New COVID-19 variant in Mass. spikes after Cape Cod outbreaks

Of the 58 known positive cases of the P.1 variant in Mass., 50 have been identified in Barnstable County, according to the CDC.

A visitor to Town Cove in Orleans, Mass. on Cape Cod watches the sun set Friday, July 24, 2020.
A visitor to Town Cove in Orleans, Mass. on Cape Cod watches the sun set Friday, July 24, 2020. –(Mark Stockwell/The Sun Chronicle via AP)

Massachusetts has reported more cases of the new P.1 COVID-19 variant — which has been associated with increased transmissibility and possible re-infection — than anywhere else in the U.S., and local researchers said the spike is concerning.  

The bulk of those cases, they added, are linked to a cluster on Cape Cod

Of the 58 known positive cases of the P.1 variant in Mass., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50 have been identified in Barnstable County. 

Data from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard revealed that in less than a month since the state reported its first known case of the P.1 variant, which was first detected in travelers from Brazil, it has spread faster than any other COVID-19 variants in the Commonwealth. 

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The CDC also reports that Mass. now shows 712 cases of the highly-contagious B.1.1.7. variant first detected in the United Kingdom, which officials noted as becoming the dominant strain in much of the nation. 

Cape Cod officials last week said they’re facing a third surge and that the community needs emergency vaccination sites after 20 of the first P.1 cases popped up. Almost half of Barnstable County’s 15 towns are additionally now considered by the state as high risk for the virus.

The Broad Institute’s research suggests that 43 of the cases from the cluster on the Cape are linked to an introduction from Brazil, and that P.1 may have been introduced to Connecticut by way of Massachusetts, though researchers have yet to identify an epidemiological link.

William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health told The Boston Globe Saturday that many of the variant cases on the Cape were discovered when still only a few people had been vaccinated. 

The most recent weekly coronavirus report for Mass. showed that more Barnstable County residents have received their first shots than any other region in the state, but Hanage said it’s still far from enough.

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“To completely exclude this virus, we need to vaccinate a lot more people than we have already,” he told the Globe. “The high vaccination rates [right now] are not themselves sufficient to be protective, and if we allow more transmission, then we’re going to get more cases.”

While cases haven’t continued to rise throughout the state, researchers said it’s likely the variant “is already or will soon be circulating in communities and ongoing surveillance will be critical to understanding the trajectory and impact” of it. 

The CDC has found that P.1 tends to spread faster and more easily than the original COVID-19 strain, although scientists have yet to learn if it is more deadly or how likely it is to reinfect those who have already had the coronavirus and recovered.

Brazil on Saturday recorded nearly 2,000 deaths related to the P.1 variant, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The country also reported its highest single-day death toll so far on Wednesday, with 3,869 people dying from the virus. Officials have warned that the surge in Brazil could have implications globally, and many South American nations are already seeing their own case counts swell. 

P.1 was first detected in the U.S. in January 2021, and scientists are not yet sure how widely the variant has spread, or how it is affected by the existing vaccines. However, a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine appears to remain highly effective. 


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