The number of cases of variants of the coronavirus is increasing in Massachusetts, and local experts warn that quick action is needed to prevent an increase in infections.
Of particular concern is the increase in cases of variant P.1, first detected in Brazil. Massachusetts is one of the states with the highest number of cases (82), behind only Florida (84), according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At least 50 of the P.1 cases in Massachusetts have been detected in Barnstable County.
As of Wednesday, the state has also identified 977 cases of variant B.1.1.7, first detected in the UK, and 12 cases of variant B.1.351, initially found in South Africa, according to the CDC. Still, new data from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard revealed that less than a month since the first case of P.1 detected in Massachusetts, the variant had spread faster than any of the other virus strains in the state of the United States. bay.
Looking more broadly at trends for COVID-19 in Massachusetts, which has seen its cases, hospitalizations and percentage of positivity rise, Samuel Scarpino, assistant professor at Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute and director of the Emerging Epidemic Laboratory, said he is concerned. on the position of the state. He is concerned that the state is heading for a potential increase before reaching the necessary level of safety through vaccines and the benefits of warmer weather, which is why he and others have warned against a quick reopening plan for Massachusetts.
The epidemiologist said the reason for the increase in cases in Massachusetts is not necessarily the P.1 variant, but rather the B.1.1.7 strain is likely driving the increase.
“It’s going to require even higher levels of vaccination coverage to achieve any kind of herd immunity, and it also means that it will spread faster than we are used to,” Scarpino told Boston.com.
The challenge facing Massachusetts and most of the United States when it comes to variants is the lack of systematic surveillance of virus strains. So when looking at the pool of cases identified in the Cape, the question remains whether Massachusetts actually has some of the highest levels of the P.1 variant, or whether the state has simply been able to detect it first.
Ultimately, what matters is what happens next, Scarpino said.
“The response must be quite aggressive,” he said. “We saw basically a month earlier at this time last year with the Biogen Super Breeding Event how an event that leads to 50, 60 cases turns into 500 cases and 1000 and tens of thousands of cases. So that’s the real concern. Not necessarily if we have more or not. But since we’ve found it, we now have an opportunity to intervene with public health measures (test, trace, isolate, limit indoor gatherings, etc.) to try to prevent this from becoming a massive increase. “
Researchers are still actively investigating what the potential implications of the P.1 variant are, Scarapino said, but so far laboratory studies suggest that vaccines are not as effective against it. There is also research that has not yet been peer-reviewed that suggests the variant is more infectious than the B.1.1.7 strain, he said.
“For me, the take-home message is that nothing is resolved yet,” said the epidemiologist. “But the signs are that this is a very worrying variant that we must take seriously and do everything we can to prevent it from spreading.”
For variant B.1.1.7, because it has become prevalent in more than a few areas, there have been some studies that indicate that COVID-19 vaccines are as effective against the strain as they are against the older version of the strain. virus, which means that people who have been vaccinated are still “pretty safe,” Scarpino said. But people can still become infected even after they have been vaccinated and potentially pass the infection on to others, which means that people must continue to consider the health and vaccination status of members of their household.
With variants such as B.1.1.7 and P.1, what is important for unvaccinated people to remember is that activities that could have been safe before are now less safe because people can be more infectious with variants, said the epidemiologist. The public must be much more aware of the use of masks, of the ventilation in the visited spaces, and try to keep the meetings “to a minimum” inside outside the bubble.
“The COVID rates are now what they were in mid-November,” Scarpino said. “That means the risk was high before we had the variants here, and now it is much higher due to the fact that these [variants] they are more transmissible. “
While the Northeastern professor said he believes urgent action must be taken to address the escalating variants in Massachusetts, he suspects officials will not roll back decisions to reopen the state “without a really dramatic increase in cases.”
That reality is unfortunate, as when it comes to epidemics, acting early is always better than acting late, Scarpino said. That’s why he and others objected to the way Massachusetts reopened.
“Part of the reason we’ve been in this mess for a year is because we wait until it’s too late and then we do something,” he said. “But assuming we’re not talking about rolling back indoor dining, sporting events, meeting limits, all that sort of thing, then I think we need to do everything we can to safely and efficiently accelerate deadlines. vaccination”.
Massachusetts is behind your neighbors in opening vaccine eligibility to people 16 years of age and older. Residents under the age of 55 who have not yet been prioritized for the vaccine will be able to begin receiving vaccines as of April 19, unlike surrounding states that have already opened access to that group.
Doing so is particularly important, according to Scarpino, because Massachusetts is seeing a lot of cases among the younger age groups right now. The professor said he hopes Governor Charlie Baker and his administration are “carefully considering” the possibility of moving forward on the eligibility schedule.
“We are close to something that seems a little more normal, but we have not yet achieved it,” he said. “And the more seriously we take action now, the faster and safer we’ll get out of this. So if people are late in indoor meetings, if they are very judicious about their time indoors with people who are not in their bubble, they are very thoughtful and careful about wearing masks, high filtration masks, double masking, that’s going to get us out of this faster. “
It is also critical that anyone who participated in holiday gatherings over the weekend get tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible to prevent the possible spread of the virus to others.
Doing so is essential to prevent another holiday surge, the threat of which has only been compounded by the growing presence of the variants, Scarpino said.
“We need to take these variants incredibly seriously, much more seriously than we are doing now,” he said. “Otherwise, we are jeopardizing our return to any sense of normalcy. And personally I think that would be tragic and unacceptable because we are so close. We really only need a few more weeks for people to be really careful, very careful and judicious in indoor meetings, as we vaccinate more people. “
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, Scarpino said, the length of the tunnel depends on the actions of people and officials over the next month.
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