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As coronavirus cases surge nationwide, health experts sound the alarm in Mass.

Drive-through lines for COVID-19 testing snaked around the Lawrence General Hospital parking lot last week, spilling out onto the street and leading to two-hour wait times.
Drive-through lines for COVID-19 testing snaked around the Lawrence General Hospital parking lot last week, spilling out onto the street and leading to two-hour wait times.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Public health officials Sunday renewed calls for people to keep their guard up against the coronavirus during the holiday season, as dozens of local municipal leaders were briefed on worrisome projections on the course of the pandemic in Massachusetts.

That briefing was held as the state Department of Public Health confirmed a new milestone for the pandemic, with the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the crisis climbing past 200,000 on Sunday.

Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, who participated in a video conference call with the health experts, said in a statement that new steps may be needed to fight the pandemic.

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“The experts have raised grave concerns about the current trajectory of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, particularly in light of the upcoming holidays and flu season,” said Curtatone, part of a regional coalition of mayors and municipal managers who have been regularly meeting with experts on COVID-19. “The evidence suggests that additional measures may be necessary to control the spread.”

According to state health officials, 62 Massachusetts communities are considered high risk on the state’s COVID-19 map as of Nov. 19.

Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, who directs Boston College’s Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good, wasn’t on the video call but said he is worried about the direction of the state’s coronavirus figures, which are trending up.

“There’s the real possibility that if people don’t take great precautions in the next month, we could see a fairly explosive increase,” Landrigan said in an interview. “I’m not saying it will happen, but there is a real risk that it could.”

The public health professionals from local universities and hospitals, who briefed the mayors and other local leaders Sunday afternoon, warned the state is facing increasing numbers of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

On Sunday, the state reported 2,721 new confirmed cases of coronavirus, which brought the state’s total to 200,050. Massachusetts’s death toll increased by 24, bringing it to 10,281.

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The state reported 39,073 active cases as of Sunday, an increase of 1,745 from the day before.

Hospitalizations in Massachusetts are also on the rise, according to state data.

The seven-day average of hospitalized coronavirus patients increased to 872 as of Friday. That is just shy of where that figure was on June 26, when the state reported an average of 874. The lowest that metric has been is 155, on Aug. 26.

Another closely watched metric of the pandemic’s impact on the state — the seven-day average rate of positive tests — was 3 percent as of Saturday, the state reported.

The rate, calculated from the total number of tests administered, had been as low as 0.8 percent, last reported on Sept. 23.

Across the country, nearly 257,000 people have died due to the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University, which also reported more than 12.2 million cases of the disease in the US Sunday.

National health experts have expressed concerns about the course of the pandemic, particularly as the holidays approach.

In Massachusetts, Dr. Abraar Karan, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, warned in a series of Twitter posts Sunday against holiday travel.

“Please realize that spending days together at home with family you don’t usually see is a very bad idea,” Karan said.

Landrigan, at Boston College, said the state’s numbers are relatively low, particularly compared to surging cases in the Midwest. But he noted that people in Massachusetts must not let down their guard during the holiday season.

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People should celebrate the holidays only with members of their households to help limit potential spread and protect others, particularly seniors and those with chronic illnesses.

Landrigan said he is also concerned with the potential impact on the state’s hospital system with a rise in cases. Earlier in the pandemic, the state was helped by medical workers from other parts of the country. But with cases flaring up across the United States, Massachusetts can’t count on help from elsewhere if cases surge here.

Governor Charlie Baker and the state health department must be prepared to take further action against the virus if needed, he said, including potentially shutting restaurants and bars if the pandemic worsens in Massachusetts.

“I think we are getting very close to the point where either, or both, of those may need to be closed down,” Landrigan said.

During Sunday’s conference call of Massachusetts health and municipal officials, experts pointed to survey data indicating that, aside from increasing mask wearing, people in Massachusetts are becoming more lax in following public health guidance in the months since the pandemic began.

They warned the mayors and town managers about several signs the pandemic is growing worse in the state. New daily cases are increasing, along with new hospitalizations, while data tracking the presence of the coronavirus in waste water indicated COVID-19 continues to spread.

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A Boston Globe reporter was invited to watch a portion of the call, which included seven health experts, along with dozens of local leaders.

Public health officials on the call said they aren’t sure what the impact of Thanksgiving and Christmas will be on new coronavirus infections, but said they are worried the holidays could lead to more new infections.

They told mayors and municipal officials that they need to serve as reliable messengers for public health information, and encourage people to comply with health guidance.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.