For the first time since Massachusetts “flattened” the curve of coronavirus infections, the percentage of positive tests has risen dramatically over the last two weeks compared to August and September, prompting warnings from health experts as colder weather moves in.
“This is not a blip; this is a trend,” said Dr. Douglas T. Golenbock, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology at UMass Medical School. “I don’t know how you couldn’t be very concerned.”
Health officials reported more than 700 new COVID infections a day during the first two days of October — numbers that haven’t been seen in a consecutive string of days since this past spring. The seven-day average of positive tests has climbed to about 1.1%, where it has stood so far this month, according to the latest Department of Public Health data.
The rate of infection has risen in tandem with an increase in the percentage of individuals who test positive, which began creeping up as early as the first few weeks of September, according to Tuesday’s data from DPH’s daily COVID dashboard.
Because of a lag in reporting from testing laboratories, much of the COVID data reported by DPH is incomplete, or in the process of being updated days — and sometimes weeks — into the future.
“Remember that we don’t know how many cases there really are, we never know that,” said Dr. Eric Rubin, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard University. “We only know how many individuals test positive out of how many are tested.”
While there is an increase in reports of COVID cases in Massachusetts, the rate of death hasn’t risen as prominently, even as hospitalizations continue to climb. Rubin says that could be in part because hospitals haven’t been overwhelmed with patients sickened with the respiratory virus like they were in the spring. Hospital workers are now better equipped to manage those who do need treatment and support, Rubin said.
“People in all risk groups appear to be doing better, at least from the standpoint of death,” Rubin said.
Golenbock said the number of patients hospitalized at UMass Memorial Medical Center remained relatively stable over the summer, but has been “budging up” recently. He said he was “somewhat surprised” that Gov. Charlie Baker is allowing the vast majority of communities to proceed into Step 2 of Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan, given the uptick in virus activity.
“It’s not like it’s hard for someone in Revere to go to dinner in Wellesley,” he added.
Twenty-nine communities will not be able to enter Step 2 of Phase 3, which permits indoor and outdoor performance venues, recreational facilities, gyms, libraries and other venues and institutions to scale up to 50% capacity. Those communities are: Attleboro, Avon, Boston, Chelsea, Dedham, Dracut, Everett, Framingham, Haverhill, Holliston, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Lynnfield, Marlborough, Methuen, Middleton, Monson, Nantucket, New Bedford, North Andover, Plainville, Revere, Saugus, Springfield, Tyngsborough, Winthrop, Worcester and Wrentham.
State officials and experts have been anticipating a rise in cases in the colder months, not just because many school districts and colleges began the fall semester with in-person or hybrid learning, but because infections are up nationwide.
Nearly half of U.S. states have seen a sustained increase in cases over the last week, where daily new infections are at or above 15 per 100,000 people, according to New York Times data. Over the last seven days, Massachusetts has averaged 627 new daily cases, which is up 62% from the average over the prior 14-day period, the Times reports.
“This seems like it’s kind of inevitable, because cases have been rising in the rest of the country,” Rubin said.
States hard hit by the pandemic early on in the spring are beginning to climb again, like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Medical experts stress that it’s hard to predict the course of the virus heading into the winter, but are urging even more caution as people spend more time inside during the colder months.
Experts have said the virus can remain in the air for longer periods of time indoors, particularly in poorly ventilated buildings.
“We are facing one big issue, which is that people are going to be indoors more,” Rubin said. “That is a concern.”