With New Reopening Phase In Massachusetts, Baystate Health CEO 'A Little Nervous'

Mar 23, 2021

As the state entered its next phase of reopening this week, the head of western Massachusetts' largest hospital system sounded a note of caution.

Dr. Mark Keroack of Baystate Health said — despite the rate of COVID-19 infections hovering around 2% in recent days — he's concerned another surge is around the corner.

Mark Keroack, president and CEO, Baystate Health: We have not seen the steady decline these last week or two that we had seen from the big peak that we saw back in early January. We are at the point now where things have been kind of flat for the last week or so, and there are a couple of areas of the state that are seeming to increase. We also know that these variant viruses, which are a bit more transmissible, are beginning to make their appearance in Massachusetts. And so, I'm a little bit nervous about this one.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: What about the variants? What have you seen of them in western Mass.?

We have seen a few of that so-called UK variant. I've heard from some of the larger labs in Boston that test a lot of these things that they're seeing over 25% of the viruses they test are this U.K. variant. We've also seen a handful of the South African and Brazilian ones. We've yet to see the new variants from California or from New York.

Now, it's important to remember that none of these variants are to the point where they're causing spread among vaccinated people or spread among people previously infected or failures of standard treatments. And so, I think that while we're keeping an eye on them, it doesn't mean we're going to want to do anything differently than what we've been doing.

Over a million Baystate residents, or nearly 16% of the population, have now been fully vaccinated. And the state keeps opening the door to more age and occupation groups. But it's still very challenging for many people to find an appointment. How are health providers helping patients get the shot?

Well, we have tried to play our part. We get an allocation of roughly 2,000 first doses each week. And there are a lot of publicly available sites, like the Eastfield Mall and — this week — some sites in Springfield.

We've been focusing on some of the patients with chronic conditions and the elderly who are already our patients and so have been reaching out to them and have been allocating doses each week to inner city Springfield, where we run three clinics, to Franklin County, where we have the sole hospital in that county, as well as to residents covered by the Springfield Housing Authority. So we've been trying to focus on the people who would be at highest risk. We want to make sure that we've got all of those people protected.

All the talk of vaccines kind of overshadows at times the continued toll the virus is taking on our communities. In the last week, there were about 20 reported deaths in Hampton County alone. How do we avoid the overconfidence that leads people to let their guard down?

I wish I knew. Each week we talk about the importance of not loosening up and not assuming that we're at the finish line. Just about everybody I know who's trying to message to the public is talking about the importance of, No. 1, getting vaccinated if you're eligible, and No. 2, not letting down on the precautions around masking and social distancing.

We've seen instances where there have been resurgences where people have just gotten tired of the isolation and the trouble of using all these additional precautions. And they have paid a heavy price, because the virus is not yet done.