Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

Amidst a surge of COVID-19 cases in Connecticut, concerns about the state’s pandemic outlook have intensified.

Despite high vaccination rates, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Connecticut have been on the rise since mid March. Gov. Ned Lamont has continued to stress the importance of a fast vaccine rollout, with no plans to reinstate restrictions on businesses and gatherings that were eased on March 19. Meanwhile, public health experts warn that this is a make-or-break moment for the state.

“You can see that the case rates are going down a lot in these older populations that have got access to the vaccine, and that kind of goes with what we think should be happening,” said Luke Davis, professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. “But, at the same time, we see caseloads now that aren’t dissimilar, and even our hospitalizations in the last few weeks have been not dissimilar to November, and so what that must mean is that the rates are much, much higher in the younger populations than they were a few weeks ago … and that’s worrisome.”

As of Tuesday, 45 percent of Connecticut residents had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 28.6 percent were fully vaccinated, the fifth and sixth highest figures, respectively, among U.S. states and territories and U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands, according to The Washington Post. At a press briefing on Monday, Lamont cited data that 83 percent of state residents ages 65 and older had received their first dose, along with 71 percent of those ages 55 to 64, 54 percent of people between ages 45 and 54 and 30 percent of residents ages 16 to 44.

COVID-19 cases in Connecticut dropped to a seven-day average low of 681 on March 8, but have since rebounded, reaching a seven-day average high of 1,356 on March 30, according to the New York Times. As of Monday, the seven-day average case count was at 1,131, which works out to 32 cases per 100,000 residents each day. According to the Times, this last figure ranks eighth highest among U.S. states. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Connecticut had reached a seven-day average of 599 on Monday, up from a low of 446 on March 17, according to the Times.

Part of what accounts for this surge in cases is the progress of COVID-19 variants such as the U.K., or B.1.1.7, variant and the New York, or B.1.526, variant. These variants all together are now responsible for most of the new coronavirus cases in the state, according to Albert Ko, department chair and professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health. But Ko is also concerned that new variants could emerge and undermine the rapid deployment of immunizations.

“The only way that you can get variants, and you can get variants that potentially escape either the immune response mediated by natural infection or vaccination, is by creating mutations, and the only way you create mutations is you have a lot of replicating virus, and that happens when you have a lot of transmission,” Ko said. “So, we need to protect the vaccines that we have now.”

To do so, Lamont has shifted his focus to vaccinating young people, who have the lowest rates of vaccination in the state. At his Monday press conference, he said that getting young people vaccinated quickly would protect Connecticut from another wave of COVID-19.

What Lamont does not plan to do, it seems, is reinstate restrictions on businesses and gatherings that were recently eased — a move that Davis described as a “political nonstarter.” Most businesses in the state are now open, with social distancing required “where possible” and masks required “in all public settings where social distancing is not possible,” according to Connecticut’s coronavirus webpage. Some businesses are bound by sector-specific guidelines; restaurants, for instance, need to have six feet of spacing or barriers between tables.

“Indoor dining, bars, unfortunately those kinds of places, you know, it is indeed concerning,” said Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and Associate Dean of the Yale School of Medicine Saad Omer. “Because even if you have a mask mandate at these places, you can’t eat with your mask on. It breaks my heart to say that.”

Still, higher case rates do not mean the vaccines are not working. Omer explained that the state’s priority has been to vaccinate the most vulnerable, rather than focusing on those most likely to spread the virus. He also said that current vaccine coverage is too low to influence rates of transmission, and that even as vaccination rates go up, it takes time for vaccines to become effective, delaying even their initial impacts on cases and hospitalizations.

Connecticut government officials and epidemiologists have expressed some optimism about the current outlook for the state. Lamont said at his Monday press conference that he thought case numbers and hospitalizations had stabilized and the state was making progress. Ko also pointed to the low death rate over the last several weeks, crediting high rates of vaccination among older adults. Speaking about vaccines, Davis said that he thought the state was on a “good trajectory.”

That trajectory is likely to change this month, though, as vaccine supply may begin to outstrip demand in Connecticut, Omer said on Monday, citing vaccine hesitancy as a major concern. Davis also raised concerns that some communities might be more skeptical than others about vaccinations.

“The reason, I think, that I’m worried is that, okay, we can get to 60 percent or 70 percent or 80 percent, but it’s going to be very heterogeneous,” Davis said. “There’s going to be herd immunity in some communities … but there are going to be some communities where that’s not the case … and we’re going to continue to see disease in those communities, and those people are going to have the same type of outcomes. I mean, the virus is not getting any nicer, it’s getting more aggressive, actually.”

On Tuesday, the Connecticut Department of Public Health recommended that providers pause administration of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, following six cases of rare blood clotting in vaccine recipients in the United States. Lamont said in a Tuesday press conference that he was hopeful that the vaccine rollout in the state would not “miss a beat.”

Extra Pfizer and Moderna doses are slated to arrive in Connecticut next week, according to Lamont.

Sam Panner | sam.panner@yale.edu