SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) -- Western Mass News has exclusive new information on the COVID-19 outbreak at Baystate Medical Center.

In addition, Baystate Health President and CEO Dr. Mark Keroack shared new insights with Western Mass News regarding the state of the hospital at this point in the pandemic, vaccine breakthroughs, and concerns heading into the holidays.

We spoke exclusively with Keroack on Friday. He told us the case count in their COVID-19 outbreak has increased to now more than 30 employees and nine patients testing positive.

Also, there are many, many more in quarantine.

“We’ve got hundreds of people in quarantine waiting for their test results to come back, so there may be a few more positives that come to light, but it’s something very serious and we’ve done deep cleaning of the unit and there’s no more evidence for any transmission,” Keroack explained.

Keroack did not disclose the unit of the hospital where the cluster originated earlier this month, but he did tell Western Mass News the latest theory in their contact-tracing efforts indicate it could have come from a patient who was transferred in to Baystate from another facility. He said the patient reportedly tested negative for the virus and then tested positive a few days later.

Keroack said this supports the CDC recent guidance indicting that a negative test results doesn’t mean a person can’t spread the virus.

“Testing is certainly part of protecting yourself, but it’s not the whole thing…It’s really kind of a package that you have to put together and testing is part of a defense strategy, but it can’t be the whole thing,” Keroack noted.

As this outbreak is closely monitored, Keroack said he has his eye on the growing case numbers overall in the community.

“Western Massachusetts is surging right now,” he said.

Keroack said statewide statistics show the number of people in the hospital has tripled and numbers have increased at Baystate.

“We were in the 30s and 40s in October and we got as high as 90 a week ago. Today, thankfully, we are down to 70 and I hope that’s a trend,” Keroack added.

Keroack said in April, the hospital had 180 patients with 40 in the ICU, so they have room for more patients if needed.

The hospital currently has three COVID-19 units.

“We would be able to expand to about 230 at the Springfield campus and a couple hundred more in our community hospitals, so we still have plenty of head room in terms of bed space,” Keraock said.

We also talked about a coronavirus vaccine as companies are two trials are showing promising results.

“It means there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a very bright light, at least two lights, maybe even three or four,” Keroack said.

He’s talking about Pfizer moving forward with its vaccine authorization process and planning to take it to the FDA for emergency use authorization on Friday.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if in January, if we actually had four vaccines are approved and on the market, which is important because we need to ramp up production very, very fast,” Keraock explained.

Baystate is already working on a plan to distribute the vaccine.

“We have purchased a number of those ultra-cold freezers in case in turns out the Pfizer vaccine is the one we get access to,” Keroack added.

In their plan, the vaccine would first be distributed to high-risk individuals and frontline caregivers, second to less high-risk individuals and other essential workers, and third to the general public.

“It will be a kind of phased distribution and the speed of the phasing is going to depend on how much they can make and how many different vaccines are available,” Keroack noted.

He said roughly 20 million people could be vaccinated by late December, early January.

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Keroack said surveys have shown Americans are 50-50 the issue.

“I think with a new administration and with the scientists saying we think this is okay and particularly if Baystate endorses a vaccine and your doctor says the vaccine is safe…I think that 50 percent number is probably pretty soft and may come down once we start getting experience with it," Keroack said.

As the holiday season kicks off next week, Keroack has some concerns.

“It worries me a lot that we’ve seen roughly a doubling in inpatient cases just before a time when people are likely getting together for Thanksgiving,” Keroack said.

If you are gathering with family, he said wear a mask when you aren't eating and avoid hugging and kissing family members.

“It makes for a pretty strange holiday celebration, but you don’t really want to have your holiday celebration become a super spreader event either,” Keroack said.

Keroack said people should really consider a virtual get-together or small gathering this holiday.

“I think because it’s Thanksgiving and Christmas, it will get worse before it gets better. I don’t think it will be as bad as it was in April, but it will get pretty bad and then as the vaccine knocks down potential targets for the virus, we’ll start slowing emerging,” Keroack added.

Keroack said the same messages ring true as we head into the holidays: continue to wear your mask, wash your hands, and socially distance from others.

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