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Coronavirus Roars Back in Springfield, City Breaks out Whip & Chair…

Springfield is preparing to go puritanical on COVID rule scofflaws. (created via wikipedia & google search images)

SPRINGFIELD—Last week, it looked as though coronavirus cases in the City of Homes were cooling after the city into surged into the state’s red designation. Numbers from the weekend crushed those hopes. Mirroring recent case records the state reported, Springfield residents tested positive higher than ever since May on Friday with 51 new cases. Health officials say they are swinging into action.

While Mayor Domenic Sarno condemned mask and distancing scofflaws, Health & Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris articulated stepped up enforcement from her department. The city is also adding beefing up its tracing staff to tail infections. The consensus remains that the problem is individual behavior not reopening itself. Still, executives from Baystate and Mercy hospitals warned the data will likely deteriorate before it improves.

On Monday morning, the city had 3865 confirmed cases of COVID-19. That figure has almost certainly jumped. Hampden County leapt up 175 cases Monday in the commonwealth’s COVID-19 report bringing the countywide total to 9723. Monday was also the third day in a row that Massachusetts reported more than 1000 cases statewide.

Based on the new data the city released alongside state reporting over the weekend, Springfield represented between a third and half of Hampden County cases over the last few days.

Hospitals in the region are treating more patients, but still a fraction of the figures in the early spring. Infections are on the move, however. So far, Sarno and Caulton-Harris said, younger people constitute the vast majority of new infections. In Springfield about 75% of positives cases come from those under 50.

That figures has remained stable over the last two weeks. That comes as some relief to health officials. Though people of all ages can experience conditions like long COVID,  those over 65 are the at greatest risk for hospitalization and death.

Still,  Caulton-Harris emphasized that a long haul remains.

“We are not turning a corner,” she said in a clear allusion to Donald Trump’s false assertion to the contrary. Turning toward individuals’ behavior, she added, “A face covering is life-saving.”

HHS Commish Helen Caulton-Harris in April with an ASL interpreter. (WMP&I)

On Monday, there was rising concern about mask usage and small gatherings. State officials have claimed for weeks these behaviors, especially the latter, were driving cases. Though the state has not conclusively identified the source of half of all cases, Caulton-Harris indicated her department was having more success. Household spread and small gatherings were the culprits.

A federal government was an accomplice with its conflicting messages and an abjectly bungled response. The city health department, augmented by police, would begin citing those not complying with mask and other COVID-hygiene orders

Dr. Mark Keroack, the president & CEO of Baystate Health Systems, panned claims that mask usage is a personal freedom issue. Personal freedom does not mean one can harm others and mask-wearing is public safety issue.

“Your right to do what you want with your fist ends where my jaw begins,” he analogized.

Dr. Robert Roose, Mercy’s chief medical officer, said his hospital has observed higher test positivity, although its COVID-19 patient counts remain low. Like Keroack, he was skeptical that the data suggested closing businesses was necessary. Though he did not play down the risk. He pointed to rationing of healthcare and the shutdown of elective procedures was happening in harder hit states.

“I Implore us all to get back to the basics and keep it safe,” he said.

Umm, good kitty… (created via wikipedia & Google images search)

Responding to a question about mental health, Roose assured there was a middle path between locking everyone away at home and throwing them to the coronavirus lions.

“We can continue to open up and engage in activities like school and other recreational activities as long as we take to reduce the spread,” he said.

Keroack added that treatment of COVID-19 had improved, which keeps people out of intensive care units and reduces hospital stays.

With the local healthcare system sound for now, the bigger concern is the ability to trace spread. Too many cases overwhelms contact tracers.

Caulton-Harris said a floor of the health department office would be dedicated to contact tracers. The city contact-traces residents with the virus and the calls from her office show up as local. People may be less likely to answer the phone when contact tracers are calling from outside the 413. That may explain the city’s better data compared to the state.

Armed with data over the last two weeks, Caulton-Harris described growth day by day and by zip codes across the city. Her office has observed more college cases, but these were not significant. Nor were case growing rapidly among the homeless. Transmission is among households and gatherings and the city was responding.

“We are not taking this virus laying down,” Caulton-Harris said.

Among the things the city has already done is reach out to civic association and businesses in high-risk areas of the city. While transmission is largely not happening in commerce, especially between patrons and staff, Caulton-Harris said, enforcement of hygiene rules will be stepped up in businesses and on public transit. The move is preventative because asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic transmission of the novel coronavirus is common.

A public information campaign would begin distributing information to almost anybody who connects with city services from schools to libraries.

Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood said Pearl Street would continue to offer masks to non-wearers. However, police will begin citing refuseniks.

More efforts will be coming. The state organized an Amber alert like notice to those in cities in the red zone and its Stop the Spread initiative via AMR, an ambulance company, continue through the end of the year.

While the familiar faces at the Springfield’s COVID Monday briefings have hardly restrained themselves before, there was elevated alarm and urgency in the face of this hike in positives. For her part, Caulton-Harris was unapologetic about the increasingly aggressive stance her department and the city were taking.

“We are going to be in your neighborhood, we’re going to be in your business and we’re going to be in your face because we are not going to have individuals die because of this virus,” she assured.