The number of cases of coronavirus variants is rising in Massachusetts, and local experts warn that prompt action is needed to prevent an increase in infections.
Of particular concern is increase in the case of the P.1 variant, first discovered in Brazil. Massachusetts is one of the states that sees the highest number of cases (82), only after 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 has been discovered in Barnstable County.
As of Wednesday, the state has also identified 977 cases of the B.1
Looking more broadly at COVID-19 trends in Massachusetts, which has seen its cases, admissions and percentage positivity rise, Samuel Scarpino, an assistant professor at the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University and director of the Emergent Epidemics Lab, said he was concerned the position the state is in. He is afraid that the state is heading into a potential increase before reaching the required level of security through vaccinations and the benefits of warmer weather, which is why he and others have warned of a rapid reopening plan for Massachusetts.
The epidemiologist said the cause of the increase in cases in Massachusetts is not necessarily the P.1 variant, rather, the B.1.1.7 strain is likely to propel the increase.
“It will require even higher levels of vaccination coverage to get to any form of herd immunity, and it also means it will spread faster than we are used to seeing,” Scarpino told Boston.com.
The challenge facing Massachusetts and most of the United States when it comes to variants is the lack of systematic monitoring of virus strains. So looking at the cluster of cases identified on the Cape, the question remains whether Massachusetts really has some of the highest levels of the P.1 variant – or whether the state has just been able to capture it first.
Ultimately, what matters is what happens next, Scarpino said.
“The response has to be pretty aggressive,” he said. “We basically saw a month earlier this time last year Biogenic superspreading event how an event leading to 50, 60 cases then becomes 500 cases and 1,000 and tens of thousands of cases. So that’s the real concern. Not necessarily whether we have the most or not. But given that we have found it, we now have an opportunity to intervene with public health measures – testing, tracking, isolating, boundaries of indoor collections, etc. – to try to prevent this from becoming a massive wave. ”
Researchers are still actively investigating what the potential implications of the P.1 variant are, Scarapino said, but so far, laboratory studies suggest that the vaccines are not as effective against it. There is also research that has not yet been peer-reviewed that suggests the variant is more contagious than the B.1.1.7 strain, he said.
“For me, the home message is nothing has been decided yet,” said the epidemiologist. “But the signs point to the fact that this is a very worrying variant that we must take seriously and do everything we can to prevent it from spreading.”
For the B.1.1.7 variant, because it has become widespread in more than a few areas, there have been a few studies indicating that the COVID-19 vaccines are as effective against the strain as they are in relation to the previous version of the virus, meaning people who have been vaccinated are still “pretty safe,” Scarpino said. However, people can still become infected, even after being vaccinated and potentially transmitting the infection to others, which means that individuals should continue to take into account the health and vaccination status of those in their household.
With variants such as B.1.1.7 and P.1, it is important for non-vaccinated individuals to remember that activities that may have been safe before are now not so much because people may be more contagious to the variants, said the epidemiologist. The public should pay much more attention to wearing masks, on the ventilation in the visited rooms and try to keep indoor collections outside your bubble “to a minimum.”
“COVID rates are now what they were in mid-November,” Scarpino said. “This means that the risk was high before we had the variants here, and now it is much higher due to the fact that these [variants] are more transferable. ”
While the Northeastern professor said he believes urgent steps should be taken to tackle the rising variants in Massachusetts, he suspects officials will not go back to state reopening decisions “absent a truly spectacular increase in cases.”
This reality is unfortunate because when it comes to epidemics, it is always better to act early than to act late, Scarpino said. Therefore, he and others were against 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 provided we are not talking about rolling indoor dining, sporting events, restrictions on gatherings, all sorts of things, then I think we need to do everything we can to ensure and effectively speed up vaccination timelines.”
Massachusetts is behind its neighbors by opening vaccination eligibility for persons aged 16 and over. Residents under the age of 55 who have not already been prioritized for the vaccine will be allowed to start getting shots from April 19, unlike the surrounding states that have already opened access to that group.
According to Scarpino, doing so is particularly important because Massachusetts sees many cases among younger age groups right now. The professor said he hopes the government Charlie Baker and his administration are “looking hard” at moving up on the eligibility timeline.
“We’re close to something that looks a little more normal, we’re just not there yet,” he said. “And the more seriously we take the measures now, the faster and safer we will get out of this. So if people are doing indoor gatherings, if they are very sensible with their time indoors with people who are not in their bubble, they are very thoughtful and careful about wearing mask, wearing high filtration masks, double masking, it will get us out faster this. ”
It is also critical that everyone who attended holiday gatherings over the weekend get a COVID-19 test as soon as possible to avoid potential spread of the virus to others.
It is important to prevent a new holiday wave whose threat has only been exacerbated by the growing presence of the variants, Scarpino said.
“We have to take these variants incredibly seriously, much more seriously than we do now,” he said. “Otherwise we risk returning to any sense of normalcy. And I personally think it would be tragic and unacceptable because we are so close. We really need a few more weeks where people are really careful, very careful and sensible around indoor gatherings as we get more people vaccinated. ”
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, Scarpino said, the length of the tunnel depends on the actions of individuals and officials over the next month.
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