BAR HARBOR — If you’re wondering why COVID-19 infections are so much higher than they were at the same time last summer, you need look no further than the social control measures that were in place at that time: mask wearing, physical distancing and reduced capacity both indoors and out.
Those measures, explained Dr. Julius Krevans of Mount Desert Island Hospital, in a recent interview with the Islander, are the interventions that have been proven to work and the ones that will make the most difference going forward – especially if people are unwilling to curtail activity.
More than a year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic, there is again a surge of infection that is crippling healthcare resources nationwide. The seven-day positivity rate statewide associated with testing data has risen fourfold in the last two weeks, which mirrors what is happening locally.
In July, Mount Desert Island Hospital saw only two positive tests during the entire month. In the first half of August, there have already been five positive tests.
Hospitalizations, another key indicator of widespread transmission, are also on the rise.
New England states are still faring better than many other parts of the country, said Krevans, especially regions in the South and in Florida, where infection rates are 10 times higher.
In states like Maine where healthcare needs typically expand alongside a swelling seasonal population, MDI has an “interesting and special problem,” said Krevans, which comes from also being a tourist destination. He noted that the area, currently seeing visitors from all over the country, has the potential to attract people carrying – and spreading – the virus.
The steep rise in cases is also attributed to the circulation of a new virus variant, the delta variant, which has proven to be far more transmissible and able to infect those who have been inoculated against the disease. Currently, the majority of cases circulating in the state are attributable to the delta variant.
Viruses mutate, explained Krevans, and successful viruses are those that can easily replicate without getting their host so sick they die. The evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, has evolved just enough to change its associated spike protein ever so slightly. That spike protein is what the vaccines were created to fight against. This change is what is allowing those who are vaccinated to still get sick, although to a lesser degree than those who are not vaccinated. This variant has also morphed in a way that makes it more contagious to children, especially ages 9 and under, explained Krevans.
Vaccinations remain the best way out of the pandemic, said Krevans, but to extinguish the virus locally in the short term, getting back to those social control measures will be essential.
“We know what works,” he said, adding that in order to keep businesses and schools open, the community needs to be healthy. The best way to do that, he said, is for people to get vaccinated and to adopt layers of protection such as masks and distancing.