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Why One Of The Most Vaccinated Places In The U.S. Now Has A COVID-19 Spike

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A town with one of the highest vaccination rates in the country just instituted an indoor mask mandate after a big spike in positive coronavirus tests. Jennette Barnes of member station CAI brings us the story from Provincetown, Mass.

JENNETTE BARNES, BYLINE: For two weeks before the Fourth of July, Provincetown was averaging zero new cases of coronavirus a day. But not long after that, Mark Louque, who's from there, came down with symptoms and then tested positive.

MARK LOUQUE: I've certainly been in touch with a lot of the folks that have been in and out of Provincetown over the last two weeks, and a large number of them, a shocking number of them are positive for COVID-19.

BARNES: More than 550 people have tested positive since the Fourth of July. This in a town where so many people have claimed residency since the pandemic that the vaccination rate is 116% of its latest census count. Like most of the people testing positive, Louque is vaccinated, and his so-called breakthrough infection was pretty mild.

LOUQUE: Yeah, that congestion is just still lingering, but I have pretty much all of my energy back. I had lost my taste and smell, which have come back. And I feel like I'm one of the lucky ones because I'm vaccinated.

BARNES: Health experts say that no vaccine is 100% effective at preventing infections. The coronavirus vaccines are up to 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 disease, and they're very good at keeping people who do test positive from getting seriously ill or needing hospitalization. Sean O’Brien, health director for Cape Cod's Barnstable County, says this summer's outbreak is following a pattern the county has seen with holidays before, and infections typically peak a few weeks later.

SEAN O'BRIEN: Unless we are going into a major cycle, like we did last fall and then again in the winter, you're going to see these kind of ebbs and flows - for lack of a better term - these peaks and valleys, but very minimal.

BARNES: The outbreak has drawn lots of media attention. Town manager Alex Morse says there's an upside. Even more people are seeking out vaccination, including foreign students working here for the summer on J-1 visas.

ALEX MORSE: We've had a lot of interest from businesses in town reaching out - how can my employees get vaccinated? - business owners getting calls and finally being able to convince employees that, all right, it's time to - it's time for me to get vaccinated. Those are hopeful signs.

BARNES: The publicity has business owners like Michael Meyers worried, though. He owns a clothing store called Wardrobe on Provincetown's main drag.

MICHAEL MEYERS: I'm finding it really discouraging and frightening to see what's going to come out of the rest of the summer because we were really counting on this summer, being unemployed throughout the winter and not getting any income.

BARNES: On a recent weekday, there were still plenty of tourists on the street where Meyers' store is. Among them, Nikita Alexander and her family.

NIKITA ALEXANDER: We are visiting from Akron, Ohio.

BARNES: They heard about the uptick in cases.

ALEXANDER: And we actually almost did not come today because of that, which is why we have our mask on on the street. We just wanted to be very careful. And it worries us that the new strain that's coming out is stronger than the previous strain.

BARNES: Almost any town that relies on entertaining lots of visitors could see an outbreak like the one here. Some nightclubs are requiring proof of vaccination, and at least one resort has pledged to test employees every week. Public health officials are hoping now that the reality is clear, people will heed the indoor mask mandate and take other precautions to bring Provincetown's infection rate back down.

For NPR News, I'm Jennette Barnes in Provincetown, Mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOYCE KWON SONG, "SONG OF PLATITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.