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Expert: Recent coronavirus outbreaks in New England likely caused by carelessness, not variants

A sign outside of Loco in South Boston commented on the length of the COVID-19 pandemic.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Coronavirus outbreaks are back in the news again in New England at a time of concern about the arrival of virus variants, but one expert said the recent spikes are more likely due to people being cavalier about taking precautions meant to stop the virus from spreading.

“My strong suspicion is it’s probably due to people letting their guard down and not due to the emergence of the variants,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, who directs Boston College’s Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good.

“Unfortunately, it’s easy to do. The weather is getting better. The vaccine is coming,” he said. “It’s very important that people stay vigilant for a couple of more months until we get a very large portion of the population covered by the vaccine.”


Public health officials in New Hampshire said Tuesday they had identified 19 cases of coronavirus associated with a youth wrestling tournament held in Hampton, N.H., on March 6. Meanwhile, the University of Rhode Island and other Rhode Island colleges have seen rising cases in recent weeks, the Globe reported Friday.

Public health officials at the national level have been warning about fast-spreading variants. Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s lead medical adviser on the pandemic, warned Wednesday that the variants continue to threaten progress made in reducing cases and immunizing the population. “While we are cautiously optimistic about the future, we know that many challenges remain,” Fauci said in prepared remarks ahead of a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

“An increase in viral transmission could reverse the progress we’ve made,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in her prepared remarks.

It’s important for the people in the New England outbreaks to be tested to see if the variants played a role, experts said. “We need to be watchful, but not alarmed,” said Landrigan.


In the meantime, he said, people should “stay smart, be kind to the people around you, wear your masks, wash your hands, keep your distance.”

Dr. Howard Koh, a former high-ranking health official in the Obama administration who is now a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in an e-mail the outbreaks were “concerning but not a surprise. The risks linked to campus life and indoor sporting events are well known.”

“While further investigations should investigate any potential role of variants, we cannot drop our guard or roll back life-saving public health protections,” said Koh, who is also a former Massachusetts public health commissioner. “We are running a public health marathon and can’t afford to stop now with the finish line in sight.”

State public health officials say cases caused by three different variants have been detected in Massachusetts. The state announced Tuesday the detection of the first case of the Brazilian variant, saying it joined 213 cases of the British variant and six cases of the South African variant.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday had posted higher numbers for the British and South African variants in Massachusetts, but a CDC spokesman said Tuesday that a mistake had been made in uploading the data. The corrected CDC numbers on the website Wednesday matched the state’s numbers, except for the new Brazilian variant case, which was not shown.

Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.