Rising numbers of new cases have lead experts to warn that the lockdowns were relaxed too quickly.
BOSTON (CN) — New England states eased their Covid lockdowns after the number of new cases dropped dramatically at the start of the year, but the decline has now plateaued and started to reverse — and experts say they’re afraid that there could be another major spike.
“We are already entering another sharp rise,” warned Samuel Scarpino, who researches infectious diseases and predictive modeling at Northeastern University in Boston.
“We’ve just seen a week of plateau and now two weeks of increase,” said David Rosman, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.
“It’s very worrying,” added Usama Bilal, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University. “It seems like the beginning of a new wave of infections which may increase hospitalizations and subsequently deaths.”
The rise in cases appears to be due to a number of factors, from the easing of lockdowns to new virus variants and a widespread misperception that the disease is no longer as much of a concern.
Newly reported cases saw a huge spike in the fall and winter, rising from a low of 24,000 a day nationally in early September to a high of 313,000 in early January. But then they plummeted to about 50,000 by the beginning of March.
On March 2, Massachusetts reported only 301 new cases, down from thousands every day a couple months earlier. Other New England states saw similar dramatic declines.
With the drop in new cases and the beginning of the vaccine rollout, states began easing restrictions. Massachusetts replaced its strict rules for out-of-state travelers with a looser travel “advisory” and began allowing gatherings of 100 people indoors. Ballparks, overnight summer camps and dancing at weddings were once again permitted with some restrictions.
Vermont reopened bars and social clubs such as American Legion and VFW halls. Connecticut eliminated most capacity limits for restaurants, gyms, museums and churches. Maine relaxed rules for restaurants and bars and reopened self-service buffets. Rhode Island also raised the number of people allowed in restaurants, churches, bars and gyms.
But then the numbers stopped falling.
Connecticut’s seven-day moving average of new cases rose from 681 on March 8 to 1,217 on Sunday.
Massachusetts’ numbers are up 50% since early March and New Hampshire’s are up 69%.
On Saturday, Vermont reported its highest single-day number of the entire pandemic.
High numbers of new reported cases could in part be the result of increased testing, but what’s concerning is that the positivity rate (the percentage of tests that come back positive) is also up, suggesting that it’s not just that more tests are being given. The positivity rate in Connecticut spiked to 4.3% last week.
“This is partially the result of having opened indoor dining too early,” said Bilal. “The northeast has had indoor dining open for a couple months now in some cases, and a report by the CDC earlier this month showed that areas that reopen indoor dining see increases in cases and deaths 40 to 80 days after reopening.”
Universities inviting students back to their dormitories has also led to outbreaks, he said.
Reopening increases exposure in and of itself, but it also creates the impression that there’s less need to worry, which can make people less careful about following basic precautions, experts note.
“It’s the thought that if something is open, then it must be safe,” said Cassandra Pierre, an epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center.
“Most people these days are feeling like they’re done with Covid, but Covid isn’t done with us,” said Rosman. “Everyone wants to believe that this is over, and nobody wants to hear it or say it or do it, but people need to hold off for two more months.”
Scarpino complained that, “if we had followed the public health measures we know can work, such as limits on indoor gatherings, we almost certainly would have avoided this current increase.”
He added, “Trying to reopen too quickly actually slows down the return to normalcy and leads to unnecessary pain and suffering.”
This view was reiterated Monday by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, a fellow physician-scientist who leads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are doing things prematurely,” Fauci said.
“Just please hold on a little while longer,” Walensky added. “We are not powerless; we can change this trajectory of the pandemic.”
Besides the easing of lockdowns, emerging variants of the virus might also be to blame.
The U.K. variant, known as B117, is not only more contagious but also deadlier than the original virus. There have been 379 confirmed cases of this variant in Connecticut, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.
With the new variants, “your margin for error gets smaller and smaller,” said Andrew Lover, a professor of epidemiology at UMass Amherst.
The vaccines appear to be effective against the variants so far, but one of the issues is that the original virus tends to target the elderly while the U.K. variant is more likely to sicken young people, and young people have been at the back of the priority line for getting a vaccine.
“The U.K. variant has been progressively taking over and displacing less transmissible variants,” said Bilal. “As opposed to previous patterns, where we saw that young people were partially protected from infection, this variant seems to affect all ages equally.”
The result is that the average age of Covid patients is rapidly falling.
On Thursday, Vermont reported 251 new Covid cases but only four of them were among people over age 65. Half the new infections were among people under 30.
“There are younger people who are getting hospitalized this time around,” said Manisha Juthani, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Medicine.
The good news is that while the rate of new cases is up, death rates overall are not. The per capita death rate dropped 50% in both Connecticut and Rhode Island last week. Massachusetts saw a 16% increase and rates were unchanged in the other New England states.
Hospitalizations are up, however, in most New England states, with only Maine reporting a noticeable decline.
Lockdowns are politically unpopular and so far there has been little appetite among New England governors for bringing back restrictions on gatherings and travel.
“We’ll make changes if necessary, but at this point I don’t feel like we need to change course,” said Vermont Governor Phil Scott.
Some experts say it’s now a race between the vaccines and the virus.
“The good news is, the vaccines work,” said Rosman. “Virtually nobody who has gotten the vaccine is ending up in the hospital. It’s amazing, an incredible victory.”
“My biggest optimism comes from the enormous effort we are doing to vaccinate a ton of people,” said Bilal. “We need to continue that effort in order to ensure that, if we see a new wave, it’ll be weaker than previous ones.”
Bilal worries, though, that the virus might eventually mutate in ways that make it resistant to the vaccines.
“The key way to avoid this is to avoid new variants, and the only way to reduce the risk of new variants is to reduce incidence,” he said.
“As long as there are pockets of high incidence elsewhere in the world, we run the risk of new mutations, leading to new variants, and maybe some of them leading to lower vaccine effectiveness. Unless we help other countries in their vaccination efforts, we will continue being at risk even if we vaccinate everyone domestically.”