Massachusetts passed a grim milestone in the COVID-19 crisis on Sunday, as fatalities from the disease passed 4,000 ― highlighting the toll of a disease that has quickly become one of the state’s leading causes of death.
The state Department of Public Health reported 158 new deaths from the new coronavirus, bringing the overall toll to 4,004. In all, there were 1,824 new cases across Massachusetts, increasing the total number of cases the state has seen since the start of the outbreak to 68,087.
“Really we’ve never experienced anything like this in most of our lifetimes,” said Samuel Scarpino, a mathematical epidemiologist at Northeastern University. “You would really have to go back to the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, when you had a situation where this many individuals are dying from an infectious disease.”
No cause of death other than cancer and heart disease caused more than 4,000 Massachusetts deaths in 2017, the latest year for which data are available from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The flu and pneumonia, for comparison, killed 1,433.
Massachusetts now has the fourth highest number of coronavirus deaths in the country, behind New York, New Jersey, and Michigan. As of Sunday, New York had 13,319 confirmed deaths and New Jersey had 7,871. Michigan was third with 4,049. California, by comparison, has just 2,215 deaths.
In fact, all of Canada has fewer COVID-19 deaths than Massachusetts, with 3,606 deaths as of Sunday.
Cases, deaths, and hospitalizations caused by the disease have recently been on a stubborn plateau here. Some other hard-hit states appear to be further along in slowly beating back the illness, even as researchers at the University of Maryland have rated Massachusetts among the better states for maintaining social distancing in recent weeks.
Scarpino said one statistic can’t fully capture the tragedy of the lives lost in the pandemic, but he said the number of deaths — which he and some other experts believe may be an undercount ― helps underscore the continued risk of the coronavirus.
Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin J. Walsh noted Sunday that the new toll underscored the need to keep fighting the spread of the disease.
“The Baker-Polito administration is bringing every possible resource to the fight against this insidious virus, and Governor Baker extends his deepest sympathies to everyone who has suffered a loss, because behind every number or statistic is a loved one, a family member, or a friend,” said Lizzy Guyton, communications director, for the governor.
“The realities of this virus are hitting all of us hard and behind each number is a person, with a family,” Walsh said in a statement. “That’s why we are working, as hard as we can, to effectively slow the spread and save lives.”
Authorities across Massachusetts have been trying to maintain compliance with a statewide stay-at-home order that is well into its second month. Starting Wednesday, millions of state residents will be required to cover their faces when they shop for groceries, take public transportation, or even go for a jog if they can’t distance themselves from others, under a statewide order Baker issued Friday.
With a brief spell of springlike weather over the weekend, residents filled some state recreation areas to capacity, causing authorities to temporarily turn away new visitors at sites including Walden Pond and Blue Hills.
The statewide lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus runs at least through May 18, and many are reckoning with a much longer period of disruption. The NAACP national convention scheduled for July in Boston, for example, will be postponed, according to the leader of the civil rights organization’s local chapter.
States across the Northeast, including Massachusetts, are coordinating on ways to reopen safely. But much of the public response remains focused on how to deal with the stress on the medical system, which has been challenged by shortages of critical equipment.
On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his state and Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware are launching a regional purchasing group to more efficiently buy goods including protective equipment ventilators and tests for the new coronavirus.
“This will increase our market power and help prevent price-gouging,” Cuomo said on Twitter.
In Framingham Sunday, activists organized by Roxbury-based Families for Justice as Healing, called on Governor Charlie Baker to release more incarcerated people, an ongoing mission they said now has more urgency because of the pandemic. About 100 cars drove on public roads outside MCI–Framingham, a women’s prison, with drivers honking their horns and passengers holding signs and cheering for the people inside the facility. Some of the women inside cheered back.
In Worcester, meanwhile, city officials said Sunday that they will fine a local pastor $300 for holding an in-person church service that violated the state’s ban on large gatherings.
The gathering at the Adams Square Baptist Church on Sunday highlighted the resistance that local authorities here and around the country are beginning to face, as protests emerge from groups looking to reopen quickly.
“It is disappointing that despite all of the sound medical advice, and evidence of the effectiveness of limiting public gathering in curbing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, that this pastor has chosen to ignore that,” City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said in a statement. “In so doing, he is putting the health of his parishioners, and anyone they may come in direct contact with, at risk.”
On Sunday, Worcester officials said there were a total of 2,386 known cases of COVID-19 in the city, 81 of which are linked to a Walmart Supercenter that was ordered by the city to close last week.
The church has held in-person events on consecutive Sundays amid a statewide prohibition on gatherings of 10 or more people. The fine will be issued to pastor Kris Casey because it was a second violation of the order by Baker, according to Augustus.
Casey and other church officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The church had encouraged people to stay home if they had any signs of illness.
During an online broadcast of the Sunday service, Casey struck a defiant tone. He compared the ban on gatherings to persecution of Christians in other countries, and he told congregants that their actions now could determine whether their descendants are free to practice Christianity.
While other houses of worship and other religious institutions across the state have mostly moved their services online, Casey said his church should have the right to gather in person.
“If we don’t stand now and fight for our freedoms, and fight for our religion, and fight for our God, and fight for the freedoms that we have that our founding fathers gave us, when we’re in the sunset years of our lives, we’ll be sitting with our grandchildren . . . wishing that we had an opportunity to praise and worship God freely,” Casey said on Sunday.
The NAACP event in Boston had been scheduled for July 25-29 at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, which is currently being used as a field hospital for coronavirus patients.
Speaking at an online meeting of members last week, Boston chapter president Tanisha M. Sullivan said she expects the convention to be held eventually ― but that concerns over the virus meant it could not go on as scheduled.
“We will continue with convention planning, understanding that it just won’t be for July,” Sullivan said. She said the organization is still moving forward with associated events, such as a summit on racial justice in Boston that was held online over the weekend.
“We’ve always said that the branch’s preparation for the convention was not about a date in July,” Sullivan said. “It was always about our community, what our community needs ― beginning and end.”
She said the national office of the NAACP would have a formal announcement about the convention soon. A spokesperson for the national branch could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Gal Tziperman Lotan and Mark Arsenault of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Abigail Feldman contributed to this report.
Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.