Public health officials called the B117 COVID variant, known as the U.K. variant, a “game-changer” at a public forum Monday night.
Speaking at the forum, Chilmark health agent Marina Lent said COVID variants such as the B117 are significantly more contagious including for children. “It is definitely more dangerous, more lethal, causes more severe illness, including for young people,” Lent said.
The good news, Lent added, is that the B117 variant is still addressed by the COVID-19 vaccine.
The public forum was hosted by Communication Ambassador Partnership, an interagency group aimed at bridging communication for the Island’s Brazilian Portuguese population, and focused on the theme of vigilance by promoting various Island organizations and the way they can help those affected by the pandemic.
The forum, which was also held in Portuguese, featured speakers from the Martha’s Vineyard boards of health, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Island Grown Initiative of Martha’s Vineyard, the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP, Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools. MVY Radio, Dukes County, Island Health Care, Vineyard Health Care Access Program, and Martha’s Vineyard Councils on Aging were also involved in the event.
Lent stressed that because the variants are so contagious, it’s even more important to practice preventive measures such as social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing.
Tisbury health agent Maura Valley agreed, and said people need to “stay vigilant and stay clean,” especially as the recent surge in cases is among people under the age of 40. “What we’re seeing right now is quite concerning,” Valley said.
If exposed to COVID-19, it’s important to disclose information to contact tracers, Betsy VanLandingham, a contact tracer, said.
Contact tracing on Martha’s Vineyard is conducted by having testing sites notify the boards of health in each town of all the people who test positive. A health official will then notify someone if they have received a positive test, and ask them to quarantine. Contact tracers will then call to share available resources, and to answer questions. Contact tracers will also ask about any recent close contacts, such as family members and work colleagues.
VanLandingham also assured that personal information would remain confidential. “We do not disclose any of your information to anyone except the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. We don’t tell contacts who [is] the positive person they were near, or any identifying information like your date of birth, address, who you live with, where you work,” she said. “You have nothing to fear when you speak to a contact tracer.”
While the forum featured a Portuguese translation and representatives from the Brazilian Portuguese population, Dr. Lorna Chambers-Andrade of the Island’s NAACP chapter said the forum did not have representation for other Island groups such as Jamiacans, Haitians, Asians, veterans, and the disabled.
“We assist with telemedia communications and iPhone use, and laptops. We realize the demands in supplies are not equal here for the vaccine,” Chambers-Andrade said. “We advise Black and Brown Islanders to seek vaccines out in America — in Boston at the Boston Medical Center, Black churches in Roxbury, Reggie Lewis Auditorium in Roxbury, and CVS and Walgreens.”
Superintendent Matt D’Andrea briefed members of the public on the school situation, and thanked the community for its support of the schools. He admitted there have been times when classes and even entire grades have had to go to remote learning due to minor outbreaks.
Chilmark School has had the lowest number of quarantines, with only three since November, and Oak Bluffs School has had the highest, with 41 quarantined cases.
D’Andrea said he is very comfortable having kids in school despite the rise in cases and the presence of COVID variants.
Currently, the Island’s K-8 schools are doing full in-person learning and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School is using a hybrid remote and in-person schedule. D’Andrea said high school students will return to full in-person learning after school vacation, which is next week.
“We have had low numbers in our schools. When we have kids in our buildings, they are masked, they are socially distanced, teachers are very good about having students wash their hands,” he said. “I do not believe we are seeing spread in school … I feel very strongly that our kids are safer in school, in some cases safer in school than outside of school.”
The next public forum in this series will be on Wednesday, April 28, at 7 pm, and will focus on vaccine information. Sign up for the forum at bit.ly/ForumCOVID.