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Williamstown Board of Health Stresses Boosters, Holiday Safety
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
07:15PM / Tuesday, November 23, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Board of Health on Tuesday offered a suggestion for anyone searching for holiday gift ideas.
"It's a gift for your families to get vaccinated," Chair Ruth Harrison noted.
"When you look at your most vulnerable, your kids, your 5-year-olds, you can vaccinate them so they can play with each other, perhaps, but most importantly you have the opportunity to protect your community and your family."
The board held an emergency meeting Tuesday morning to discuss a recent spike in COVID-19 cases locally and in Berkshire County.
Health Inspector Jeff Kennedy told the board the town had just three active COVID-19 cases a week and a half ago but had 24 (26, including two cases with addresses in neighboring Hancock) as of Tuesday morning.
The eightfold increase reflects a rise in cases countywide, according to data from Berkshire Health Systems, Kennedy said.
The BOH chose Tuesday not to pursue any more mandates or enforcements to stem the tide but instead chose to renew its calls for caution and personal responsibility, particularly with Thanksgiving and the large family gatherings it brings on the horizon.
"To summarize, it sounds like the board is focusing on, with the upcoming holiday, planning your gathering around the most vulnerable person in your group," Dr. Devan Bartels said. 
"And it's emphasizing getting vaccinated, including booster shots."
Of the 26 Williamstown cases, about one third were known to be unvaccinated, Kennedy said. The vaccination status is uncertain for a few of the people on the list.
Even though the data reflect that "breakthrough" infections are possible among people who have been vaccinated, local experience with COVID-19 supports national messaging from agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: vaccines mitigate the impacts of the virus even for those who are infected.
"The figures from BMC last week were, I think, 15 or 16 patients in the hospital and maybe one or two on ventilators," Dr. Win Steubner said. "About half of those in the hospital were breakthrough infections. All of those had co-morbidities.
"And the positivity rate in Pittsfield is going up, but [BMC officials] made an analogy to last January. The positivity rate now approaches that of last January, but last January, there were 60 or 70 patients in the hospital instead of fewer than 20 now. So the vaccination is working.
"There may be some breakthrough cases, but these people are not getting nearly as sick as before."
Bartels agreed and urged those who have not yet received the booster to do so.
"I think the important thing to communicate to the public is: If you had your two-shot series [of vaccines], you're still protected against serious illness or death, but you may have some of that waxing immunity so you'll get a breakthrough infection," she said. "Getting the booster might protect you against breakthrough infections and protect the community."
In the short term, the Board of Health members expressed concern about the coming holiday.
Steubner stressed the need to ventilate homes that are sites of large gatherings and to consider the danger of COVID-19 to the most vulnerable attendees of any party, like older relatives or people with co-morbidities.
Bartels said hosts can be even more proactive.
"Know the vaccination status of your group," she said. "I ask my family members: Have you gotten vaccinated? Have you gotten a booster shot? If you need to, you could ask family members to get a test before the gathering.
"Certainly, if you're symptomatic, get a test before going into a group of people."
Dr. James Parkinson said some post-holiday spike is inevitable, but he is concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in the town's schools. On Tuesday, Kennedy said there were 11 cases currently associated with Williamstown Elementary School and two at Mount Greylock Regional School.
Kennedy said the smaller number at the middle-high school points to the fact that its student population has been eligible for the vaccine longer. And he said there has been strong local interest in vaccinations for elementary school-aged children.
"Williamstown had its first vaccination clinic for elementary-age students at the school last week," Kennedy said. "Pediatricians, from what I'm hearing, are doing a lot of vaccinations. Probably by the first week in December, most students in that age group whose parents want them to be vaccinated will be vaccinated.
"We will probably see a corresponding drop in transmission rate after the students are vaccinated."
Kennedy said school officials tell him the infections they have seen have occurred off school grounds, and he reminded the board that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education continues to require face coverings while indoors in all Massachusetts schools.
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