PROVIDENCE – The emergence of the B117 variant combined with the fact that a majority of Americans 65 and older have been vaccinated has resulted in larger numbers of young people, including children and adolescents, becoming infected with coronavirus disease.
That is the conclusion reached by Brown University School of Public Health dean Dr. Ashish Jha, the pandemic expert who elaborated on the topic during Tuesday's taping of the national “COVID: What Comes Next” podcast, available exclusively from The Providence Journal and the USA TODAY NETWORK.
“These more infectious variants, especially B117,” often called the British or UK variant, “are now widespread,” Jha said. “In many states, it is causing a surge in infections. In other states, it may not be surging but it's still at a high level. And this is in the context of the fact that a vast majority of people over 65 have gotten at least one shot and they're largely protected.
“And so what you're seeing is a shift in the demographics where, under this more contagious variant, it's young people who are getting primarily affected and in relatively large numbers,” Jha said.
Asked if a higher percentage of young people who are infected have a more severe course than they would have before the B117 variant became dominant, the scientist said: “Maybe. There is some evidence that B117 is more deadly as well and can get people sicker than the original version of this virus. But I think largely we're really seeing the effect on young people because of the dramatic effect of older people being protected and not being part of the pool.”
Jha said the reopening of schools to in-person learning can be a factor in higher infection rates of young people – depending on the system and school and the state of buildings, the protective resources available, and other factors.
“Some schools do better than others, and if you don't do a good job of mask-wearing and ventilation, you can see outbreaks,” Jha said.
Athletic events are also implicated in contagion in some instances, the Brown dean said.
“Let's say you’re playing soccer, playing football, or playing field hockey. Those aren't going to get you in trouble being outside. But what happens is then kids will go into a locker room afterwards -- or before -- and those basic things that we’ve got to make sure people do are not happening in many places,” things like distancing and wearing masks, Jha said.
“What I'm saying is if you want to have sports, you absolutely can,” he continued. “But keep it outside. Don't have locker rooms -- have people dress up before, and after, go home on their own. And really try to avoid the large social gatherings because that is starting to spread a lot of disease.”
Safe participation in indoor sports such as hockey, volleyball and basketball, Jha said, require even greater precautions.
During the taping, Jha also said that given the high numbers of people already vaccinated, he is optimistic that a fourth, post-Easter, surge some are predicting will not be as severe as the three that have already occurred.
He also discussed the possible need for booster shots and preparations researchers and manufacturers are already taking.
And he addressed the effect on the pandemic of the substantial number of people who do not intended to be vaccinated, some for religious reasons.
Jha answered two audience questions, which are put to the podcast by emailing email@example.com:
◘ A woman who identified herself as “Grandma” wrote that “my daughter is refusing to get the vaccine as she insists her doctor has indicated that it might cause sterility. Is there any data to support that?”
The short answer?
“There is no data to support that,” Jha said.
◘ The second question was from retired industrial hygienist Becky Randolph, who wanted to learn more about the extent and value of contact tracing. Jha discussed that, saying, among other things, that it “did generate quite a bit of good data.”
This weekly podcast is hosted by G. Wayne Miller, health reporter for The Providence Journal.