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State public health officials monitoring as cases of COVID-19 increase

The Centers for Disease Control reported that dining is the “highest consistent risk factor” associated with COVID-19 cases.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

As Massachusetts reported new deaths and new cases of the coronavirus Saturday, officials are monitoring an increase in cases that a state spokesman has attributed in part to more testing being done by colleges and universities.

That rise in cases raised concerns Saturday among some public health experts, amid efforts to reopen schools, restart businesses, and loosen limits on daily life imposed during the early days of the pandemic, and as state officials move to ease limits on indoor dining at restaurants starting Monday.

“State authorities will need to track these recent trends very closely — as I know they are — and be prepared to take interventions such as tightening up the rules on restaurants and social gatherings, if the trends continue,” said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, who directs Boston College’s Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good.


On Saturday, the state reported the death toll due to COVID-19 had reached 9,178 confirmed deaths, including 18 new deaths. There were also 127,832 confirmed cases, with 515 newly reported cases.

More than 2.1 million people have been given molecular tests for the virus, including 14,310 as of Saturday. The state reported the seven-day average positive rate for those tests was .9 percent as of Friday.

By Saturday, state data also showed that the average number of new cases for the previous seven days had reached 385 cases. That figure was about 23 percent higher than it was Sept. 12, when it was 312, according to the state.

Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for the state’s COVID-19 Command Center, said in a statement that Massachusetts is studying the recent increase.

“We are monitoring this recent trend, which includes the impact of significant testing by colleges and universities across the Commonwealth,” Mazzola said. “The significant increase in testing across the Commonwealth has contributed to an increase in positive cases.”


The state is looking closely at state and community-level data, he said, including with its most high-risk municipalities. On both the “macro and micro level,” officials continue to watch for trends across multiple weeks of data, he said.

The state Command Center continues to work closely with the higher education community and the state’s highest-risk communities to assess trends regularly and deploy resources as necessary, he said.

Governor Charlie Baker announced during a visit to Lowell Wednesday that he was easing the limits on people dining inside restaurants. Starting Monday, restaurants can begin seating up to 10 people at a table, up from a previous limit of six, and serve food at bar spaces.

Samuel Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist, said that although the state does not provide enough public information on where cases are coming from, the Centers for Disease Control reported that dining is the “highest consistent risk factor” associated with COVID-19 cases.

Scarpino said he speculated that the “continual relaxation” in measures associated with dining is why cases are increasing. Another issue has been the reopening of colleges and universities, which probably had an effect, as more people moved back to Boston to attend school.

“Overall, I’d say that we are seeing a number of really concerning trends, and the governor’s decisions to continue relaxing measures at bars and restaurants is only likely to make things worse,” Scarpino said in an e-mail.

The trend of new cases is concerning if it continues to escalate, said Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


“I do think that as businesses and restaurants begin to open more and more, particularly simultaneous to weather becoming increasingly optimal for transmission, we should anticipate spread of this virus to increase,” Mina said in an e-mail. “I don’t really see a way around this.”

Mina said this is why he has been advocating for increased production of rapid tests for schools, restaurants, and businesses.

“Like masks, they won’t be perfect, but like masks they will offer a huge benefit to keep our institutions safer,” Mina said. “Unlike masks, it is something that is relatively easy to use — once each morning for example after brushing your teeth or before entry into a facility.”

Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University, said officials need to determine whether those new cases are focused in one segment of the population, which would help guide the response.

“If these continue to creep up, we need to look carefully at the numbers [and] where the increases are coming from,” Horsburgh said in a phone interview Saturday.

Travis Andersen and Janelle Nanos of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

John Hilliard can be reached at