Officials Wonder If Mid-Cape Surge Linked To P.1 Variant
There was a time when “flattening the curve” was a good thing. But in a time when COVID-19 cases had been trending down, plateauing numbers have public health officials worried.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Barnstable County case count had increased by 94 cases over Monday’s figure, Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told the select board Tuesday.
“That’s important because over the last six days we have been averaging above 80 cases a day on Cape Cod, where the previous six days or so we were down to the 40 to 60 cases range,” he said.
“I’m not quite sure anybody’s ready to call it a spike yet,” Duncanson told the board of health Monday. But several Cape towns moved into the state-designated red zone, with Barnstable and Yarmouth leading the trend. The two towns “appear to be the epicenter of an increase in cases on the Cape,” he said.
State public health officials opened a pop-up testing clinic at the Cape Cod Melody Tent site in Hyannis to collect better data, and not just about the number of infected people, Duncanson noted. Samples from the testing site will also be analyzed to see whether a particular strain of the virus is responsible for the increase in cases. Last week, the state registered its first known case of the P.1 variant, also known as the Brazilian variant, in a 30-year-old woman from Barnstable County.
“I’m sure there’s going to be more to come on that,” he said.
“This is of great concern,” said State Sen. Julian Cyr, D–Truro, speaking last week on behalf of the Cape Cod COVID-19 Response Task Force. The P.1 variant is believed to be more infectious and may more easily re-infect those who previously had COVID-19. “So we are watching this very closely,” he said. “We’re working to make sure we are actively reaching out to all members of the Cape Cod community, immigrant communities and the Brazilian community particularly,” Cyr said.
The increased cases are not limited to the Mid-Cape. As of March 18, the two-week positivity rate had risen in Chatham and Harwich, which are now in the yellow zone, and Orleans, which increased slightly from the gray to the green zone.
“As much as I wish the pandemic were over, it’s important to remember that it’s decidedly not,” Monomoy Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter wrote in a message to parents Saturday. “Cases among young people are increasing in recent weeks, with the past week having the highest number of positive cases in our schools yet.” While more adults are getting vaccinated, young people remain vulnerable, he said. The district has been taken part in pooled COVID-19 testing, resulting in two positive results. The district conducted rapid follow-up tests to identify the specific cases, “which has allowed us to intervene before spread happened to classmates, school staff, or loved ones at home. There also have been additional cases identified separate from the pooled testing,” he said. The pooled testing program is still somewhat hindered by low participation; only about half of students and staff are taking part, Carpenter said.
Last week, the state announced the timeline for all adults to be vaccinated. As of Monday, people 60 years of age and older were added to the eligibility list, along with workers in certain sectors, including transportation, food service, sanitation, public works and public health. On April 5, eligibility opens to people 55 and older and those who have one comorbidity. On April 19, all individuals 16 and older will be able to receive the vaccine, which has not yet been approved for people younger than 16.
The Cape Cod Vaccine Consortium’s site at Cape Cod Community College is functioning well, and as of last week, Barnstable County was leading the state in the percentage of people vaccinated.
Orleans Health Agent Bob Canning told the select board last week that there were two clinics in town the week before, vaccinating 800 people on one day and nearly 600 on the other. Barnstable County health officials told him that, as they get more vaccine, they will seek to use the Orleans vaccination site at the DPW building, which is particularly well suited for drive-through clinics in all weather.
Canning praised town departments for their quick response when the county made a last-minute request for observers to watch over those who were receiving their second dose. With just 30 minutes notice, the town found the necessary staffing.
A clinic was held at the DPW on March 12, and about an hour before the end of the clinic, the town learned that there was an oversupply of Pfizer doses that needed to be administered that day. Canning said the town identified around 175 people, including seniors, other high-risk residents and schoolteachers, notifying them within one hour and getting them to the clinic.
“I'm very pleased that we have become a well-oiled machine that can change at the last minute and pull it off,” he said. Canning also offered praise to the regional Community Emergency Response Team and the Cape Cod Medical Reserve Corps for their volunteer work. “They're at every clinic and we couldn't do it without them,” Canning said.
The effort to vaccinate at-risk seniors continues in Chatham. This week, a team of six EMTs from the Chatham Fire Department visited 17 homes, vaccinating two dozen seniors with the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine. The doses were provided by Outer Cape Health Services, which will also supply the doses needed for local clinics to be held at senior housing facilities in Chatham in the upcoming weeks.
The increased case counts on Cape Cod come even as state officials loosen certain restrictions on travel and gatherings. On Monday, Massachusetts entered Phase 4, Step 1 of the economic reopening plan, which allows the largest venues like Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium to open at 12 percent capacity. Outdoor venues are allowed to have up to 150 people for events, or up to 100 people indoors, though gatherings at private residences remain limited to 10 people indoors or 25 people outdoors.
Gov. Charlie Baker also announced that the travel order that required visitors to the state to quarantine for two weeks or to provide proof of a negative COVID test had become an advisory, no longer subject to a $500 fine for violators. Those who are fully vaccinated – that is, who received their final dose of vaccine two weeks ago – no longer have to comply with the travel advisory. The change is consistent with CDC recommendations, Duncanson said, “but the CDC is still recommending that you do not travel unless you absolutely have to.”
Chatham health board member Noble Hansen asked whether the state has considered slowing down the pace of reopening on Cape Cod, given the trend with case numbers. Duncanson said he has heard of no such plans, adding it may be evidence of a disconnect between politicians and public health officials seen around the country. The pace of reopening is an inexact matter, he noted.
“This is a big experiment,” Duncanson said, and public health officials are watching carefully for evidence of any resurgence in the virus. It is critical that the U.S. avoid a “fourth wave” of cases like the one now being felt across Europe, he said.