The old standbys — masking and social distancing — have a partner in the fight to slow the latest COVID-19 surge in Pennsylvania. Vaccines are the fastest way to reach a level of immunity necessary to continue the march toward normalcy, Geisinger’s top epidemiologist said Thursday.
The U.S. has now fully vaccinated 20% of its adult population. This week New Mexico became the first state to get shots in the arms of 25% of its residents. It comes as cases continue to tick up across the nation and Pennsylvania. The rolling 7-day average for new cases in the U.S was nearly 66,000 on Thursday, up from 55,000 in mid-March. In Pennsylvania, the average has gone from 2,400 in March to more than 4,300 this week.
Dr. Stanley Martin, division chief of infectious diseases at Geisinger, said Thursday two things are driving the current surge, one old and one new. "The old issue, which we've known about since the beginning — masking and social distancing — work and we wax and wane. People get tired of doing that and we get lackadaisical. The reason the first and second surges came down was people were proactive. Clearly, those things have a huge impact on the spread of the virus. The new issue is the variants, especially B117 from the U.K., which is much more contagious."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that B117 is now the most common variant in the United States, raising concerns it will drive infections and cause more people to get sick.
In Massachusetts, where the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has risen to more than 2,100 new cases per day, the Massachusetts Public Health Association called on Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to reinstate public health measures. The group urged Baker to limit indoor dining capacity and other indoor activities, saying the rise in cases and hospitalizations followed Baker's decision to loosen those restrictions.
“We are currently in a race between the vaccines and the variants,” Carlene Pavlos, the group's executive director, said Thursday. “Without these public health measures, even more innocent lives will be needlessly lost.”
The variant is impacting younger people more, Martin said, a trend that can be partially attributed to the fact that older Americans have been targeted by early vaccine rollouts.
The key to stopping this latest surge is simple. "Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate," Martin said.
More than 170 million doses have been administered nationally, Martin said. Across its entire system, Geisinger has administered more than 240,000 doses since vaccinations began in December.
"Vaccines are the most powerful tool we have and the state is opening up eligibility," he said. "This is critical because we've seen some changes in the epidemiology, it seems to be a younger crowd getting infected."
Martin voiced frustration over the reluctance some have shown to get the vaccine, refusing to schedule a vaccine even if they are eligible. Pennsylvania opened up eligibility to Phase 1B on Monday and those in Phase 1C will become eligible on April 12. All Pennsylvanians over the age of 16 will be eligible on April 19.
"There is a problem if people aren't really interested in the truth and want to believe whatever fantasy they want to believe," he said. "That is the problem here. We have tons of data that show us the safety of the vaccine. We all want to get back to back to normal, we all want a COVID-free environment. The only way we get there is with enough immunity. The only way to get there is to vaccinate more people.
"So protect yourself. Protect your family. Protect your community."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.