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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Reporter Debrief: Checking In On COVID-19 In Massachusetts

Springfield, Mass.
Denis Tangney Jr.
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Cities and towns in Western Mass., such as Springfield, haven't seen as much impact from COVID-19 as the more densely populated eastern part of the state.

The rate of new COVID-19 infections in Vermont has been fairly low in the last few weeks, and state government is taking small steps to re-open the economy. But how does that compare to our neighbors? We're checking in with reporters in each state (and Canadian province) that borders Vermont about how the disease is spreading and how their local government plans to re-open the economy.

Massachusetts has one of the highest infection rates in the country, but there are some positive indicators in terms of the spread of COVID-19.VPR's Henry Epp spoke to Karen Brown, a reporter with New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: What's the latest in Massachusetts? Is the curve flattening there?

Karen Brown: The number of hospitalizations is flattening to some degree, but we have about 70,000 total COVID cases that have come out positive and more than 4,000 deaths. It sounds like the hospitals are able to deal with it and they've put a lot of extra beds in. But the governor has said they still need those beds and they still consider themselves in surge capacity.

Overall, how has the health care system, particularly in the western part of the state, handled the outbreak? Have there been enough beds in general and enough protective equipment for hospital workers?

Well, from the hospitals in Western Mass. that I talked to, it sounds like it's been a lot more manageable than in the eastern part of the state. So, you know, around Springfield and Northampton, there are a couple of hospitals in both of those places, and they've said that they have plenty of ICU beds, and they have not seen the surge that they were fearing. And in fact, they think that we reached our peak a few weeks ago.

At the moment, they feel like they can relax and they're actually looking forward to opening up to more elective surgeries. And they're ... inviting people who have non-COVID related problems to come to the hospital because there are so many available beds for those purposes.

In terms of where the virus has hit the most, we've heard in many parts of the country that it's senior living facilities, nursing homes. Has that also been the case in Massachusetts?

Yeah, I mean, I've actually been working on a story about what's going on in Hampden County, which is in the western part of the state, and has the highest death rate in the entire state. So even though Western Mass. has been hit in general less than Eastern Mass., Hampden County, which has a lot of low income communities of color, has more people who are dying from COVID. It's not necessarily the highest [in terms of] case rate, but it's the highest rate of people who are dying.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: Checking In On COVID-19 In Quebec

There are also a number of nursing homes in this county, and that's what a lot of analysts are telling me is probably pushing up the rate. And we had one nursing home in particular — the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, a home for veterans — that had a very high caseload that was quite shocking. More than 70 people died in that one facility.

In terms of the reopening of the state, I understand the stay at home order is supposed to expire on May 18. Is that right?

May 18 is the date that has been set for the reopening task force to sort of make a call. But again, the governor just yesterday urged people to be quite cautious, and he is saying it's important that the rate of cases decline for a full two weeks. That's definitely not happened yet. Again, there are some positive indicators, but really just a few days worth at this point.

Have people generally been complying with the stay at home orders? And what's that meant for just the feeling around towns where you are? I mean, what is life like out and about?

I wouldn't know what life is like out and about because I don't go out and about. It's very lonely. I would say a lot of the time, I mean, I've noticed that a lot of the outdoor trails are quite busy, but everywhere else is very sparse. I'm in Hampshire County. It's known to be a relatively wealthy, well-educated area. And it seems like a lot of people are taking the stay at home orders very seriously.

My understanding is, you know, different areas have different abilities to socially distance. The areas that have higher density living, more low income populations, more populations where they have to work in retail, they can't socially distance to the same degree. And that does show up in the rates of cases and in deaths. The governor does give credit to most people following the orders for the flattening that has occurred, even though it has not fully occurred.

For a timeline outlining Vermont's response to COVID-19, head here.

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