“Now practically everything is open and the atmosphere is so different, so much lighter and happier. We feel safe while the other cities around us are in a very difficult situation,” says Ricardo Luiz, owner of a well-known restaurant in Serrana .
Four months after the start of the experiment known as Project S, this quiet town surrounded by sugar plantations has taken on an atmosphere from days before the pandemic, Luiz says.
Its business is bouncing back after a year of hardship and is currently generating 70% of the revenue it made before the pandemic.
“People feel safe leaving,” he says, adding that he is no longer afraid for his family or acquaintances walking the hot and dry streets of the city. “We know everyone here, and these days you rarely hear about cases and deaths,” he says.
Brazil has the second highest number of Covid-19 deaths in the world nationwide after the US and is entering the third wave with rising daily cases and deaths. Only 10% of the Brazilian population are fully vaccinated.
But the people who live in Serrana say that thanks to Project S they are experiencing a completely different reality.
The full results of the researchers from Project S have not yet been peer-reviewed or published. However, according to preliminary results released June 1, the study showed an 80 percent reduction in symptomatic cases. Covid-related hospital admissions have decreased by 86% and mortality by 95% – figures that Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria welcomes as a good omen for the rest of the country.
According to the study, vaccination created a kind of “immune belt” in Serrana, which drastically reduced the transmission of the coronavirus in the community, even though the virus raged across the country.
“The most important result was to understand that we can control the pandemic without vaccinating the entire population. When coverage reached 70%, 75% (of Serrana’s population), the decrease in incidence was noted even in the group that had not yet completed the vaccination schedule, “said Ricardo Palacios, medical director of clinical research at Instituto Butantan, one day after the press conference in an interview with CNN International.
But until the Butantane Institute publishes its complete study data and they are reviewed by experts, not everyone is cheering at the results – or loosening the hygiene precautions.
Jose Angelo Marques owns a beauty salon in Serrana and was fully vaccinated back in April. His business works on protocols set by the Sao Paulo state government, such as limited attendance capacity and distance between customers, and Marques says he won’t pick them up until he sees the numbers behind the percentages.
“I wish I could see the numbers. That would make me feel more secure,” he says.
He, his wife and his parents all contracted Covid-19 in the past year. Most had mild symptoms or were asymptomatic, but Marques’ 81-year-old father died of Covid-19 less than a month later.
The vaccination helped the family come to terms with their grief, Marque admits, however. “We have now loosened up a bit. We are now close to each other, hugging each other and that helped us a lot to cope with my father’s absence.”
About 330 kilometers from the state capital Sao Paulo, Serrana is a place to sleep, a large part of the population commutes to work in larger neighboring cities such as Ribeirao Preto. This flow of people caused a high prevalence of Covid-19 infections in early 2021, according to Marcos Borges, lead researcher at Project S.
“More than 10,000 people go to work here in other cities. This leads to an enormous spread of these contagious and contagious diseases, ”said Borges. “One in 20 people in Serrana was infected and transmitted the disease and that caught our attention.”
“We suffered so much with Covid-19 here at the beginning of the year. It hit us very hard. Our small health system collapsed. It was as if a very dark cloud lay over the city,” says Serrana Mayor Leonardo Capitelli.
Brazil is struggling to get sufficient vaccines for its 211 million people. Knowing that herd immunity for the country is still a long way off, Dimas Covas and Borges, directors of the Butantane Institute, tried to vaccinate a high percentage of the population in Serrana in a short time to see if there was any herd immunity Place could be reached.
“So we wanted to test whether a vaccination could prevent the transmission of the virus and reduce severe cases and hospital stays,” says Borges. The high prevalence of Covid-19 at the time, the small population and the proximity to the medical university in Ribeirao Preto and the state hospital made Serrana an ideal candidate.
The method used in the clinical study is known as the step-wedge study, which divided the city into 25 sub-areas that make up four major populations who received the vaccine for consecutive weeks between February and April.
Ricardo Palacios says scheduling the vaccinations sequentially allowed the research team to evaluate and compare the areas.
“When the third group received their second dose, about 75% of the eligible population, we found that the outbreak was effectively under control across the city,” he said, adding that this signaled that one was widespread Vaccination indirectly even to non-vaccinated populations such as children and adolescents.
“The decrease in cases in people who haven’t received the vaccine suggests a decrease in the spread of the virus. This strengthens vaccination as a public health measure rather than just an individual, ”he said.
Mayor Capitelli says Serrana’s two primary care hospitals are much less crowded today.
“Forty, fifty days ago, about 160 to 180 people came to our hospitals every day with symptoms of respiratory syndrome, and about 69% tested positive for Covid-19. Now the number of hospital visits has dropped to 30, 35 people a day. “And only 20 to 25% tested positive for Covid-19,” he said.
“We had a Serrana before Project S and another after. Our economy is growing, many new companies are keen to invest here, people are back in their lives and we are getting better every day,” added the mayor.
But the masks stay on
But life is not entirely normal.
With the virus remaining out of control in the region, Serrana residents must continue to wear masks and social distancing, a basic sanitary ordinance enforced across the state.
Serrana businesses also maintain state government restrictions limiting capacity, as opposed to total closings in some nearby towns.
“This still has to be followed because the region is in chaos, cities and health systems have collapsed,” says Mayor Capitelli.
The full results of the study are expected to be published in early July. But Project S. will continue until February next year, with researchers continuously monitoring the residents of Serrana. As new virus variants keep popping up, the researchers hope that the Coronavac will retain its effectiveness – and that Serrana will continue to enjoy its apparent victory.
“The study’s important conclusions can support vaccination strategies in Brazil and around the world and give hope for pandemic control with vaccines like Coronavac,” said Dimas Covas, director of the Butantane Institute.
Right now, Ricardo Luiz, the restaurant owner, says he can already feel the psychological benefits of participating in Project S.
“My hope is restored. Even my self-esteem is back,” he says.
“Four months ago it was difficult to see the end of all of this. We are a small town and we know everyone. We felt the pain of others as if it were ours. It was tough. At the end of the tunnel we can see that it is possible to return to normal and we can feel happy again. “