BOSTON — Mayor Michelle Wu said the pandemic situation in Boston is ‘urgent’ heading into the winter. With cases rising, hospitalizations up and vaccination rates lagging, Wu announced the formation of a 17-member COVID Task Force, which will advise the city on steps it should take to help bring the pandemic to an end.
That may be easier said than done. Over the weekend, Massachusetts reported its first case of the Omicron variant, which, in early data, is looking to be significantly more transmissible than the highly contagious Delta variant.
While the city enjoys a nearly 70% vaccination rate, it is performing poorly when it comes to boosters.
“Only 21% of fully vaccinated Bostonians have received their booster,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission and leader of the task force. “More than half of individuals over age 65, our elderly population, have not gotten a booster.”
Two reasons why enthusiasm for booster shots may have waned: preliminary data indicating that the Omicron variant may show some resistance to current vaccines and scattered reports that infections with the variant have, so far, been mostly mild.
“I’m just not persuaded with, like, 10 days’ worth of data that we know for sure what Omicron has in store for us,” said Dr. Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and associate professor of Population Health and Disease Prevention at the University of California-Irvine.
But some are speculating that with high transmissibility and low virulence, the Omicron variant may be the world’s elusive ticket to herd immunity if enough people get infected. The presumption being most would survive the mild symptoms allowing natural immunity to reign.
But that fairytale ending to the COVID saga does not, at the moment, seem likely, Noymer said.
“Herd immunity does not mean this thing vanishes,” he said. “We’re still going to have COVID epidemics, most likely in the wintertime, for years to come.”
In fact, Noymer says COVID endemicity will look similar to how things are now: flare-ups in cold weather, easing up in warm. And these cycles could go on for another decade.
Plus, there are two problems with allowing infections to flourish, even predominantly mild ones. First, even a mild variant is likely to have its dark side.
“There’s no free lunch,” Noymer said. “With many cases will come some number of deaths.”
Second, the more infections that develop, the more chances the virus can reinvent itself to create new variants. And there’s no guarantee those won’t be more virulent.
“We see some viruses like measles where it doesn’t have a tendency to mutate,” Noymer said. “And we had a vaccine that was licensed in 1963 and it essentially eliminated measles from the United States. And we see viruses like SARS CoV2, in which they have a strong tendency to generate these new variants. Which is going to keep us on our toes, unfortunately, for years to come.”
Vaccination remains the best option for now, Noymer said. Especially in Massachusetts, where the main problem will continue to be the Delta variant for some weeks to come.
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