COVID-19 is escalating in the community, but not to the extent that warrants new mitigation measures, according to local health officials.
“Clearly we’re seeing an uptick in cases,” Health and Human Services Director Heidi Porter told the Board of Health at its meeting Wednesday. “We know that anecdotally, based on conversations, we know that people are home sick, and we are seeing an uptick in case counts.”
She added, “School data is pretty steady, not particularly elevated. There’s a little uptick over last week – we’re just watching it.”
Porter noted that Bedford has crossed the threshold of what is defined as “high” community transmission levels, and that will be acknowledged on public sandwich-board signs.
Porter sent board members some limited local data, including a 14-day COVID-19 case count of 58, an incidence rate of 28.8 per 100,000, and an 87 percent vaccination rate.
Community Nurse Julie Genova said, “There is this new variant, an omicron variant, and it is highly contagious, but is not seen as being more virulent. Just with sheer numbers, the more people who get it, the more likely hospitalizations will go up.”
Public health agencies say the best way to combat serious illness that could result in hospitalization is vaccination, she said. However, “They are not saying this is a surefire way of not getting Covid. There is no magic bullet.”
Genova said her office had a record of 117 cases in December and an additional 36 through Jan. 6.
“It’s kind of hard to compare to last year – we didn’t have antigen tests last year,” she said, adding that this year “we don’t see it in the schools. It slammed into the schools last year in January.”
“The big message, please, is the old adage: stay home if you’re sick, even if you test negative on Covid.”
Chair Susan Schwartz said that from the standpoint of the department and the board, “We’re continuing to monitor.”
The board has promoted all of the various mitigation strategies, Porter said. “The data are still showing that vaccination is really a great way to prevent severe illness and hospitalization. We continue to support that.”
Porter said she has spoken with the state epidemiologist serving the region and stayed on top of reports on COVID-19 content in metropolitan wastewater. She referred to the new variant “that seems to be most prevalent now,” and noted that cases of influenza and the respiratory ailment called RSV have “stabilized.”
The director acknowledged that “there are some communities that have implemented masking requirements. We are not seeing from the data and hearing from schools that there’s a need for that.” People who choose to wear face coverings should do so, she added.
She stressed that residents should “make sure [they] are up to date with booster vaccinations.” Overall, she noted, the rate of the most recent “bivalent” vaccination remains low.
Member Maureen Richichi acknowledged that there is “still a lot of misinformation thinking vaccine is going to prevent infection. I know it’s frustrating.”
Porter agreed: “We were waiting so long for the vaccine. People said, “Now we are all set – we are going to turn a corner. The reality is the data show the vaccine seems to prevent severe illness, hospitalizations, and ultimately deaths.”
Schwartz said, “The expectation was out there – ‘I got the vaccine; I shouldn’t get sick.’ But now we are saying you need multiple vaccinations and still have the potential to get sick, but not as severely.”
Richichi added, “The public needs to understand that research is still ongoing. There’s a lot we didn’t know.”
Member Bea Brunkhorst said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends self-testing for five consecutive days and masking for 10 days after possible exposure.
During the public comment period, two residents called for the board to conduct an evaluation of its response to the pandemic. Member Ann Kiessling agreed, saying, “This is an ideal time for a small town with a lot of resources to look back and try to figure out, and ask if it happens again what would we do differently.”
“We can certainly control how we message, how we share information with the town,” Richichi said. We can talk about what’s in our control.” But she added, “But we are still in the middle of it.” Brunkhorst said a review at the state level would be helpful.
“Nobody’s looking back, so you don’t repeat from the past. But I don’t think we are considering doing anything less than what we’re doing,” Porter said. She said she will continue to provide data to the board.
Porter noted that iHealth COVID-19 antigen rapid-test kits offered by the town have two lot numbers with extended use-by dates that are expiring soon. These lot numbers are: 222CO20127, use by Jan. 26, and 222CO20129, use by Jan. 28.
The Health Department said iHealth offers a search tool on its website to assist with checking the most updated expiration date of test kits. The search tool may be found at https://ihealthlabs.com/pages/news.
The town added a blue sticker to all town offered test kits, which includes a web link and QR code to help residents navigate to the search tool. The department recommends residents use this tool to verify the most up-to-date expiration date.