Is it possible the coronavirus is beginning to loosen its deadly grip on Massachusetts?
Encouraging signs are emerging in the coronavirus data being released by the state Department of Public Health. Experts say the data suggest that the state’s vaccination campaign, which has now fully protected more than 2.1 million people, is working — even as worrisome coronavirus variants spread through the state.
Here’s a look at some key indicators that are offering a glimmer of hope:
First, let’s examine confirmed coronavirus deaths. In recent days, the seven-day average of reported deaths fell to 9, the lowest level it has seen since the pandemic exploded with its first surge in the spring of 2020. Since then, it has wavered up and down; it stood at 12 on Thursday.
Underlining the trend: On Tuesday, the single-day total was only 3.
Now, let’s take a look at cases. The seven-day average of reported cases plummeted from the height of the second surge at the beginning of 2021 to around 1,300 a day in early March. It climbed again to over 2,000 in late March and early April. In recent days, it has been heading down again, though it has not yet dropped to last summer’s levels.
The percentage of coronavirus tests that come back positive is another measure that officials and experts monitor. The positivity percentage numbers also dropped sharply after the peak of the second surge early this year, then bumped up in March and earlier this month. The numbers are now heading down again, with some fluctuations.
The chart shows the positivity percentage with the effect of college testing programs factored out. College testing programs dilute the data because they repeatedly test large numbers of asymptomatic people in an effort to rapidly identify new cases.
So what’s going on?
The state’s vaccine program has not only fully protected more than 2.1 million people. As of Thursday, a total of more than 3.4 million people have either gotten their first shots of the two-dose vaccines from Moderna or Pfizer or a shot of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Older people, who are more vulnerable to the deadly virus, were prioritized early in the campaign.
At the same time, officials and experts have warned of the arrival of variants, particularly the B.1.1.7 variant that first emerged in the United Kingdom, which is believed to be more transmissible and more dangerous. That variant is now estimated to be the most common variant circulating in the United States.
Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, said the vaccines appear to have arrived just in time to blunt a variant-fueled surge that was ramping up in March.
“In the absence of vaccines, that surge that we saw that is subsiding would have just continued to go up,” he said, and the state could have seen a deadly spike like the state of Michigan saw or the one India is currently experiencing.
“A week or two slower on vaccinations, and it would have been a completely different story,” he said.
Dr. David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist, said the numbers appeared to show “an encouraging trend” and could be a sign that “there’s enough vaccine distribution, especially in older populations, that it’s showing the benefit.”
But he said, “There’s a competition between that more dangerous strain and the gradual protective effect of vaccines. … I think it’s too early to celebrate. We need to see if these trends continue and if there’s continued reduction, particularly in cases and the proportion positive. I expect that if that happens, deaths will drop down to very low numbers, which is great, and then we may be able to begin to celebrate.”
Scarpino also emphasized that the state can’t let up on its effort to get the population vaccinated. He said 80 to 85 percent of the state’s total population needs to get shots, which means the state’s current campaign will have to expand to include people younger than 16, the current age limit.
“We’ve got a ways to go still,” he said. “Cases are going to drop. The weather’s going to help. We’re going to have a summer that will feel more normal than last summer. But we need to keep focused on 80 to 85 percent of everyone that lives in the state of Massachusetts getting vaccinated.”
“We want to make sure we get people vaccinated before we enter into the fall, the respiratory disease season,” he said.
Martin Finucane can be reached at email@example.com.