‘Many of us are concerned’: Public health experts issue warnings of another surge as COVID-19 cases tick up

“Holding tight until more folks vaccinated key to winning this race.”

Randolph, MA - 1/5/2021: EMT Chris Martin of Cataldo Ambulance Service uses a nasal swab to collect a specimen at a COVID-19 testing site outside the Randolph Intergenerational Community Center in Randolph, MA on January 05, 2021. The site run by the town of Randolph, Cataldo Ambulance Service and many volunteers is part of the Massachusetts Stop the Spread program. On Monday (Jan. 4) the site performed 992 tests at the location. (The Stop the Spread program is intended to provide low barrier, free, and easy to access testing to all Massachusetts residents. Open to all Massachusetts residents. Testing is not restricted to residents of the cities where sites are located.) (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff) coronavirus Covid-19 Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe

Local public health experts are sounding the alarm about the potential for another surge as COVID-19 cases rise again in the United States.

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After seeing weeks of a steady decline in cases, followed by a plateau, the country averaged 61,545 new cases last week, up 11 percent from the average two weeks prior, according to The New York Times. The increase comes as experts have been warning for months that increased circulation of more infectious variants of the virus could drive up cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

Physicians and doctors have framed the effort to head off such a surge as a “race” between the spread of the variants and the effort to get as many Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, wrote on Twitter that even with the “phenomenal” vaccination rates, the variants have pulled ahead in the race between the two. 


“Infections up in 34 states,” he wrote. “Test positivity up in 38. Hospitalizations up in 20. Holding tight until more folks vaccinated key to winning this race.”

Jha said he still believes the United States can “win” the face-off between the variants and the vaccine rollout. But the the public and leaders need to keep asking a question as the effort continues. 

“How many folks do we tolerate getting COVID, dying in final weeks before vaccinations get us to a better place?” he wrote. “I get it can’t be zero. But it has to be less than 55K daily infections, 1000 daily deaths we’re at now.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci told CBS over the weekend the rise in the coronavirus isn’t just because of the more transmissible variants. 

The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH and top adviser to President Joe Biden told the network the increase is also due to “premature” reopenings, with states lifting restrictions including mask mandates, and more Americans traveling for spring break. 

Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency room physician and director of the Brown Lifespan Center for Digital Health, raised similar concerns about the pace of reopenings in an interview with CNN on Saturday. The doctor said she’s still seeing people really sick with COVID-19 during her emergency room shifts. 


“And of course the folks that come to the ER, they’re just the tip of the iceberg,” Ranney said. “None of the people who I admitted to the hospital or to the ICU had been vaccinated. I want to get back to normal just as much as anyone. And the data suggests that if two people are vaccinated, it is safe for them to be around each other. The chance of them getting sick, the chance of them giving the virus to each other is really low. But right now, when so few people in the U.S. have been vaccinated, putting large groups of people together in an indoor space is simply not safe.”

Last week, Massachusetts moved into the first step of the final phase of its reopening plan, which allows indoor and outdoor stadiums — such as TD Garden and Fenway Park in Boston — to reopen under a 12 percent capacity limit. Gov. Charlie Baker allowed the step to begin despite pushback from a coalition of community and health groups urging him to reconsider

“In short, many of us are concerned,” Dr. Abraar Karan, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, wrote of the trends being seen in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the nation. 


As has been seen at other points during the pandemic, once an increase is detected it is likely that there are many more cases that are occurring and going undetected, the doctor wrote. Increases in cases are followed after a short delay by a rise in hospitalizations, which is also beginning to emerge, he wrote. 

“While we are vaccinating fast, some states much faster/more efficiently than others, at this point — vaccinating alone without any other preventative measures will likely not prevent another surge in my opinion,” Karan wrote. “Weather getting better in many places – we should take advantage. Let this conversation not digress into lockdowns [versus] no lockdowns; there is a lot in between. Avoid large indoor crowded poorly ventilated spaces if you/your loved ones are not vaccinated, [especially] if you have high risk people in your circles who are not vaccinated yet.”

Like Jha, the Brigham and Women’s doctor said he is optimistic with the pace of vaccinations. But efforts to prevent the spread must remain top of mind, including wearing masks in public spaces and opting for a high-filtration mask if you can. 


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