The Baker administration on Tuesday said people under 30 account for a large portion of the recent spike in Massachusetts coronavirus cases, and acknowledged that the state’s own efforts to trace the source of many new infections have been stymied.
Amid growing calls for more transparency about the source of infections, the administration also released information that begins to shed more light on how the disease is spreading.
State officials said hockey games accounted for as many as 110 cases. In addition, there have been at least 300 recent cases among people under age 30.
Governor Charlie Baker and the state health secretary, Marylou Sudders, said the state is ramping up contact tracing, hiring back many tracers who were laid off during a lull in infections over the summer, as the state tries to track down how the virus spreads. Contact tracers continue to be hindered, as people refuse to cooperate or even impede the efforts, Baker said during a State House briefing.
Citing the rapid rise in new cases, Baker urged residents to stay vigilant.
“COVID is a very contagious virus," he said, “and it will rear its ugly head wherever it gets the chance.”
The governor said the state for the first time will include details about clusters of new cases in its weekly report to be released Thursday. In a preview, Sudders said a relatively small percentage of new cases are linked to nursing homes, higher education, or places of worship, sites often thought to be fueling current outbreaks.
As an example, she said that of the 1,216 newly positive cases reported Monday, contact tracers have only been able to discern 25 associated with long-term care, 25 associated with higher-education testing, and 34 linked to places of worship.
“Another 36 are associated with known clusters, including social clubs, and an additional 538 are associated with 19 of our highest risk communities from Boston to Framingham,” Sudders said.
But for the rest, more than 550 cases, the source of transmission is still unknown. That reflects the difficulties in the contract tracing system.
The new insights came as Massachusetts notched its fourth consecutive day with the number of new cases topping 1,000. The state reported 1,025 more cases Tuesday, bringing the total to 149,361. The death toll from confirmed cases rose by seven to 9,664.
Also troubling, the seven-day average of positive tests per total tests administered has continued to climb and has hit 1.7 in the last several days.
In the strongest terms since cases surged, Baker stressed that residents should avoid attending large social gatherings with the upcoming holidays, and that infectious disease specialists have identified informal gatherings as a prime spreader of the virus.
“I get the fact that this has been going on for a long time,” he said. “And I get the fact that people are hungry for the kind of physical presence that is such a fundamental part of the way we live.”
Baker urged residents to avoid large indoor gatherings on Halloween this weekend.
“Organized and structured outdoor trick or treating is a much safer way for people to celebrate than to gather indoors for an extended period of time to share food, to play games, and to participate in what I would describe as close contact activities between and among multiple generations,” he said.
The state has recently cracked down on a number of large gatherings that sparked infections, including at Crossroads Community Church in Fitchburg. The church was recently sanctioned for opening up for retreats, in violation of the state’s guidance, Sudders said.
Baker also urged young people especially to take precautions.
The governor said residents flouting the rules and fueling infections through large parties and other social gatherings hamper efforts to keep businesses open and people working. The state has released sparse data on infections related to workplaces, but Baker said the data it does have indicate they are isolated incidents.
“It does not show up as the big driver,” he said. “People need to work.”
But some public health leaders expressed skepticism Tuesday about Baker’s claim about workplaces and their safety, especially for essential workers, and have urged the state to release more detailed data on that sector.
“It’s important to see for ourselves what those numbers are,” said Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association.
“We want to see reporting on complaint investigations and what was found on workplace violations,” she said. “The current regulations really don’t address aerosol spread and we don’t have data to understand whether worksites really are an issue or not.”
Pavlos also said she hopes the additional data to be released Thursday will shed more light on the infections among people under 30.
“People under 30 are workers, are bus drivers, are teachers, some are homeless," she said. "I don’t think we should assume people under 30 are being infected because of reckless social behavior before we see that data.”
But one activity Baker and Sudders said is clearly fueling infections is youth hockey. The state health department last week ordered indoor ice rinks in Massachusetts closed for two weeks after a rise in COVID-19 cases connected to hockey practices and games.
Baker said the health department has linked more than 30 clusters with more than 110 possible cases to hockey.
He said contact tracing for the hockey outbreaks, which have affected at least 66 cities and towns, has been hampered by a “lack of cooperation” from adults contacted by tracers. Some adults involved in the hockey programs declined to make rosters available to aid tracers, Baker said.
In some cases, Sudders said, coaches told parents and players not to respond to tracers.
“It’s not clear that the spread is about hockey or all the stuff going on around it,” Baker said. “It’s likely coming from all the activity around hockey and some irresponsible behavior from parents and coaches.”
He said that many times tournaments involve players showing up at the rink as early as 7 a.m., playing only two or three games, but also sharing food and drinks and hanging out until 7 p.m.
“It’s about a lot more than just the time on the ice, and parents and coaches have an obligation to protect their kids and themselves and their teammates,” he said.
But Kevin Kavanagh, executive director of Massachusetts Hockey, said the vast majority of families have acted responsibly. He said he was unaware of families refusing to cooperate with contact tracers.
“Mass Hockey doesn’t support the obstruction of contract tracing," Kavanagh said. "We believe that our families, programs, and facilities all need to work together to facilitate and ensure a safe process.”