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Berkshire Health Systems Urges Residents to Get Vaccinated

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire Health Systems is urging unvaccinated residents to get vaccinated for the good of themselves and others after seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases over the past weeks. 
Chief Medical Officer Dr. James Lederer Jr. is encouraging the public to remember that the vaccines are designed to prevent severe illness and death from the virus.
"The thing that we like to stress is that, when you consider our most populated group of unvaccinated are the 20- to 29-year-olds, think about how many people in that age range have young children," he said.
"They're putting not only themselves at risk, but their children at risk by not being vaccinated, and in some instances, these folks are also caring for older family members, parents, or grandparents. And again, while you may not see the risk inherently for yourself, it's definitely there for those people that you frequently contact and your loved ones."
On July 23, BHS noted the rise in COVID-19-related activity in the community over the previous week: there was an increase in patient calls, a spike in the number of tests performed, and more positive cases of the virus.
In a recent press release, Lederer was quoted saying it is safe to assume that the highly transmissible Delta variant is also in Berkshire County and that vaccination is the tool to preventing it from taking hold of the community.
"We are seeing increased severity of illness in young, unvaccinated patients, likely from the delta variant," he reported.
The Berkshires has seen a rise in positive cases since the end of June after weeks of two or fewer cases a day. Positive cases took a dramatic drop entering June — after 202 cases during the entire month of May, only 11 cases were reported from June 1 to 15. The uptick came toward the end of the following week, with 111 new cases as of July 29 with nearly 60 of those in the past two weeks, as well as two deaths. 
Approximately 68 percent of the county's eligible residents have been fully vaccinated and 77 percent have had at least one dose, according to this week's vaccination report. 
The Delta variant is now the most predominant virus across the country, causing a high rate of infections in hotspots such as Missouri and the state of Florida. Highly vaccinated communities such as Berkshire County are in a good position for defense against the variant.
Pittsfield is currently in the green incidence rate category, indicating that there is an average of fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 people.
"We have seen our normal testing positivity rate, about three or four weeks ago was 0.3 to 0.4 percent positive out of almost 2,500 tests a week, so we're doing a lot of testing, but only a very small positivity rate. Currently, we're still doing about that much testing, maybe a little more recently because people have gotten interested," he said.
"We're now at about a 1.7 or 1.8 percent positivity, so it's not our high when we were upwards of 6 or 7 or 8 percent but it's an unfortunate little blip upwards, higher from where we were several weeks ago."
Over the last four to eight weeks, there is a small history of infections in people who have documented full vaccination. Though concerning, the occurrence of breakthrough infections is on par with what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is noting nationally at less than one percent.
"To put that in context, you have to understand that the background rate of vaccination compliance is about 80,000 people in Berkshire County, so when you consider that 80,000 of us are vaccinated and that only a handful or a few have come to get tested and popped up positive, that likelihood of infection after vaccination is on par with what the CDC is noting, nationally, it's well less than one percent," Lederer explained.
If a person who is vaccinated does get a rare breakthrough infection, they are likely to have milder symptoms than those who are unvaccinated, he added.
There are several categories of people who are hesitant about vaccination including younger populations who believe they aren't at risk and those who are fearful of vaccines in general. BHS hopes that by performing outreach on the importance of getting the shot it will save lives and protect the community as a whole.
"We do everything we can to continue to emphasize that you're not out of the woods if you're unvaccinated," Lederer said. "And young people maybe don't suffer the complication rates that older people do, but we still have deaths of young people nationally."
In addition, vaccination protects children ages 12 and younger who are not eligible.
"Why would you put your children at risk?" he added. "Even if the chance is less than one percent, why would you bet on that?"
Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson's next steps are to tackle whether booster shots are required and when.  
In terms of masking, the CDC recommends face coverings for those in high-risk areas, especially in enclosed spaces. With Berkshire County being a moderate risk area, BHS is waiting for Gov. Charlie Baker to make the determination on masking. The governor has not done an update on COVID-19 since June, when all but a few restrictions in the state were lifted.
"We are a moderate risk county and so there's nothing really for us to consider and more importantly, I think what we're really waiting for is what is Governor Baker gonna do? That's the piece that's unknown because he has through the Department of Public Health the capability to say all restaurants mask, or we could step back to 50 percent capacity," Lederer said.
"It's more in his hands right now than it is in ours, the only thing I would stress is, if you're uncomfortable in a crowded situation, if you're uncomfortable because you do have small kids at home, then wear a mask and practice your own social distancing."

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