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State remains at risk for COVID-19, despite downturn in cases

CIC Health COVID-19 vaccination site at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
CIC Health COVID-19 vaccination site at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

As Massachusetts continues its battle against COVID-19, a new mass vaccination facility in Lowell is expected to open Monday and the state’s new call center will start its first full week helping eligible people navigate a serpentine sign-up process for getting appointments statewide.

Also as the workweek begins, the state will ease capacity restrictions on businesses such as restaurants and stores, with the goal of resuming some sense of normalcy amid a downturn in coronavirus cases nearly a year into the pandemic.

But public health and elected officials also called for caution Sunday, warning that the state’s progress against the coronavirus could all too easily be reversed. Super Bowl parties could spur new cases, while more transmissible variants of COVID-19, particularly a highly contagious strain first identified in Britain, could result in spikes this spring.

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“We are definitely at risk,” said Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University. “We have way too many cases and deaths happening each week to be comfortable that we’ve got it on the run.”

The new vaccination center, overseen by Lowell General Hospital and the Circle Health system, will start Monday administering about 400 doses a day at the Cross River Center in the city, said Amy Hoey, the chief operating officer of Lowell General Hospital.

The goal will be to administer 1,000 daily doses at the center when it has an adequate supply of vaccines, she said. The facility is designed with the capacity to administer more than 5,000 doses a day and officials hope to eventually be able to do that many.

“It’s a national, state, and regional goal to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” Hoey said.

Meanwhile, the state call center will have more than 500 workers available to help potentially thousands of eligible residents book appointments for vaccinations. On Friday, on the call center’s first day, it received about 7,100 calls and scheduled about 1,200 appointments, according to the state’s COVID-19 Respond Command Center.

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The state will loosen capacity restrictions on businesses such as restaurants, gyms, and stores, raising them from 25 percent on Monday to 40 percent.

The move is supported by Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, who urged officials to focus on messaging that can help direct the state safely out of the pandemic and back to normal life.

“We’ve got to tell [people], if we mask up, they do the testing, they get vaccinated, we protect those who are vulnerable, we can take measured steps to getting back to our lives,” Hurst said. “We have got to give those who have been hurt some measure of hope as we move forward.”

On Sunday, the state’s Department of Public Health reported 3,004 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, along with 76 new deaths. Those latest figures bring the total number of infections in Massachusetts to 516,530. The death toll rose to 14,698.

The pandemic continued to take its toll over the weekend.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst announced Sunday it would pause athletics for at least 14 days after the campus’s risk level for the virus was raised from “elevated” to “high,” the school’s athletic department said on Twitter.

And Deborah B. Goldberg, the state treasurer, announced in a statement that she has tested positive for COVID-19. Goldberg is monitoring her symptoms, following public health guidelines, and is quarantining at home, according to the statement.

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In Lowell, hospital officials are working with primary care providers affiliated with Circle Health, as well as through local organizations, to contact eligible people about scheduling vaccinations, according to Hoey. She said they plan to launch a website to allow any eligible Massachusetts resident to sign up for a vaccination shot.

The state call center, which Governor Charlie Baker announced Friday, can be reached by calling 211 and is scheduled to be open Mondays through Fridays 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Translators will be available in about 100 languages, according to Baker.

Criticism over the difficulty of using the state’s website, which connects people to separate registration systems for vaccination appointments, poured in before Baker implemented the call center.

But problems persist with the state’s online sign-up.

On Saturday in Framingham, dozens of seniors were mistakenly allowed to sign up to receive shots at a local school intended to serve as a vaccination site for city residents only.

In Springfield, where the Eastfield Mall opened as a state mass vaccination site Jan. 29, many people who signed up for their first of two shots were not able to schedule second doses, said state Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat.

“Something that I am hearing from every community is that it is very confusing and unclear how you actually access the vaccine if you are eligible,” Lesser said.

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When he announced last week that the state would roll back some capacity restrictions, Baker cited the state’s progress against the coronavirus in Massachusetts. As of Friday, the state’s seven-day average of new cases had fallen from a record high of more than 6,200 cases Jan. 8 to almost 2,300 reported Feb. 5.

But Horsburgh expressed frustration with the state’s progress on tamping down new infections, noting that current statistics remain deeply troubling, particularly the daily numbers of new deaths.

The rolling seven-day average of new deaths has been declining from a recent high of 74 deaths reported Jan. 10, according to the state. But that figure has remained above an average of 50 daily deaths for much of that time.

“I do think Massachusetts has not done enough to restrict the spread of the virus, compared to other states,” Horsburgh said. “There is too much ability for people to go out and congregate.... It doesn’t make sense to be allowing people to go out and do things that put them at risk for spreading the virus.”

Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said restaurants have closely hewed to public health rules, including strict measures for social distancing and protective equipment for servers and other workers.

The eased restrictions will help them stay in business and retain their workforce, he said.

“Restaurants do what they are told to do; they follow those protocols,” Luz said. “They take them seriously because they don’t want to ever be closed again.”

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Dr. David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist, said the state should be moving more slowly, particularly with the concerns about spikes resulting from Super Bowl parties.

“I would have preferred that the state waited at least two weeks, and see what happened after the Super Bowl weekend,” Hamer said.

There are about 1.1 million residents in the state eligible to get COVID-19 vaccine, including about 450,000 people age 75 and older, health workers, and first responders, according to the state.

As of Sunday night, the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center reported about 833,000 vaccine doses in Massachusetts have been administered to people, out of more than 1.24 million vaccine total doses delivered to the state.

Hamer said the state’s vaccine rollout has been inconsistent; if he were to assign the state a grade, it would be a B-minus.

“Massachusetts has so much biotech and health care capacity, you’d think we could deliver vaccines effectively,” Hamer said.


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