Flattening the curve or bracing for the surge?
Depends who you ask
The question about the direction of the pandemic in Connecticut in the next few weeks appears to have taken two tracks: Gov. Ned Lamont has voiced optimism that the curve has flattened, while a top health expert, Scott Gottlieb, said the worst of the delta variant’s effect is yet to come.
New COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have stalled in recent weeks after a sizable jump from pandemic lows seen in June. Driving that surge was the increased prevalence of the delta variant, a highly contagious strain of the virus now seen in nearly all cases.
After Connecticut reached its lowest COVID positivity rate in a month over the Labor Day weekend, the rate bounced back up again on Wednesday. The state reported a daily positivity rate of 3.51 percent on Wednesday as hospitalizations increased by one patient for a total of 363 statewide — 74 percent were not vaccinated, the governor’s office said.
Lamont has expressed optimism about the trajectory of the pandemic in recent weeks — the positivity rate had stopped increasing and hospitalizations were within a similar range.
“I see the incredibly high infections and hospitalizations in those southern states and I’m pleased that Connecticut, because we’re 84 percent vaccinated, is relatively flat,” Lamont said in late August. “Doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, but we are what they used to say — remember in the early days of COVID — flattening the curve.”
But Gottlieb, who appeared a number of times alongside Lamont when twice-weekly press conferences were held about the pandemic, told CNBC this weekend that he thought the initial spike was more a “warning” than an actual wave in the Northeast, and the situation was going to get worse.
“I think our true delta wave is going to build after Labor Day in the Northeast . .... This is going to be a highly regionalized pandemic,” Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said in the interview.
For health experts, the next few weeks remain an uncertainty as students return to local classrooms and college campuses against a backdrop of one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, but a persistent threat from the delta variant.
Dr. Ulysses Wu, Hartford HealthCare’s top epidemiologist, said Wednesday he does not expect a spike in cases until October, but said the numbers could oscillate up and down the next few weeks.
Similarly, Dr. Asah Shah, head of infectious disease for Stamford Health, said some projections show a bit of a plateau with the number of cases going up and down slightly in the coming weeks, and “that’s the hope.”
Wu said there are conflicting factors with the pandemic, some that work for and against an uptick in cases.
“It really all depends. There are the factors that are going to drive the numbers up, kids being back in school, their masking compliance, the prevalence of delta and waning immunity from vaccines,” Wu said.
However, he said more people seem to be wearing masks and there’s been an uptake in vaccinations since the recent spike in cases.
Recent state figures show the number of vaccines administered per week has gone up through August from around 42,000 to just over 50,000 doses.
“I do think that the vaccine uptake is a good thing. And we know that the vaccines are effective for severe disease from delta,” Shah said.
But respiratory diseases have some seasonality.
“The wild card, there are a few, No. 1, we are heading into our standard flu and respiratory disease season,” Shah said.
What may be alleviating the problem now is temperatures are mild and people have their windows open, Wu said. But temperatures will drop in the coming weeks, forcing people indoors with their windows shut.
“I do agree that Gottlieb, I think that numbers are going to go up, but I don’t think they are going to go up now,” Wu said.
The start of the school year has also been cause for concern. While many students are vaccinated, those under 12 years old are still not eligible.
As students have returned to the classrooms, the state has resumed its weekly school report. According to the latest data released last Thursday, 247 students and 58 school staff had tested positive statewide. According to the report, dozens of schools had reported fewer than six cases.
Pedro Mendes, of UConn's Center for Quantitative Medicine, said his latest model shows cases slowing down, but the projections do not factor the impact of students returning to school.
“It was easier last year when we still had a lot of restrictions; this year there are no travel restrictions and masking is patchy. As a consequence, it has been hard to calibrate the model for the level of person-person contact we have now, versus what we had in July/ August,” Mendes said.
He went on to say: “So, while I may believe that there may be coming another wave, my model can't really predict it at this point yet.”
But health officials say state and local leaders now have nearly 18 months of experience.
“The one thing that makes me feel comfortable, we’ve done this before. If we see a surge in cases, we know what to do,” Shah said.