Public health experts have highlighted a number of factors that could be behind infections: increased circulation of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus; pandemic fatigue and spring optimism that led the public to be less vigilant; and Governor Charlie Baker’s continued relaxation of public health guidelines.
Many epidemiologists have warned for weeks that these factors could combine to produce an increase in cases. Now, with cases on the rise, they said it’s clearer than ever that to avoid a surge, the state must be cautious and resist the urge to let our collective guard down.
“It was predicted. … And in my mind, this is all so unnecessary, ”said Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown University School of Public Health. “We get the impression that the governor has just stopped listening to public health experts. And I appreciate that he has to look at a wide range of issues, but it’s still a public health issue.
“It’s really a risky situation right now with these variations… and I wish this was not the moment the governor decided to ease the restrictions,” Jha said.
The governor’s office has repeatedly highlighted the state’s victories in the fight against the pandemic. COVID-19 hospitalizations are down 19% since March 1 and 80% of people over 75 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Governor Baker’s press secretary Sarah Finlaw said in a statement shared with the Globe on Friday. The state’s overall immunization rate is among the highest in the country.
“These advancements have enabled Massachusetts to take additional steps to safely reopen our economy and the administration will continue to carefully monitor all public health data as the Commonwealth continues to move forward with the reopening process in stages,” he said. Finlaw said.
The number of people fully vaccinated – with either two injections of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or one injection of Johnson & Johnson – rose to 1,194,905 on Friday. Baker officials said they were aiming to vaccinate 4.1 million adults.
Governor Baker also noted at a press conference this week that many new cases involve young adults, who are less likely to be hospitalized or become seriously ill.
Children and adolescents, about 22% of the state’s population, accounted for a quarter of new cases in the two weeks leading up to March 20, according to the latest report from the Department of Public Health. People in their twenties, about 14 percent of the population, accounted for 20 percent of new infections.
During the same period, cases among the older groups, those in their 70s and 80s and older, fell.
Experts agreed that high vaccination rates among the state’s most vulnerable populations would go a long way in preventing a dramatic increase in hospitalizations and deaths in the event of another outbreak.
“The patterns we knew before are going to be different now that vaccinations have started to roll out,” said Helen Jenkins, an epidemiologist at UB. “What we hope to see is that the shape of the epidemic curve of cases begins to decouple from the patterns that we see in hospitalizations and deaths” as high-risk groups are protected, she said. declared.
But experts have said that preventing infections in all age groups remains a valid, if not urgent, goal.
“If we have another outbreak, which we may be getting into right now, we will still have a lot of hospitalizations, we will still have a lot of deaths,” said Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at the Northeastern University.
People of all ages can suffer from long-term health complications from COVID-19 infection, Scarpino said, and even young people can die from the disease.
Of particular concern is the rise in infections among children and adolescents, Scarpino said, as plans to vaccinate them remain uncertain. Throughout the pandemic, children have played a limited role in transmission, as they are less likely to be infected than adults. But that could change, Scarpino said, due to more contagious variants such as the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the UK.
“If we see children and adolescents making up their proportional share of cases when they had not been before, it means that they are now playing a bigger role in the epidemiology of COVID,” he said. he declares. “It will be more difficult for us to reach the threshold of immunity of the herd in general, because we are going to have to vaccinate more people.”
The number of communities considered at high risk for COVID-19 has increased for two consecutive weeks. Of those currently seeing high levels of community risk, some, including Lynn and Lawrence, have spent much of the past year battling some of the state’s highest transmission rates. A number of Cape Cod communities are also at high risk.
Several experts have expressed frustration at the recent rise in infections – and the state’s continued relaxation of pandemic rules. While the state’s vaccine rollout has been encouraging and a new standard is within reach, they said, the progress is a reason to be cautious for a few more weeks, rather than go faster.
“What we need to focus on is getting out of this situation, getting to the new normal. And you know, we’re just not there yet, ”said Scarpino. “But we could get there faster, with a lot fewer deaths and a lot fewer hospitalizations, if we delay all of this widespread reopening.
Dasia Moore can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore.