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Expert: A new study’s dire picture of Mass. coronavirus future is a warning signal

A police officer handed out face masks during a community initiative on May 16 to get more face masks into Boston neighborhoods.
A police officer handed out face masks during a community initiative on May 16 to get more face masks into Boston neighborhoods.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

A new model paints a dire picture of what could happen as Massachusetts loosens restrictions meant to curb the coronavirus pandemic. A Harvard expert cautions it’s only one version of the future, but says it sends a warning signal that the pandemic is not over yet by any means.

The Imperial College London model predicts that if mobility returns to 20 percent of what it was before the pandemic, COVID-19, the diseases caused by the coronavirus, could kill about 500 people daily by the end of June, the Globe reported. If mobility increases to 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels, the virus could kill about 800 people each day, the model said. Massachusetts experienced its highest number of COVID-19 deaths on April 24 when 195 patients died, state figures show.

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The researchers, calling the model “pessimistic,” noted that they weren’t factoring in behavioral changes or interventions that could help control the outbreak, like increased mask-wearing or testing and contact tracing.

William Hanage, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the model prediction is analogous to calculating for someone jumping out of an airplane “what velocity you would hit the ground if you don’t open your parachute.”

“As soon as you start intervening, it begins to change,” he said.

Hanage said the Imperial College researchers are “one of the most respected concentrations of disease modelers in the world.”

Imperial College projections have made big news before, most notably in March when the researchers predicted that if no actions were taken, 2.2 million people could die in the United States. That terrifying scenario appeared to have had an impact on the White House and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the federal government recommended measures to slow the spread of the virus.

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Hanage said there’s widespread misunderstanding on how to use models, which he said are meant to be “informative” and to offer “ways of learning about possible futures that you might want to avoid.”

“We don’t want to be purveyors of doom,” Samir Bhatt, a geostatistics expert at Imperial College, told The Washington Post. “We just wanted to get it right. Projections are not forecasts. They’re just scenarios. They’re helping us understand things in the absence of data. No one can really predict the future.”

While Hanage said he had some questions about the details of the latest model, he said he agreed with the overall thrust of the study, which he summed up as, “We must remain vigilant. We expect more cases of disease.”

“We know the more opportunities the virus has for transmission, the more opportunity it’s going to have to take them,” he said.

He said he expected a second wave of the pandemic, most likely arriving in the fall.

“It’s important for people to realize this hasn’t gone away,” said Hanage, who once was a postdoc at Imperial College. “The thing is, the virus is still there. It is still capable of transmission. … We’ve got a long way to go before this pandemic is gone. A very, very long way to go.”

The study also found that the virus has already infected about 13 percent of the state’s 6.9 million residents.

And it found the state is among 24 nationwide with a reproduction number greater than one, which refers to the average number of secondary infections caused by an infected person.

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A reproduction number above one in those states shows “the epidemic is not under control in much of the US,” the research team said.

Jeremiah Manion and Laura Crimaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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