Apr. 13—BOSTON — Medical experts say the state must speed up COVID-19 vaccinations to brace against contagious mutations of the virus that are rapidly spreading.
During a live-streamed hearing Tuesday, several experts told members of two Beacon Hill committees that the vaccines have so far proven effective to protect against new "variants" of COVID-19, but said the prevalence of those mutations highlights the need to get more shots into people's arms.
"It's really a race between vaccines versus variants," Dr. Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Hospital, told lawmakers. "So the vaccine rollout really needs to be accelerated in the U.S. and the world."
Barouch that's important for protecting those who haven't been infected and also "to prevent the emergence of new variants in the future."
"There's a possibility that new variants could be even more worrisome than the variants we have today, so the best defense against that is to accelerate the vaccine rollout to bring the overall pandemic down," he said.
Dr. Paul Biddinger, chief of Massachusetts General Hospital's Division of Emergency Preparedness and director of its Center for Disaster Medicine, said Massachusetts is doing more than other states to detect new variants, but there should be a "comprehensive, statewide approach."
Analyzing and detecting variants is harder than basic testing, he said. "You need expertise and equipment to do it well," he said.
As of Monday, the state Department of Public Health reported at least 1,405 cases of three COVID-19 variants — up from 1,068 two weeks ago.
A majority were the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom, which has become the dominant strain. Cases tied to other variants, B.1.351 and P.1, which were first detected in South Africa and Brazil, are also on the rise.
Nationwide, at least 19,554 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are 324 cases of B.1.351 in 36 states and 434 P.1 cases in 28 states.
Massachusetts has the highest number of cases of the Brazilian strain nationwide, or 113.
Despite that, none of the experts recommended a dramatically altered strategy to battle the virus or a rollback of reopening plans for schools.
Dr. Benjamin Linas, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University's School of Medicine, said the prevalence of variants of the coronavirus shouldn't deter the state from a planned return to full-time, in-person instruction in schools this month because the mutations don't appear to target school-age children.
"We're not seeing a surge of sick children crowding into hospitals," Linas said.
Studies have shown the risk of transmission in classrooms is minimal when masks, social distancing and other precautions are taken, he added.
Meanwhile, other studies have shown an "alarming" increase in mental health issues from students who've been in remote learning for more than a year.
"We're not talking about safety versus a return to school," he said. "Although the variants remain a concern ... I don't think that rises to the level that we should accept a mental health crisis out of fear for the COVID risk."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com