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Williamstown Board of Health Advises Face-Coverings Indoors
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
02:35AM / Thursday, August 26, 2021
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Dr. Devan Bartels, right, participates in her first in-person meeting since her appointment to the Board of Health with Dr. Erwin Stuebner.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Board of Health on Tuesday expressed its support for indoor face-covering and "recommended highly" that all residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination get vaccinated.
 
Meeting in person for the first time in more than a year, the board acknowledged that vaccination rates are high in Berkshire County and that infection rates are low in Williamstown itself.
 
It nonetheless encouraged continued vigilance in the Village Beautiful to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, particularly given the emergence of the virus' Delta variant in recent weeks.
 
The four members at Tuesday morning's meeting unanimously passed a resolution saying the Board of Health "supports indoor masking for people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated, supports any establishment that chooses to mandate it for their establishment, supports masking for school children and at-risk populations and recommends highly that anyone eligible be vaccinated."
 
"In Williamstown, we do have a high rate of vaccination, but we have a lot of international and domestic tourists," Dr. Devan Bartels said. "All the college kids are returning in the fall, very shortly. It's a dynamic situation. I'm glad we had this timely meeting.
 
"We probably should readdress this as numbers evolve in the fall. Hopefully, we can be less conservative in the future, but it's definitely a moving target. Things looked totally different in May and June than they do now."
 
Town Health Agent Jeff Kennedy told the board that the town currently has four cases of COVID-19, according to an official epidemiological database, but three of those cases are beyond the 14-day isolation period for the disease, meaning the town may actually have just one active case.
 
"Our positivity rate is 1 percent, which is good," Kennedy said. "The two hotspots in the county are North Adams and Pittsfield. As far as the county as a whole, it's trending downward.
 
"In conversations with my colleagues, if we're seeing unvaccinated people infecting vaccinated people, it's usually in a close family setting. It's not casual contact. And for vaccinated people, when they acquire COVID, it's very mild.
 
"It's the lack of vaccination that is driving COVID right now. Vaccination appears to be the key."
 
Kennedy said that while the overall number of cases in Berkshire County is up, the percent of positive tests is down countywide due to increased testing based on data as of Aug. 19.
 
Bartels shared that while she is vaccinated, she is concerned about "waxing immunity" as she nears the eight-month mark since she received the vaccine as a front-line health care worker.
 
"I mask because I want to make sure if I come in contact with someone I don't also get it given the potential for waxing immunity," Bartels said.
 
The board noted that it was encouraged to see the steps taken by the local school district and, on Tuesday morning, by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Boston, and it is happy from reports it has received from Williams College as the school gets ready to welcome back students for the fall semester.
 
"Of the students returning to campus, and they're expecting a full complement of about 2,000, only 13 requested an exemption [from vaccination]," Dr. Win Stuebner said. "I don't know how many they granted, but they were pretty strict."
 
Ruth Harrison added that she believed the college limited the exemptions to its mandatory vaccination policy to students with religious or medical reasons for not vaccinating.
 
The Board of Health members said they will continue to strongly encourage anyone eligible to get vaccinated but agreed the body has no jurisdiction to mandate vaccines.
 
"It's been politicized," Bartels said. "There is a lot of misinformation out there. But we can state the facts and tell people clearly that except for the exceptionally rare case of an allergic reaction … all the side effects [of the vaccine] are symptoms of COVID but to a lesser extent.
 
"We have now almost nine months of experience of rolling out vaccines internationally, and we can see how people tolerate it. It's been exceptionally well tolerated."
 
Stuebner agreed.
 
"A lot of people were concerned about how quickly the vaccine came out, but it needs to be stressed that this is different from other vaccines," he said. "It works on messenger RNA, which has been used in other instances for a decade. Now, it's used for vaccines. It's well proven. It's much faster to produce the vaccine with messenger RNA."
 
In non-COVID business Tuesday, Bartels asked Kennedy when the town plans to stop testing for bacteria in the swimming hole at Margaret Lindley Park. Kennedy explained that the town tests the water weekly starting the week before Memorial Day, and he will conduct the final test next week, before the official date for the end of swimming at the park, Labor Day.
 
Kennedy said bacterial rates have been excellent this year and they usually are, and he acknowledged it is possible people will continue to swim after the posted end date to the swimming season, Sept. 6, this year.
 
"We've had a stretch in the past where we had to close it to swimming, not because of bacteria but because of turbidity in the water, and I'm sure there were people swimming there despite the signs," Kennedy said.
 
Bartels asked Kennedy to consider extending the tests into September, and he said he would see whether there was room in the budget to do so.
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