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Yale epidemiologist: We're in a 'race against time' with coronavirus variants

Joining Gov. Ned Lamont's COVID-19 briefing Thursday — the day before both increased vaccine eligibility and the lifting of venue capacity restrictions — Dr. Albert Ko voiced concern over various coronavirus variants and said it's a "race against time, in getting vaccinations wrapped up."

"Getting the vaccine out to those people who are most at-risk of death — the elderly, those with underlying conditions — is going to be key in the race against time against these variants," said Ko, professor of epidemiology and medicine and department chair at the Yale School of Public Health.

Ko said we know the U.K., South African and Brazilian variants have been detected in Connecticut, and they're more transmissible. But he said there's good evidence the vaccines being used in the U.S. will be effective against the U.K. variant.

He also noted that the Johnson & Johnson and Novavax trials have shown the vaccines may not prevent infection with the South African variant but they do prevent hospitalizations and deaths.

Compared to places in Europe that are shutting down again in part due to slower vaccination rates, Ko said the good news for Connecticut is that because of high vaccination rates among people over 65, "we're going to have protections against hospitalizations and deaths."

Ko, who co-chaired the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group last spring, also weighed in on the loosening of restrictions starting Friday. He said he "wouldn't call it a gamble" and said there's "close surveillance and monitoring of this, so that's going to mitigate any risks."

Beginning Friday, capacity restrictions are lifted for restaurants, retail businesses, gyms, libraries, hair and nail salons, and houses of worship, though masks and social distancing still will be required. Capacity will remain at 50% for movie theaters and performing arts venues.

Commercial venues can have 100 people indoors and 200 outdoors, and the travel advisory is changing from a mandate to guidance.

Lamont said he hopes he won't have to later add restaurant restrictions again, and he likes to think we've turned the corner.

"If this variant ends up catching on fire or people come back from Miami and they bring an infectious strain with them, we'll do what it takes in putting public health first, but I don't think that's going to happen," he said.

Latest vaccine numbers

From Wednesday to Thursday, another 1,156 people tested positive for COVID-19, a 2.76% test positivity rate, according to the latest data from the governor's office. Lamont noted Connecticut has been between 2.2% and 2.9% for more than a month, "and that stability gives us some confidence."

Current hospitalizations decreased by 18, to 384, and 15 more people died from COVID-19, bringing total coronavirus-related deaths throughout the pandemic to 7,822. On Thursday, Lawrence + Memorial hospital had 12 COVID-related hospitalizations and Westerly Hospital had two.

To date, 33% of those over age 16 in Connecticut have received the first dose of the vaccine, including 78% of those over age 75, 74% aged 65 to 74, and 46% aged 55 to 64.

"I would not have expected that 80% of the population over 75 would be vaccinated at this time, and it seems like we're on track with all the other age groups that are following to reach that goal," Ko said. "Eighty percent is important because that's when we're going to start seeing population-level benefits."

Friday marks the first date for which people ages 45 to 54 can schedule vaccine appointments. Chief Operating Josh Geballe said there are 477,000 people in this group but 90,000 already have been vaccinated; those are people who were eligible in another category, such as being a health care worker or teacher.

"We're going to have plenty of vaccines for everybody, starting in less than a month," Lamont said. He later added, "It looks like we're going to get a lot more vaccine by early April, a lot more (Johnson & Johnson) in particular."

The state's current plan is for anyone over age 16 who lives or works in Connecticut to be eligible for the vaccine April 5.


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