State and local officials are scrambling to deal with outbreaks of COVID-19 cases on Cape Cod, as the sudden clusters in and out of senior-living facilities raise the specter of the dark days of the early pandemic and even the possibility of a new variant.
The state Department of Public Health announced Wednesday that the Maplewood at Mayflower Place in Yarmouth first had a positive test July 10 — and that number has now mushroomed to 24 residents and nine staff.
State officials say the majority of residents at the senior-living spot are vaccinated and are either asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms. All are being offered monoclonal antibody therapeutics.
DPH says testing remains ongoing, and state health officials continue to monitor it and assist. The facility didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
This comes as cases mushroom down the Cape in Provincetown, where as of last week 132 people, including many vaccinated, have come down with COVID.
On Tuesday, Boston took the extraordinary move of telling anyone who had been to Provincetown to quarantine and get tested. The Boston Public Health Commission said 35 Bostonians — of whom the “overwhelming majority” were fully vaccinated — came down with COVID-19 after visiting the town at the tip of Cape Cod.
State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, said the Cape has been seeing “an uptick in cases since the July Fourth holiday,” though the cases largely have only been “mild to moderate.”
“That to me indicates that vaccines are working as predicted,” Cyr said. “Vaccination remains our strongest defense in preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death. Right now I’m worried about the relatively few unvaccinated people in our community, and I’m worried about any unvaccinated visitors.”
The more-contagious delta variant, which now accounts for more than 80% of cases in the U.S., has shown more ability to break through the protection given by vaccines, though such cases are rarely severe.
That well could be the cause of these new Cape-town booms, said Dr. Todd Ellerin, head of infectious diseases at South Shore Health — but he also floated the idea that there could be a new variant. After all, sudden, unexplained clusters and outbreaks of “breakthrough” cases of vaccinated people are the key indicators of such a thing, he said.
“I don’t want to invoke another variant, but we have to be prepared for that,” he told the Herald.
Last year, Bay Staters watched in horror as the coronavirus swept through senior-living and long-term-care facilities here, at one time accounting for more than 60% of the deaths in the Bay State. It’s unclear today what share of the death toll and caseload congregate-care facilities share, as the state stopped publishing cumulative data months ago.
Cases have nosedived since vaccines became available, and only six of the state’s 300-plus nursing homes reported any cases, per DPH. As of last month, 88% of nursing home residents and 73% of staff are fully vaccinated.
Tara Gregorio of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association said in a statement that “We do anticipate that so-called vaccine breakthrough cases will occur and are grateful that today we have the infection prevention protocols and resources to detect and safely treat any infections.”
“Massachusetts nursing facilities continue to implement all necessary infection control protocols in order to protect nursing facility residents,” she added.
John Connor, who studies infectious diseases at Boston University, said his worries are somewhat tempered by the large body of evidence that the vaccines dramatically reduce the number of serious cases, even though the delta variant has proved more contagious.
“It appears to show more rapid replication and to be transmitted really well,” Connor said. “Caution is to be advised. I’m not suggesting panic — but caution.”