The coronavirus surge continued to rock Massachusetts Sunday as Framingham and Cambridge school officials planned to switch students to remote learning this week, and a COVID-19 field hospital in Worcester accepted its first patients.
Governor Charlie Baker warned months ago that the state would face a surge of cases in the fall but continued with reopening plans. On Sunday, public health experts called on the state to take aggressive action now to save lives this winter.
Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, who directs Boston College’s Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good, said he worries about the continuing scope of the pandemic.
“The fact that it’s expected, and it’s an anticipated increase, does not make it any less worrisome,” Landrigan said. “And I’m afraid that with the upcoming December holidays and more travel likely during this time, that case counts will go even higher.”
Landrigan and other experts warned Sunday that additional cases due to Thanksgiving travel and gatherings could emerge this week.
Robert A. Tremblay, Framingham’s school superintendent, partly attributed the decision to close school buildings to those festivities in a letter he sent to families on Thursday.
The closures start Monday and the building will remain shuttered until Jan. 4, or until public health conditions allow, he said.
“It is clear that the Thanksgiving holiday and behavior by some that went against public health guidance has resulted in the increased transmission of cases in our City,” Tremblay said in the statement. “This requires immediate, preventative action.”
In Cambridge, Superintendent Kenneth N. Salim notified families Sunday afternoon that schools would start remote learning Wednesday, and gave no date for the reopening of buildings.
He said Cambridge’s in-person learning will resume after at least two of the district’s COVID-19 metrics are below recommended thresholds for seven consecutive days.
“We want to remind our families and staff that this temporary shift does not mean Cambridge is in an emergency situation,” Salim said in the statement. “Our guidelines are clear. If we exceed two of the three metrics, we must shift to temporary remote learning for all as a precautionary measure to protect students, staff, their families, and the entire Cambridge community.”
In Worcester, a field hospital set up at the DCU Center convention space accepted its first five COVID-19 patients Sunday, according to Anthony Berry, a spokesman for UMass Memorial Health Care.
Dr. John Broach,the field hospital’s medical director, said in a statement that the facility is ready to accept up to 25 patients in its first week, and will be able to ramp up quickly to care for more patients depending on demand.
“Morale is high here today and we are honored to be standing up this facility and to be of service,” Broach said in the statement.
The state’s Department of Public Health reported 4,747 new COVID-19 cases across Massachusetts Sunday, bringing the state’s total to 247,559. It reported the death toll from confirmed cases increased by 48 to 10,763.
The state also reported 57,304 people were estimated to have active cases of COVID-19 as of Sunday and 1,416 confirmed coronavirus patients were in the hospital.
Earlier this year, the state had reported strong progress in its battle with COVID-19.
In early July, the seven-day average of new cases hit a historic low. The positivity rate here had been driven down from spring highs during the summer, and was below 1 percent for much of September.
Since then, rising metrics have been illustrating the virus’s spread in Massachusetts. The new case average skyrocketed to more than 3,400 as of Saturday, and health officials anticipate travel from Thanksgiving and the December holidays will drive case counts even higher.
And the state’s positivity rate in Massachusetts is more than 5 percent — and that figure is even higher if the results of widespread, frequent testing of university students is excluded.
Landrigan urged people to limit activities to only what is truly necessary, such as visiting a grocery store, and avoid bars and restaurants, as well as barbershops and beauty salons.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said the state should close casinos and restrict restaurants indoor dining in restaurants.
The governor should also step up messaging that emphasizes the gravity of the situation posed by the pandemic.
“Let’s take a pause, let’s see if we can get things under control, and then open up slowly based on data,” Jha said. “Essentially, what the governor did back in May and June.”
Dr. Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, warned that if the state doesn’t take strong measures immediately. Massachusetts could face even greater risk from the pandemic.
“The concern is that we’ll continue the increase we’re on now, we’ll likely see a surge from Thanksgiving that will set us up in a very dangerous way for a disaster over the winter holidays coming up at the end of December,” Scarpino said.
Last week the Centers for Disease Control released guidance that called for broader testing of those without symptoms and noted that indoor activities, such as restaurant dining, contributed to spread of the virus. The guidelines noted in particular that eating in restaurants was among the “high-risk scenarios.”
The state must follow that guidance and take more aggressive action to slow the virus’s spread, Scaprino said.
“If we continue with what we’re doing now, which is what we’ve been basically been doing for months, we’re risking a wholesale lockdown come the end of December,” he said.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.