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‘Terrifying’ COVID-19 trends raise fears in Mass. with holiday looming

Nancy Hanifin prepared for a COVID-19 test at the Urban League of Boston, a Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center mobile testing site.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Showing no sign of a letup, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts rose by 2,532 on Thursday, as the number of communities considered high-risk for the virus doubled and nearly 400 new cases were reported among public school students.

Case totals have now been over 2,000 for eight of the last nine days, as the state experiences what Governor Charlie Baker has called a “sustained and troubling” second surge of cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday asked Americans to stay home on Thanksgiving and celebrate only with people they live with, as the number of US deaths exceeded 252,000. In Massachusetts, Baker and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh have made the same plea.


“We’re alarmed,” said Dr. Henry Walke, COVID-19 incident manager at the CDC, citing an exponential increase in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. “What we’re concerned about is not only the actual mode of travel — whether it’s an airplane or bus or car — but also the transportation hubs [during Thanksgiving weekend].”

The state Department of Public Health reported that the new cases bring the state’s total to 192,050. The death toll from confirmed cases increased by 27 to 10,204, the DPH said. A total of 34,664 people were estimated to have active virus cases.

Also Thursday, state education officials said 398 new cases among students and 254 among school staff members were reported during the week that ended Wednesday.

Billerica Memorial High School has identified at least 11 cases at the school, and officials suspect “potential evidence of in-school transmission” with one of the cases, officials said in a statement. As a result, the school will switch to remote-only learning until after Thanksgiving, the statement said.

One infectious disease specialist said the upward trend in virus data is an ominous sign.


“I don’t want to catastrophize, but they are terrifying,” said Dr. Cassandra Pierre, medical director of public health programs at Boston Medical Center. The acceleration in COVID positivity in our community and our state does not bode well for . . . the winter.”

Pierre, who is also the acting hospital epidemiologist at BMC, said she had hoped infection rates would be lower as the holidays approached. The season inevitably brings more people together indoors, and with that, the potential for greater transmission of the virus.

“The fact that the numbers are rising so steeply now indicates that we are going to have a rapid acceleration — even more rapid — in our positivity in our community, and that there will be more hospitalizations and deaths as a result of that,” Pierre said.

While recent infections have skewed younger, family holiday gatherings will bring generations together, putting older relatives at risk, she said. The rising infection rates led Pierre to scuttle her own family Thanksgiving plans about a month ago.

Pierre said the messages from state and federal officials to stay home on Thanksgiving may have come too late.

“For people who haven’t been really factoring these numbers into their holiday plans, the news about this might go very well unheeded, because plans may be already well in motion for a gathering of people and households,” she said. “The sense of loneliness and disorientation, removal from usual traditions, can take some time to plan around.”


Dr. Abraar Karan, an internal medicine physician at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said he expected a “fragmented response” to the CDC advice.

“I think that in places that have recently seen the damages of this virus, or in places where it’s really imprinted in people’s minds and hearts, they will take it pretty seriously,” Karan said. “I think that in places where things like masking are still being politicized, and where there’s still a lot of sort of remnant feelings from the election about whether the virus is even real . . . they will soon enough have a hard awakening.”

Karan compared gathering to celebrate the holidays with pulling back the rubber band on a slingshot.

“When you go and have a bunch of people traveling around the country and heading indoors, traveling with people that are not in their social circles, close family members are probably not going to be wearing masks indoors while they’re eating and drinking and celebrating — you will have a lot of viral spread, and that is going to hit us extremely hard after the holidays,” he said.

In new community data Thursday, 62 cities and towns were considered to be high-risk for the virus, including Attleboro, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Lawrence, Lowell, Malden, New Bedford, Revere, Taunton, and Woburn.

Two weeks ago, the governor announced that the state had revised its metrics for determining transmission risks in cities and towns, dramatically reducing the number of “red zone” communities with an eye toward getting students back in schools.


In the first week the state applied the new standards, the number of such communities plummeted from 121 cities and towns — including Boston — to just 16. But last week that number nearly doubled to 30 before more than doubling again on Thursday.

Under the new guidelines, communities with fewer than 10,000 residents are placed in the high-risk category if they have more than 25 cases. Cities and towns with 10,000 to 50,000 residents are considered high-risk if they average more than 10 cases per 100,000 people and a positive test rate of 5 percent or higher. Larger communities are labeled high-risk if they have an average of more than 10 cases per 100,000 residents and a positive test rate at or greater than 4 percent.

Boston’s average daily rate of infection per 100,000 residents was at 31.5 in Thursday’s data, down from 33.1 last week, the department said. The statewide average daily rate was at 29.4, up from 20.7 last week.

State officials also reported that 92,139 more tests had been conducted. The total number administered since the spring climbed to more than 7.57 million — a number that includes people who were tested more than once. New antigen tests were completed for 3,406 people, bringing that total to 237,534.

The seven-day average rate of positive tests, which is calculated from the total number of tests administered, was at 3.2 percent. The lowest observed figure for that metric — a number watched closely by state officials — is 0.8 percent.


The seven-day average of hospitalized patients rose from 756 to 792. The lowest that metric has been is 155.

The seven-day average of deaths from confirmed cases was 25 per day; the lowest that number has been is 11.

The state recently changed the way it reports some statistics related to positive tests, introducing a new metric that attempts to isolate the effect of public health programs undertaken by colleges, in which asymptomatic people can be tested repeatedly in an effort to rapidly identify new cases.

On Thursday, the state said the seven-day rate would be 5.24 percent if not for people tested in higher education settings. However, the state’s overall rate still includes others who might be repeatedly tested, such as health care workers, long-term care providers and residents, and first responders.

In the summer, the state appeared to have wrestled the virus under control, but case counts began gradually rising as the summer wore on. In recent weeks, the growth has accelerated. Baker has tightened some restrictions and moved to reopen a field hospital in Worcester.

He urged college students this week to get tested before heading home for Thanksgiving and announced plans to provide instant testing to 134 public school districts, charters, and special education collaboratives in December.

Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report, which also included material from The New York Times.

Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him @jeremycfox.