Delta Variant Confirmed on Nantucket

Two cases of the highly contagious Delta variant have been confirmed on Nantucket, a pair of island health officials told the Current late Thursday.

Confirmation of the Delta variant’s presence on Nantucket comes as the latest surge of new COVID-19 cases on the island continued to escalate. The town announced another eight new cases of COVID-19 yesterday among 153 patients who were tested at Nantucket Cottage Hospital or by ACK Dental Art, raising the 7-day positivity rate just above 15 percent. Meanwhile, the latest sampling of island sewage at the Surfside Wastewater Treatment Facility revealed another significant jump in the concentration of the virus. As of last night, there were no patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Nantucket Cottage Hospital. 

As new COVID-19 cases on Nantucket surged over the past two weeks despite the island’s high vaccination rate, health officials with the town and the hospital had said they suspected the virulent Delta variant of the coronavirus was to blame. Samples from island patients who tested positive for COVID-19 were sent to the state for gene sequencing, and the first confirmations of the Delta variant in two of those cases came in late Thursday. 

Since July 19th, island health officials have been able to confirm at least 24 so-called ‘breakthrough” cases on Nantucket in which fully-vaccinated individuals have become infected. They expect that number to increase as they complete the arduous “detective work” on each new patient. In one of the confirmed breakthrough cases, the vaccinated individual had symptoms severe enough to be hospitalized and transferred by Medflight helicopter to a Boston hospital on Monday. Overall, there have been a total of three COVID-19 patients transferred from Nantucket to a higher level of care in the past two weeks. Otherwise, infections among vaccinated individuals have been relatively mild, Nantucket Cottage Hospital Public Information Manager James Lanza said, and health officials continue to emphasize that the COVID-19 vaccines have proven extremely effective in protecting people against serious illness and death from the disease. 

But late Thursday night, the Washington Post reported that federal health officials now believe the Delta variant can cause more severe illness than previous variants and spread as easily as the chickenpox, according to an internal CDC document. Part of its new guidance on wearing masks in public while indoors regardless of vaccination status was based on preliminary research into the Provincetown, MA, outbreak.

There have been at least 13 cases on Nantucket in which the infected individual was not vaccinated, including four children under the age of 12 who are not eligible to receive the vaccine. Island healthcare workers continue to investigate each new positive COVID-19 case, but in roughly half of them the individuals’ vaccination status is not yet known. That is due in part to the fact that many come from out-of-state and their vaccination records are not part of the Massachusetts Immunization Information System, the state’s vaccine record system known as MIIS.

Nantucket is now one of five counties in Massachusetts considered to have high or substantial community transmission, and fall under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidelines that recommend vaccinated individuals wear masks indoors. The town of Nantucket issued a new mask advisory last week, urging resident and visitors to wear face coverings indoors and in public where distancing is not possible, regardless of vaccination status. The advisory is a recommendation and not a mandate like the one implemented in Provincetown, and Nantucket Health Department Director Roberto Santamaria said he does not anticipate requesting anything beyond that. 

“We should be covered by the advisory,” Santamaria said. “I don’t want to push it any further. I don’t want to put a burden on businesses with something unenforceable.”

Nantucket Cottage Hospital President and CEO Gary Shaw urged resident and visitors to take precautions, regardless of vaccination status, and get vaccinated if they have not done so already. 

“As we learn more about emerging variants, we continue to refine our understanding of how to best respond to this pandemic,” Shaw said in a statement. “Recently the CDC has released new guidance that recommends wearing a mask in public, indoor areas for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. As we’ve learned over these last 18 months, the simple act of wearing a mask can save a life. We at NCH have expanded our testing capacity to accommodate the public and are working hand in hand with state and local health officials to respond to this recent surge, but we can’t beat COVID-19 alone, we need your help. A brighter future is in sight, but the only way we’re going to get there, is together.”

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