What an epidemiologist says you should know about the P.1 variant en masse.

The number of cases of variant coronaviruses is increasing in Massachusetts, and local experts are warning that swift action is needed to prevent an increase in infections.

The increase in cases of variant P.1, first detected in Brazil. Massachusetts is one of the states with the most cases (82), just behind 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 were detected in Barnstable County.

The state also identified 977 cases of variant B.1.1.7, first detected in the UK, and 12 cases of variant B.1.351, originally found in South Africa, according to the CDC on Wednesday. Yet new data from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard revealed that within a month of the first case of P.1 detected in Massachusetts, the variant had spread faster than any of the other strains. virus in Bay State.

Looking more broadly at trends in COVID-19 in Massachusetts, which has seen its cases, hospitalizations and percentage of positivity increase, Samuel Scarpino, assistant professor at the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University and director of the Emergent Epidemics Lab, s is said to be concerned. about the position in which the state finds itself. He fears the state is heading for a potential surge before it achieves the necessary level of safety through vaccinations and the warmer weather benefits, which is why he and others have warned of plan to reopen Massachusetts quickly.

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 that is driving the increase.

“It’s going to require even higher vaccine coverage levels to get any kind of herd immunity, and it also means it’s going to spread faster than what we’re used to seeing,” Scarpino said. at Boston.com.

The challenge Massachusetts and most of the United States face when it comes to variants is the lack of systematic surveillance of viral strains. So when you look at the cluster of cases identified in Cape Town, 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 catch it. first.

At the end of the day, what matters is what happens next, Scarpino said.

“The response has to be quite aggressive,” he said. “We saw practically a month earlier this time last year with the Biogen over-spreading event how an event that leads to 50, 60 cases then becomes 500 cases and 1000 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 found it, we now have the ability to intervene with public health measures – testing, tracing, isolating, limiting indoor gatherings, etc. – to try to prevent this from becoming a massive push.

Researchers are still actively studying the potential implications of the P.1 variant, Scarapino said, but so far lab studies suggest vaccines aren’t 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 settled yet,” said the epidemiologist. “But the signs are that this is a very worrying variant that we need to take seriously and do all 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 a few studies which indicate that COVID-19 vaccines are just as effective against the strain as they are against the previous version of the virus, which means people who have been vaccinated are still “fairly safe,” Scarpino said. But people can still get infected even after being vaccinated and potentially pass the infection on to others, which means individuals must continue to consider the health status and vaccination of people in 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 were perhaps previously safe are not so safe anymore because people can be more infectious with the variants, the epidemiologist said. The public should be much more aware of wearing masks, ventilation in visited spaces, and try to keep indoor gatherings out of your bubble “to a minimum”.

“COVID rates are now where they were in mid-November,” Scarpino said. “It means the risk was high before we had the variants here, and now it’s much higher due to the fact that these [variants] are more transmissible. “

While the Northeast professor has said he believes urgent action should be taken to tackle the rising variants in Massachusetts, he suspects officials are not going to reverse decisions to reopen the state. ” in the absence of a truly dramatic increase in cases ”.

This is an unfortunate reality, because when it comes to epidemics, it’s always better to act early than to act late, Scarpino said. This is why he and others opposed reopening Massachusetts.

“Part of the reason we’ve been in this mess for a year is that we wait until it’s too late and do something,” he said. “But assuming we’re not talking about rolling back indoor meals, sporting events, limits on gatherings, all those kinds of things, then I think we have to do whatever we can to speed up in a safe way.” and effective vaccination deadlines. “

Massachusetts is behind his neighbors by opening vaccine eligibility to people aged 16 and over. Residents under 55 who have not already been given priority for the vaccine will be allowed to start getting vaccinated from April 19, unlike neighboring states which have already opened up access to this group.

This is especially important, according to Scarpino, as Massachusetts is currently experiencing many cases among younger age groups. The professor said he hoped Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration “closely scrutinized” the possibility of increasing the eligibility schedule.

“We’re close to something that feels a little more normal, we’re just not there yet,” he said. “And the more seriously we take the measurements now, the faster and safer we will get out of it.” So if people delay indoor gatherings, if they are very judicious 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’s going to get us out faster. “

It is also essential that anyone who has attended holiday gatherings over the weekend get tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible to avoid potentially spreading the virus to others.

This is essential to avoid a new wave of vacations, the threat of which has only been compounded by the growing presence of variants, Scarpino said.

“We have to take these variants incredibly seriously, much more seriously than we do now,” he said. “Otherwise, we risk reverting 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 for people to be really careful, very careful and judicious around indoor gatherings, because we are getting more people vaccinated.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, said Scarpino, the length of the tunnel depends on the actions of individuals and officials over the next month.

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