widespread exposure to the Omicron variant that provided people with a level of immunity.

“Between there being a ton of virus in the community and the fact it was more highly contagious than previous variants, you would have to have been really living in a closet to avoid having been exposed to the virus during that surge,” Keroack said.

The availability of an effective drug treatment for the disease is also a factor in reduced hospitalizations.

Speaking with reporters on a video conference Tuesday, Keroack said he expects new cases to continue climbing as a result of Easter and Passover gatherings last weekend and travel during this week’s school vacation. But he predicts it will be “a bump” not a surge.

“This virus is running out of targets that are completely unprotected at this point, and therefore we are not going to see these tsunamis of demand for hospital care that we’ve seen the past two years,” Keroack said.

Berkshire County is now said to be at “medium” risk for transmission of COVID-19 according to the CDC, while the other three counties in western Massachusetts are all at “low” risk.

The city of Springfield is holding a candlelight remembrance ceremony in front of City Hall Wednesday evening to honor the more than 400 city residents who died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic two years ago.

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.