CHATHAM — On its surface, the surge in COVID-19 cases that gained national headlines for Provincetown might just as easily have happened in Chatham. Both places saw huge crowds around the Fourth of July, with influxes of people from around the country. What was different?
It might be the fact that Chatham has a much more subdued nightlife.
Providing a pandemic update to the health board Monday night, Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said Provincetown has become “the poster child” when it comes to the spread of the contagious Delta variant of the virus. Though the number of active cases there is on the decline, more than 900 cases have been linked to the Provincetown cluster.
“Most of the cases seem to be the result of indoor gatherings where people weren’t masked,” he said.
While Provincetown has issued a mask recommendation that requires even vaccinated people to wear face coverings in indoor public settings, “I think Chatham’s situation is a little bit different than Provincetown’s,” Duncanson said.
It is true that both towns saw giant influxes of people around the Fourth of July, with many visitors coming from parts of the country where vaccination rates are lower, he said. Also, both towns enjoy high vaccination rates among residents. And on busy summer days, Main Street in Chatham is as congested with people as Provincetown’s Commercial Street.
“And yet, we haven’t seen the huge rise,” Duncanson said. A plausible theory is that Chatham doesn’t have the nightclubs where people congregate closely in large numbers, he said.
The Provincetown cluster has proved to be a valuable test case in the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccinations, and prompted CDC officials to issue more stringent mask guidance for communities where the spread of the disease is more likely. Duncanson said that while many of the Provincetown cases were in fully vaccinated people, it is important to remember that such breakthrough cases are rare, and still represent less than one percent of vaccinated individuals.
“Vaccination is still the best way to get this under control,” he said.
Researchers are gaining a better understanding of the Delta variant, including the ease with which it spreads. Each infected person is capable of infecting as many as eight and nine others, compared to two or three for the common cold or flu. Part of the reason is the high concentration of virus found in the the nasal passages of those infected with the Delta variant. Unfortunately, the viral load in vaccinated people who are infected people is about the same as it is for unvaccinated people.
“Vaccinated people are able to spread the disease just as easily as unvaccinated,” Duncanson said. But critically, vaccinated people typically experience relatively mild symptoms or none at all, while those who have not been vaccinated tend to get sicker more quickly than with the original strain of COVID.
Health board Chairman John Beckley said local merchants are likely starting to wonder whether they should post signs requiring the use of masks in their stores and restaurants. While public health officials at the CDC and in Boston wrestle with potential mandates, “some of this is going to shake out locally, in terms of choices,” he said.
Duncanson said he’s already seen more people voluntarily wearing masks “in places like food stores and other venues.”
With the seven-day case averages increasing dramatically nationwide, health board member Richard Edwards said he fears that the trajectory will lead the nation to another serious spike in cases in the future. He noted that the increase comes at a time when people are resuming some of their traditional activities; Chatham will be resuming its summer band concerts this Friday, for instance.
“Talk about having a lot of people close together,” Edwards said. “You’ve got unvaccinated children, unvaccinated adults, all in that small area.”
“It’s outdoors,” Beckley countered.
Duncanson said for children and others who cannot be vaccinated, masks are still recommended in outdoor spaces where social distancing is impossible.
“The situation’s not getting better, and we do have some of these summertime events,” he said.
Health board member Noble Hansen said there were an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 people in town for the Independence Day parade, and Chatham did not experience a surge in cases, which is a good sign. It is likely that the Delta variant of the virus was prevalent in Chatham even in early July, Duncanson added.