‘The Gamble': Boston Doctors Urge COVID Tests, Vaccines as Breakthrough Cases Rise

"What hasn't changed is that the vaccine is preventing severe disease and death," a Tufts Medical Center epidemiologist said

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Boston doctors are urging people to get tested and vaccinated after thousands of inoculated people contracted the coronavirus in Massachusetts.

As of July 17, a total of 5,166 breakthrough cases had been reported to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Of those, 272 people were hospitalized and survived. Of the 80 people who died, 23 died without being hospitalized; 57 died following a hospital stay.

The so-called breakthrough cases — where fully vaccinated individuals test positive for coronavirus — have so far been rare, but are possible. And should even be expected, per the CDC.

Since people have started rolling up their sleeves for COVID vaccines, Tufts Medical Center has only seen two patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in those who were fully vaccinated, epidemiologist Dr. Shira Doron said. Neither died.

"What hasn't changed is that the vaccine is preventing severe disease and death," Doron said.

The latest update from the state's Department of Public Health comes as coronavirus metrics continue to creep up in the Bay State while the more contagious Delta variant keeps spreading in the U.S.

In fact, at least 35 COVID-19 cases in Boston residents have been traced to an outbreak of more than 130 cases in Provincetown, Massachusetts health officials said Tuesday.

The Boston Public Health Commission wants anyone who visited Provincetown in July to get tested and self-isolate until receiving a negative test result.

While many of Provincetown's cluster cases were among vaccinated people, an infectious disease doctor at Boston Medical Center insists vaccine confidence shouldn't be shaken.

“These vaccines really work and when we’re able to identify people early we can sort of bring down the clusters and maybe make it into not a deadly illness but something more benign so that we can all get back to our lives,” Dr. Sabrina Assoumou said.

Assoumou said COVID testing is crucial right now.

“This is going to be really critical because we’re at a point where in Massachusetts where the cases are low enough that we can really use those public health measures of identifying cases,” Assoumou said.

The Boston Public Health Commission issued new guidance urging all residents who have traveled to Provincetown since July 1 and until further notice to get tested for COVID at least five days after their return, regardless of vaccination status or symptoms.

They are also being asked to self-isolate and avoid groups or gatherings for at least five days and until they receive a negative COVID test, again regardless of vaccination status.

However, the overwhelming majority of the reported breakthrough cases in Massachusetts -- more than 93% -- did not result in either hospitalization or death.

"I think we have to be cautious but we have to keep it in perspective," said Michael Curry, the president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.

While COVID cases are going the wrong way, most of those getting very sick are people who have not been vaccinated. Yet that doesn’t seem to be enough of a warning to the unvaccinated community.

Doron acknowledged that while people are getting nervous hearing about breakthrough cases, she really believes the focus right now needs to be on getting more people vaccinated here in Massachusetts and across the U.S.

That's what keeps us safe, she said. Doron also stressed that adverse events associated with the vaccines are extremely rare.

"You have a small but larger than the gamble you're taking with the vaccine the chance of ending up in the hospital, in an ICU on a ventilator or potentially dead," she said.

The time to prepare is now, Curry warned.

"We need businesses to urge people to get vaccinated. I think businesses have to make a judgement call and decide where necessary to have a mask on when people come in. I know we're not in a state of emergency where we once were, but we may need to get back to those strategies. Quite frankly, it saves lives."

For folks still on the fence about getting the vaccine, Curry suggested consult trusted sources and go to doctors with any questions.

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