Mass. surpasses 16,000 deaths due to COVID-19

People rode on a trolley tour in Boston on Friday. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Massachusetts crossed a grim new threshold in the fight against COVID-19, as the state’s death toll passed 16,000 Saturday, even as numbers of new cases and hospitalizations continued to decline in the state.

The Department of Public Health reported 52 new deaths, which brought the total number of deaths to 16,044.

But despite recent overall declines in numbers of new cases and deaths, Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, criticized the state’s handling of the pandemic Saturday, pointing to US Centers for Disease Control data that reported Massachusetts had the fourth-highest death rate in the country.

The state, with a death rate due to the coronavirus of 235 per 100,000 people, was behind New York City, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, according to CDC data.

“To put this in perspective, if our state had managed this pandemic more effectively and the result was a mortality rate at the national average, there might be 6,000 more people alive today in the state,” Scarpino said in an e-mail. “This is truly horrific.”

On Saturday, the Department of Public Health reported 1,495 new confirmed coronavirus cases Saturday, bringing the state’s total to more than 557,000.

The state reported that the number of coronavirus vaccinations administered in Massachusetts rose by 63,828 to a total of more than 2 million.

State data released Saturday showed that seven-day averages of daily new cases have fallen from their Jan. 8 peak of more than 6,200 to about 1,000 as of Friday. Hospitalizations have declined from a mid-January high to levels not seen since November, according to the state.

The seven-day average of new deaths has also fallen from January highs, but those numbers continue to run in the double digits in Massachusetts.

The new milestone in the pandemic’s death toll also comes less than a week after Governor Charlie Baker implemented rollbacks of some pandemic health restrictions, including eased capacity limits for restaurants and some other businesses.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director who helped advise Baker on the state’s economic reopening plan and former head of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Infectious Diseases, urged states last Monday to not ease restrictions too soon.

Public health officials have also warned against complacency toward COVID-19 due to the presence of coronavirus variants in the United States, including a mutation first identified in the United Kingdom.

According to the CDC, there have been more than 2,600 cases of the UK coronavirus variant in the United States, including 57 in Massachusetts.

Scarpino said that due to the high proportion of vaccinations for people over the age of 65, hospitalizations and deaths should be lower in any future COVID-19 surges. But he warned that the UK variant — which is also referred to as B117 — remains a threat.

Nationally, we are seeing “exponential growth” in the UK variant, he said, while a decline in cases across the United States has recently leveled off.

This leveling off is “almost certainly” only due to the UK variant, he said.

“I’d love to be wrong about this one,” Scarpino said, “but if we end up relaxing measures just as B117 takes hold and with mobility already back to pre-pandemic levels, we might end up erasing all the gains since [January].”

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