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Baystate infectious disease head: ‘The future is bright’

  • PAEZ

Staff Writer
Published: 2/24/2021 4:55:48 PM

On March 5, 2020, the head of the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield said people needed to “prepare not panic” for the pandemic. Almost a year later, Dr. Armando Paez says it has been a challenging, trying, sometimes heartbreaking year, though there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

“We had the first surge last March,” Paez said this week. “We didn’t know much about what we were dealing with at the time. We didn’t know about transmission, we didn’t know how contagious it is, we didn’t know about risk. But now we do.”

Paez said everyone had a lot of learning to do about the virus and ways to prevent its spread — even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) didn’t understand the full significance of universal mask wearing until later in the pandemic. Though scientists and medical professionals seem to learn something new all the time, he said much more is understood about COVID-19.

“We’ve learned how to treat patients,” he said. “There’s still no ‘silver bullet,’ but we can manage it much better now.”

Baystate Health, its hospitals — including Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield — and other hospitals around the globe saw a lot of older patients during the first surge last March.

“We watched a lot of our most vulnerable patients, the elderly, die,” Paez said. “There was no vaccine (and) not a lot of knowledge about COVID-19 at that time.”

Paez said now people can celebrate the progress science and scientists have made, including producing a vaccine. Still, he said people shouldn’t expect to see the virus disappear immediately, and it might not ever fully disappear.

“There are people who won’t be able to get the vaccine right away, and there are people who haven’t had the illness, so everyone still needs to be careful,” he said. “Everyone still needs to follow the mandates of the state, including those who have been vaccinated.”

What was interesting to Paez — but not surprising — this fall and winter was that Baystate Health’s hospitals saw very few cases of the seasonal flu, probably because people have been taking so many precautions due to the pandemic, such as practicing social distancing, wearing masks and washing their hands regularly. There was initial concern that there would be a confluence of the flu and COVID-19, he said, but that didn’t happen.

“What I can tell people — I’ve seen it firsthand — is that COVID-19 is much more infectious than the flu, much more easily spread,” he said. “We didn’t know that last spring.”

Second surge

Paez said Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year were a “perfect storm” that brought about the second surge. People let their guard down, enjoyed time with friends and family, and then that surge hit Western Massachusetts and beyond.

Furthermore, the weather was cold, meaning people were staying indoors with poor ventilation, which he said created perfect conditions for an airborne illness.

The second surge, which started shortly after Thanksgiving and continued into early this year, has involved many more “younger folks” than the first. He said younger people tend to rebound more easily, don’t have as many “serious” issues while they’re fighting COVID-19 and very rarely die from the virus.

Still, Paez said Baystate Health is treating more post-COVID-19 issues with people called “long haulers.”

“We often see people with fatigue, and even people who had mild symptoms are sometimes in rehab six months after they’ve recovered from the disease,” he said. “Baystate has opened a Post-COVID Clinic.”

Patients who attend the clinic have developed breathing or heart problems and other issues like brain fog, pain, severe fatigue and a “hodgepodge” of post-COVID-19 symptoms.

“We do a multi-disciplinary assessment of those patients because some have more than one or two symptoms that remain after they’ve recovered from COVID,” he said.

Vaccine

Paez said the way to end the pandemic is by achieving herd immunity, and the vaccine will provide an artificially produced immunity so that people can get back to a pre-pandemic lifestyle.

When asked if he really thinks that will happen, he said, “Yes! It will take time, but there are scientists looking at how long the vaccine will provide immunity, whether a seasonal shot will be required like for the flu, all the factors that will tell us how to get back to where we were before.”

He said for those who are afraid to take the vaccine, they should compare its safeness — “it’s very safe” — to the illness it can prevent, which can be debilitating or even deadly.

“More and more are recognizing that the vaccine is very safe and effective,” he said. “That will come with time, too, as more people take the vaccine and people see firsthand how safe it is.”

Paez said there’s still a “long way to go” until everyone who should be is vaccinated — Massachusetts is only at the beginning of Phase 2 of a three-phase plan. Children won’t be vaccinated until later this summer, for instance.

“We still have challenges, like rolling out the vaccine,” he said. “But we’ve also had a lot of success. Testing is good now and contact tracing has been good as well.

“We’re getting a lot of support from the new administration, and it looks like we’ll reach our collective goal of vaccinating everyone we can before fall and winter,” Paez continued. “We do have to consider the variants, but so far it looks like the vaccine is working on the UK variant. It works much less on the South African variant, but it still works.”

Paez said doctors and medical professionals understand that humans are social beings and need each other, so minimizing contact has been tough on everyone. But if people keep taking the necessary precautions and get vaccinated, he said he believes the transmission will slow even more, even if it’s not eliminated completely.

“I think the future is bright,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.

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