During a COVID-19 update given to the Barnstable County Board of Regional Commissioners this week, chairman Ronald J. Bergstrom asked the question that has been on the minds of many: At what point can we get back to normal?
The response from health officials was a candid one—they do not know.
The deputy director of the Barnstable County Department of Human Services, Vaira Harik, explained that pandemics have a long life. Take, for example, the 1918 Influenza pandemic, which is often called the “Spanish Flu,” and the H1N1 pandemic of 2009.
“The effects were felt dramatically for at least a couple of years, but ultimately it mutated itself and burned itself out,” she said of the 1918 pandemic.
The H1N1 strain of influenza was less virulent than the one that caused the 1918 pandemic, but Ms. Harik noted that it also eventually mutated and burned itself out. She said features of that strain are now just part of the regular seasonal influenza.
“So the history of this thing is they work themselves through and burn out,” she said. “But when you have a doozy like this one, it takes a while.”
Sean O’Brien, director of the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment, noted that a vaccine is not a cure. However, the COVID-19 vaccines have been effective at preventing serious illness, similar to how the seasonal influenza vaccine works.
He was very encouraged by the vaccine rates in the county, with 86 percent of residents over the age of 12 having received at least one dose. He also noted that getting vaccines approved for the under-12 age group is going to be vital.
“We’re looking to really protect that younger population,” he said. “I think that’s why it’s so important for the commonwealth to come in and be so strict with the schools and make sure masking is continuing on.”
He said he can see masks being a part of schooling for some time to come.
When it comes to vaccinations, particularly for children, commission vice chairwoman Sheila R. Lyons expressed concern that parents seem to be less inclined to trust vaccines overall, let alone the COVID-19 vaccine.
She said she was relieved to read that Senator Julian A. Cyr (D-Truro) and Representative Sarah K. Peake (D-Provincetown) are putting forward legislation that would work to counter the low vaccination rates among children.
“I mean, the reason we don’t have smallpox and the reason we don’t have the mumps and the chicken pox going through classrooms—the way we did in the past—is that people got their children vaccinated,” she said.
Since young children cannot currently get the COVID-19 vaccine, she said everyone around children should be taking every possible precaution to protect them from the virus.
Schools are required to have staff and student in face coverings per the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Those who have medical and behavioral exemptions are still required to wear clear face shields.
The mandate is in place through October 1, with schools being able to lift the mandate once vaccination rates in the buildings among staff and students reach 80 percent.
Mr. Bergstrom added to Ms. Lyons’s point, saying that some adults are hesitant to get vaccinated against COVID-19 for their own reasons. He said this would probably translate into a lot of children not getting vaccinated, since parental consent is needed for a child to get the vaccine.
He said he has heard sentiments from vaccinated people stating frustration that they had done their part and that those who have decided not to are welcome to put themselves at risk.
“I’m not an advocate of that, but as time goes on and we’re into 16 months, 18 months, two years, there is going to be more and more resistance to restrictions placed on us,” he said. “We have to face that reality.”
He also wondered if studies have been done to see what kind of immunity people who have had the virus have compared to people who have been vaccinated.
Ms. Harik said those studies are being done now. She said initial findings are that for those who have already had the virus, the first vaccine acted as something of a second dose.
“They have shown differing levels of immunity from subsequent infection than people who have just been vaccinated without having been exposed to COVID,” she said.
She said she did not want to quantify the research, which is ongoing and has yet to be peer-reviewed.
Mr. O’Brien said vaccine clinics continue to be held across the Cape, and vaccines are widely available to anyone who wants them at this time.
Barnstable County is averaging 40 to 50 new cases of the virus per day, but the three-day average when it comes to hospitalizations due to the virus is relatively low. Between the two hospitals in the region, an average of 10 people have been in the hospital to be treated for COVID-19, none of whom have been in intensive care.