Despite growing vaccination rates, which have allowed mask mandates to be rolled back, the fact remains that COVID-19 is still out there.
“The number of cases per day is still in the hundreds,” said Dr. Robert Klugman of UMass Memorial Hospital. “We are not yet fully out of the woods. The BA.2 variant is on the march and may cause a significant bump in cases.”
Klugman also said 54 percent of the state’s 7.1 million residents have received booster shots and that 5.4 million residents are fully vaccinated. Nationally, he said, the vaccination rate is nearly 90 percent. However, the vaccines have proven to be more effective in terms of controlling the severity of the virus rather than preventing it.
In addition, Klugman called attention to the global population. “If we look at the outbreak in China and other poorly vaccinated countries, we know there will continue to be outbreaks and also new variants to contend with,” he said.
With masking and social distancing becoming more relaxed, Klugman said, the chances of contracting COVID-19 will now be determined by a person’s level of exposure. “Outdoors is generally safe. Big box stores, supermarkets are generally safe,” he said. “Bistros, bars, boutiques – less so. Those at increased risk of hospitalization, whether boosted or not, should continue to be more cautious. Omicron and its cousin BA.2 are highly contagious.”
Looking back to March 2020, Klugman said there was almost nothing that could have been done to prevent the onset of COVID-19. “The U.S. had dismantled most of its epidemiologic and pandemic resources. Battling a pandemic is not each country for itself, but requires a global effort,” he said. “Pandemics are marathons, not sprints, and governments need to plan for the long haul.”
Dr. Brian Chow, director of the Infectious Diseases Fellowship Program at Tufts Medical Center, said the pandemic will not be over until worldwide immunity is achieved. “While cases in Massachusetts are falling, cases are rising elsewhere in the world,” he said. “As long as there are new infections, there is the possibility of new strains emerging and spreading.”
Chow also reflected on what he and his colleagues have learned during the past two years. “We now have precedent for rapidly developing vaccines using the mRNA platform and the ability to create PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests,” he said. “It’s certainly possible to respond faster to these situations with the technology we have now.”
However, Chow said burnout rates have hit record high levels among healthcare workers. “First and foremost, we are constantly reminded that the healthcare system runs on people,” he said. “These people do not have infinite capacity to take on more work.”
In addition, Chow said pandemic prevention will be a challenging endeavor. “Bringing a local epidemic under control and preventing it from becoming a pandemic depends on early detection,” he said. “It’s much harder to do these when it’s a completely new infectious disease and we don’t have treatments we know to be effective.”
Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center, said Massachusetts continues to move “in the right direction.” However, the same cannot be said for countries overseas. “If we’ve learned one lesson about this pandemic, it’s that we’re all connected,” she said.
Assoumou also spoke about the importance of having proactive leadership. “Leadership matters; it’s so important when you’re dealing with a pandemic,” she said. “You can lose control very quickly.”