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Coronavirus ebbs in Mass., but surges elsewhere could threaten progress

Black clergy stood on Castle Island during a Mass for racial healing Saturday, celebrated by Cardinal Sean O'Malley.
Black clergy stood on Castle Island during a Mass for racial healing Saturday, celebrated by Cardinal Sean O'Malley.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Key metrics measuring Massachusetts’ progress beating back the coronavirus outbreak continue to move in a positive direction, but warning signs are flashing in other parts of the country, with cases surging in numerous states in the South and West — a trend that could eventually hurt Massachusetts.

State officials reported Saturday that the coronavirus death toll had risen by 38 to 7,576 while the number of people who have tested positive climbed by 336 to 105,395, figures that include both confirmed and probable cases of the virus. Other key metrics monitored by state officials showed continued improvement as well.

But in big swaths of the rest of the country, the trends do not look so encouraging.

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COVID-19 infections are on the rise in roughly two dozen states according to data showing the three-day moving average of confirmed new cases, compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Daily coronavirus hospitalizations in Texas, one of the states public health experts are watching with concern, have reached a new high for a third time in four days.

Florida, which has a large population of residents at elevated risk, reported Saturday morning more than 2,500 new confirmed cases, the third consecutive single-day new case record and a figure that marks the 10th out of 11 straight days in which new cases have topped 1,000.

Arizona and North Carolina also are among the states that have seen more new cases and hospitalizations, and a rising rate of positive tests in recent weeks.

The accelerating spread around the United States, where the virus has killed more than 114,000 people as of Saturday, could in turn endanger Massachusetts and other hard-hit states that have managed to tamp down damaging outbreaks with rigid social distancing measures and business closures, health experts said.

While states like Massachusetts and New York that felt the first surge “so powerfully” are naturally conservative about reopening and observing public health recommendations, much of the country didn’t experience the same nightmare, and are approaching reopening with “a more cavalier attitude,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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“They never felt the pain the way we did," she said. The fact that the rest of the country is not behaving with the same cautious attitude that [hard-hit] parts of the country are puts us all at risk."

“I would advise caution in traveling to those places,” said Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease expert at Boston Medical Center and professor at Boston University School of Public Health.

Compounding concerns, public health experts warn that the virus is spreading to rural areas and other parts of the country with less hospital capacity than the big coastal cities where the epidemic started. We have to “expect significant morbidity in those places,” said Caroline Buckee, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

But Massachusetts’ progress in battling the virus could also be threatened by its own continued reopening and the increased circulation of people in the community, cautioned Buckee, noting it is still too soon to know whether there’s been a surge in cases given the long lag time between infection and evidence of surging cases, as measured by test results, hospitalizations, and deaths.

It takes two to three weeks after reopening to see effects in the data, and “that makes it quite hard because you don’t immediately see the impact of any reopening strategy,” said Buckee.

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Certainly, no warning signs showed up in the data reported by Massachusetts officials Saturday. All four key metrics the state is weighing in its four-phase process for reopening the economy showed continued progress.

The seven-day weighted average of positive test rates showed another slight decrease to 3.1 percent as of Friday, down from 3.3 percent the day before. It has fallen 89 percent since mid-April.

The three-day average of hospitalized patients dropped to 1,157 as of Friday, from 1,246 the day before, down 68 percent since mid-April.

The number of hospitals using surge capacity eased back down to 4, after ticking up to 5 on Thursday. It is down 81 percent from mid-April highs.

And the three-day average of COVID-19 deaths inched down to 34 as of Wednesday, down from 35 the day before. The number has dropped 78 percent since mid-April.

Asked about coronavirus spikes in other states on Thursday, Governor Charlie Baker said state officials are taking precautions against a new wave emerging here.

“Part of the reason for pursuing a careful and cautious and phased approach to reopening was to be sure that we would be able to deal with hot spots or any examples of increased positive testing along the way,” Baker said. He also pointed to the ambitious statewide contact tracing program his administration launched and the statewide standards for employers and industry-specific protocols that business must follow as they reopen and welcome employees and customers back.

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“But we’re going to be very vigilant on this stuff, and we’ve said all along that additional openings are going to be a function of a continued review of the data points,” he said.

Hamer, the BU professor, praised Baker’s approach and reliance on data and a variety of experts to guide reopening. “That cautious approach is really important to avoiding another surge,” he said.

Walensky of MGH said she’s “cautiously optimistic” about Massachusetts’ path, not just because of the positive data trends but also the evidence of people acting responsibly by wearing masks and social distancing.

“I’m encouraged by the fact that the [improving] numbers are not leading to cavalier attitudes."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.