You’ve noticed it at Stop & Shop, and the place you get coffee in the morning. And pretty soon you’ll notice it at the summer concerts at Custom House park or on the sidewalks of the downtown restaurants. New Bedforders are going without masks.
But even as people go out and get ready for a big summer of art and music, the city continues to lag far behind most of the state in the number of folks who are vaccinated (just short of 40 percent in the city vs. almost 70 percent statewide as of last Friday). Public health officials say that if you have not been vaccinated, you better keep that mask on, because the nation is about to be hit by the latest highly infectious variant of COVID-19.
The so-called delta variant has arrived, and it spreads even more easily than its older brother and sister viruses.
“Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect against contracting COVID, and getting seriously ill,” said Jonathan Carvalho, the city’s public information officer, in response to The Light’s questions about the risk the new variant poses to a city with a low vaccination rate.
The delta’s arrival comes at an odd time. The number of COVID cases in New Bedford during the last two weeks dropped to just two new cases a day and the rate of positive tests dropped to 0.9 percent, most of which the city believes are associated with travel; the city has not identified any local COVID clusters for several weeks.
But the emergence of the new dominant strain also comes just as the city is gearing up for a long-awaited season of festivals and outdoor activities.
In the wake of the decline of cases, Mayor Jon Mitchell last week announced the end of his Friday night updates on the state of the pandemic in the city.
“The cases numbers have fallen to a point where the city has shifted its focus away from managing the effect of the pandemic and toward promoting vaccinations,” he said in his weekly phone message.
Mitchell, however, cautioned that New Bedford needs to remain vigilant in the wake of the delta’s spread and said he will not hesitate to resume the COVID-19 calls or take other measures to keep the city safe if necessary.
“The bottom line is that the more people are vaccinated, the lower possibility we’ll experience a new surge and the restrictions that could come with it,” he said.
The Dunkin’ gift card vaccine incentive will remain in place, and the mayor urged employers to promote vaccinations to their employees.
According to the Associated Press, the delta variant is more contagious because of mutations that make it better at latching onto cells. In the United Kingdom, it now accounts for 90 percent of all new COVID-19 infections. In the U.S. it’s already at 20 percent of new infections and rising rapidly.
The delta variant has been found in more than 80 countries since it was first detected in India.
Dr. Jacob John, who studies viruses at the Christian Medical College at Vellore in southern India, told the AP that it’s not yet clear whether the variant makes people sicker, since more data needs to be collected.
But researchers in England studied how effective the two-dose AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines were against it, compared with the alpha variant that was first detected in the U.K. The vaccines were protective for those who got both doses but were less so among those who got one dose. That is why experts say it’s important to be fully vaccinated. And it’s why they say making vaccines accessible globally is so critical.
Damon Chapin, the executive director of the New Bedford health department, said that as the community opens up, the city is working with local nonprofit and business groups on adapting its vaccine clinics. Mobile clinics and small locations have replaced the mass vaccination sites.
Getting people vaccinated is the solution, he said, as the vaccines have been shown to be effective against all the variants.
The city has switched from big vaccination clinics to smaller ones in the neighborhoods that target specific populations. “Our young and Hispanic populations, they have been reluctant to get the vaccinations thus far, and so a lot of our effort is to increasing access to vaccines, increasing information about vaccines,” Chapin said.
“It’s a race against time,” he said.
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