Could polar vortex fan the pandemic?

Experts say ingredients are there but so is vaccine

MEDFIELD, Mass. — Six weeks from spring, winter tightened its grip on Massachusetts. On Tuesday, another small snowstorm added inches to the previous totals and added a new layer of complexity to the pandemic.

“In colder weather, most viruses die out, and so the incidence of infection naturally comes down,” said Dr. George Abraham, the chief of medicine at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester.

“But because this is person-to-person transmission through the air, it’s conceivable that just staying in close contact with another person, not being able to distance, not being able to be outdoors as much as one would like, could lead to a potential increase in infections.”

That increase would be tempered, Dr. Abraham hopes, by the dramatic slide in new cases since early January, when more than 8% of COVID-19 tests came back positive. By Monday, the state Department of Public Health reported a seven-day average positivity rate of 2.96%, about on par with rates seen in early November and mid-June.

>>>MORE: Live updates: Snow continues falling, roads slick across the area

“The real challenge is that people are not, perhaps, listening to the public health precautions or adhering to them in the same way that they would have months ago,” said Dr. Karl Minges, chair of the Health Administration and Policy Department at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.

“Being indoors really increases the spread of COVID because, of course, it is an airborne virus that is transmitted through aerosols. Without having proper ventilation, face coverings and social distancing, the risk of infection is quite high.”

But some of the sting has clearly come out of the infection threat. Since December, about a million Massachusetts residents have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. And Dr. Abraham said the results of those immunizations are beginning to show at St. Vincent.

“We have had most of our employees immunized and our numbers have dramatically dropped,” he said. “In the month of February, to date, we have seen no employees with COVID, while the previous month, [at] both UMass [Memorial Medical Center] and here, we saw a tremendous increase.”

So far, though, the public vaccine campaign has primarily targeted those with little or no contact with larger communities; nursing home patients have been vaccinated and efforts are now underway to immunize those 75 and older.

But since the pandemic began, testing in Massachusetts has found more infections in younger age groups than older. One group acutely aware of that and the relationship between good ventilation and low infection rates: teachers.

“Cold weather brings us right back to the urgency of upgrading ventilation systems,” said Merrie Najimy, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “That’s what controls infection in the buildings.”

Najimy said, under union pressure, the state has upgraded many ventilation systems in many schools, but some still rely on airing out rooms the old-fashioned way, by opening windows.

>>>MORE: State progressing through 430,000 in 75+ vaccination group

“It was an absurd solution from the beginning,” she said. “It may be workable when it’s fall and spring weather, but when it’s zero degrees or 19 degrees, it’s absurd. The state, instead of telling us to open windows, should have prioritized from the beginning to fix the ventilation systems so they can control infection.”

Najimy said schools lacking ventilation upgrades are mainly located in communities that don’t have the money to fund such repairs.

“From the beginning local governments have been asked to foot the bill, and that’s just simply wrong,” she said. “The state has to take responsibility for a systemic plan to upgrade ventilation and pay for it.”

Still, Dr. Minges said schools – especially elementary schools – have, by and large, not seen huge spikes in COVID-19 cases.

“What they’re finding out in schools is that the transmissions [are] really occurring from the community setting and then bringing that into the schools,” he said.

Which means, especially during high-risk periods of the pandemic, such as when the weather suddenly turns colder, community compliance is key to keeping everyone safe.

“We’re so close to the finish line in some ways, in comparison to where we’ve been at least,” Dr. Minges said.

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