FALL RIVER — Every time it seems like COVID-19 is ready to fade away it comes back to remind us that it’s not over. Last spring, with cases falling and vaccinations increasing Massachusetts ended the State of Emergency and things started going back to normal. But the Delta variant soon showed up to lead to an alarming increase in cases, including breakthrough cases in fully vaccinated people. In September the Delta variant receded and cases began to fall again. But sure enough as the weather has gotten colder and people are spending more time indoors we are seeing a clear increase in cases in the month of November, up over 75% since November 1.
Scientists are increasingly convinced now that COVID-19 will become endemic — meaning that it will continue to circulate in pockets of the population for years to come. This virus is so effective at moving from person to person, including among those who are vaccinated, that we will likely never see it fade away entirely.
So what do we do? No one thinks we can or should return to lockdown conditions and life must continue to return to some semblance of normalcy. Some of us may wear masks and carry hand sanitizer in public for years to come. But all of us have to learn to live our lives without allowing COVID-19 to remain a dominant force.
Going forward the key will be to continue to vaccinate, including additional boosters as needed, protect the most vulnerable, make new treatments, like Pfizer’s promising new pill, widely available, and take precautions when we feel it’s necessary.
In a presentation to Massachusetts local health officials in mid-November the Department of Public Health (DPH) laid out a strategy to continue to monitor the spread of the virus that reflects the current state of pandemic -- endemic but manageable.
Massachusetts is fortunate to have a high rate of vaccination. As of mid-November, over 10.4M doses have been administered and 77% of the state’s population has at least one dose, well above the national average and second in the country. Pediatric vaccine is now approved for 5–11-year-olds and, as of the end of November about 100,000 doses have been administered. This makes it possible to shift the public health response to COVID-19 in the state to one based on ongoing management.
In the presentation Assistant Commissioner Jana Ferguson reported:
The number of cases reported to DPH remains much lower than earlier this year.
Test positivity rates have decreased from a 7-day average of over 27% in April 2020 to 1.7% in November.
There are well-established testing and response protocols in place for priority locations, such as Test and Stay allowing kids to stay in school. We have saved more than 99,000 in-person days of learning through Test and Stay.
Local health departments and the Department of Public Health will resume full responsibility for case investigations and any appropriate contact tracing activity - as they do with other infectious diseases.
The statewide Contact Tracing Collaborative (CTC) will cease taking new case referrals on November 30, 2021.
There is less need to investigate every case of COVID-19 and to speak with every contact. As we move forward, we will continue to investigate cases and clusters in priority settings and support mitigation efforts, including quarantining of close contacts, and testing and monitoring regimens (such as Test and Stay) in these settings. Ongoing Support
DPH will continue to support efforts to control COVID-19. Vaccines and authorized boosters will continue to be promoted, particularly in areas with lower vaccination rates. Widespread testing, including over the counter tests tests for even mild symptoms and following known exposures, including for vaccinated people. Locally, in Fall River the Health department has received funding to expand contact tracing efforts. This funding will allow the City to hire dedicated Health Department employees that will focus primarily on COVID-19 cases. As we see cases surging, this funding is invaluable to the local efforts to reduce transmission in the community.
In addition to contact tracing, testing continues to be a critical tool in reducing transmission. DPH and Local health recommend testing for anyone experiencing symptoms or for those who have been in contact with a positive case, regardless of vaccination status. Fortunately, Fall River continues to have a state sponsored Stop the Spread testing site located at BCC. Stop the Spread tests are free to all Massachusetts residents with appointments available 7 days a week.
In addition, people at risk for moderate to severe disease from COVID-19 should contact their healthcare providers promptly at diagnosis about potential therapeutic options including monoclonal antibodies.
DPH will continue to recommend general use of masks by people who are unvaccinated, immune-compromised, and where required by local governments and individual institutions and businesses.
DPH continues to offer guidance around isolation/quarantine in case of infection or close contact.
And the state will continue to support those in isolation or quarantine where needed (e.g, food security, alternative shelter).
These steps will make it possible in Massachusetts to live our lives with an awareness but much less of a fear of the scourge that has been COVID-19.
About the authors:
Tess Curran is the Fall River Director of Health and Human Services; Michael Coughlin is a member of the Fall River Board of Health
This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Fall River health experts say COVID-19 is here to stay