Cases increase, new variant emerges as Covid vaccine rollout moves ahead in NH

State health officials urge people to follow health precautions even after they’re vaccinated

Even as New Hampshire’s Covid-19 vaccination program shifts into high gear, a highly contagious variant of the virus is spreading, overall case numbers are increasing and a significant segment of the population doesn’t want to be inoculated.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 72 people in New Hampshire and more than 11,000 across the country have contracted the so-called U.K. variant, which was first documented in the state in February. Two members of the University of New Hampshire Durham community are among those who have contracted it.

A study by the British Medical Journal found that this variant, also known as B.1.1.7, had a higher mortality rate than previous versions of the virus — an increase in deaths from 2.5 to 4.1 per 1,000 cases. British studies have shown the U.K. variant to be 50% more infectious and transmissible. Because of that, the U.K. variant could soon be the norm in New Hampshire and throughout the U.S.

“As we do more testing, we’ll find more variants, and the proportion of tests positive for variants of concern is likely to increase further because these variants of concern are more infectious and easily spread,” said Jake Leon, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services. “The CDC has predicted that the B.1.1.7 variant may soon become the dominant strain.”

Looking for ‘balance’

Meanwhile, New Hampshire health officials are reporting a surge in new Covid-19 cases, with an average of 346 reported per day from March 22-28, a 21% increase compared to the previous week.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan said the exact reason for the increase isn’t known, but there have been a growing number of infections among college students and teenagers who, up until this week, haven’t been eligible to sign up for vaccinations.

Starting April 2, permanent residents 16 and older can register for the shots, but those who attend school here but are not permanent residents will not be eligible. They would have to go back to their home state to get vaccinated.

Some other states have eased some face mask mandates and other precautions, and there is a concern that this could cause some in New Hampshire to become too lax just at the moment when health officials are trying to finally turn the corner on the year-long pandemic.

Chan stressed that people should get a vaccination as soon as they can, and should continue to wear face masks and practice social distancing.

“One of my concerns is that people have heard about some of the relaxation and restrictions,” Chan said. “And my concern is that some people have taken that to mean that there’s no need for any precaution, or caution, or any restrictions. And that’s far from the truth, which is why we continue to stress the importance that, even as we’re trying to find this balance between control of the pandemic and trying to lessen restrictions, we still need people to sort of heed the public health advice here.”

Those who don’t follow the advice do so at the chance of endangering themselves and others. The disease has claimed 1,237 lives in the state and the vaccine has been shown as effective against the original virus and its U.K. variant. Still, some people aren’t convinced about getting their shot.

“Data on vaccine hesitancy in New Hampshire is limited, but national studies/surveys have suggested that at least 20-30% of people have some hesitancy or concerns about the Covid-19 vaccine,” Leon said.

Continued vaccination push

About one-quarter of New Hampshire’s population has received at least the first dose of a vaccine, according to DHHS.

“It is important for people to understand that these vaccines are safe and have gone through the same rigorous scientific studies as other vaccines, and the vaccines have undergone scientific review by the FDA and CDC science and medical expert advisory committees,” Leon said. “All currently authorized Covid-19 vaccines are not only safe but also highly effective, especially at prevention of severe disease, hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19.”

Gov. Chris Sununu said in a March 25 news conference that the mask mandate and other restrictions under New Hampshire’s state of emergency would be renewed for an additional 21 days. He noted that hundreds of new cases continue to be reported.

“Look, we just crossed 400 cases today,” he said. “We still have individuals that are 65 and up that still haven’t received their second shot. So we just take that into consideration.”

The CDC recommends that people should continue to wear face masks in public even after they have been fully vaccinated. The vaccinations prevent people from becoming sick with Covid-19, but scientists are still researching how effective they are in preventing people from spreading the disease.

Vaccinations are recommended for those who have contracted and recovered from Covid-19 because it’s not clear how long immunity from the virus lasts and it’s possible, although rare, that a person could be infected again.

The CDC’s Feb. 26 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report backs up the statement that the vaccines are safe.

“Mass vaccination with highly effective vaccines is critical to controlling the Covid-19 pandemic,” the report states.

“Because of the speed of Covid-19 vaccine development and deployment, there have been concerns among the public about the safety of these new vaccines. In response to these concerns, the U.S. government has implemented the most comprehensive vaccine safety monitoring program in its history.

While there have been some cases of anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction) after getting the Covid vaccine, the rates are similar to those reported with other vaccines, the report states. “No unexpected patterns of reactions or other safety concerns have been identified during early monitoring. CDC and FDA will continue to monitor the safety of Covid-19 vaccines to inform vaccination policy and to maintain public confidence.”

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