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Encouraging signs are beginning to emerge in Mass. and R.I. coronavirus data. Still, experts urge caution

Governor Charlie Baker toured the COVID-19 vaccination center at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield on Thursday.
Governor Charlie Baker toured the COVID-19 vaccination center at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield on Thursday.STEPHANIE ZOLLSHAN — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE/Associated Press

In Boston, COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to decline as mobile vaccination teams fan out across the city. Statewide, the seven-day average of deaths recently dipped to the lowest level since the early days of the pandemic.

In Rhode Island, where one-third of the population has been vaccinated, the governor announced that capacity limits on businesses will be gone by Memorial Day, heralding the promise of a resurgent summer.

While the threat of highly contagious coronavirus variants persists, the latest public health statistics in parts of New England suggest COVID-19′s grip is loosening. Public officials and some epidemiologists see signs of hope after a 14-month pandemic that has killed 570,000 people nationwide.

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“It’s a little early to put a ‘mission accomplished’ sign up,” Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee said Thursday as he announced that businesses could increase capacity to 80 percent on May 7. “But we’re getting ready to order that sign.”

More than 2.1 million people in Massachusetts are now fully immunized, and specialists said the broad distribution of vaccines appears to have arrived just in time to stem the variant-fueled surge that was gathering strength in March.

“In the absence of vaccines, that surge that we saw that is subsiding would have just continued to go up,” said Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University. “A week or two slower on vaccinations, and it would have been a completely different story.”

Dr. David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist, said the latest numbers in Massachusetts 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.”

Still, he advised caution, particularly given the threat of the B.1.1.7 variant that first emerged in the United Kingdom. That mutation, which is believed to be more transmissible and more dangerous, is now estimated to be the most common variant circulating in the United States.

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“I think it’s too early to celebrate,” he said. “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 said 80 to 85 percent of the state’s population will eventually need to be immunized to reach herd immunity, which cannot happen until children younger than 16 become eligible.

“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.”

Residents’ eagerness to be vaccinated is helping the cause. After touring a vaccination site in Pittsfield, Governor Charlie Baker touted federal statistics showing Massachusetts has the lowest rate of vaccine hesitancy in the nation.

“With all of our counties showing hesitancy rates that are well below 10 percent, people in Massachusetts are eager to get vaccinated,” Baker said. “This enthusiasm is a critical part of making Massachusetts the leading state among all big states in getting our residents vaccinated.”

Almost 47 percent of the state’s population has received one dose and nearly 32 percent is fully vaccinated.

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The state’s $30 million vaccine equity initiative has focused on “breaking down barriers to getting vaccinations and promoting access and awareness, especially in our disproportionately affected communities,” he added.

“We outperform nearly every other state when it comes to the percentage of our Black and Hispanic residents who’ve also received first doses,” Baker said.

The state Department of Public Health reported Thursday that another 94,047 people had received a vaccine dose. There were 1,431 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 17 new deaths, bringing the state’s total to 17,168.

The seven-day average rate of positive tests was at 2 percent. Officials said the rate would be 3.59 percent if college testing programs, which test people repeatedly to identify new cases quickly, were factored out.

Positivity rates 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, but officials warned against complacency.

“It’s really important for people to understand that we are not done with COVID,” Baker cautioned, urging people to take advantage of free testing sites. “We will not be completely done with COVID for quite a while.”

In Boston, Acting Mayor Kim Janey said the city’s fight is trending in the right direction.

“It is hopeful to see the rate of new cases and deaths continue to decrease,” she said. She praised the mobile vaccination teams for “meeting residents where they are.” In the past 13 days, more than 3,500 vaccinations were administered in Dorchester, East Boston, Roslindale, the South End, Allston, Roxbury, Hyde Park, and Jamaica Plain, she said.

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Public school students in grades K-8 who chose to return to in-person learning will return to the classroom Monday, she said.

In Rhode Island, the relaxed restrictions will allow restaurants to open outdoor bars. Masks won’t be required outside and there will not be any capacity limit on outdoor dining. Rapid COVID-19 testing for events, other than cocktail parties, will also be permitted to stop on May 7.

All businesses will be able to increase their capacity to 80 percent with patrons spaced 3 feet apart. It will be the highest capacity limit allowed by the state since before the pandemic began.

Beginning May 28, bars in Rhode Island will be allowed to have indoor standing service, without plexiglass, for the first time.

“We know that they need this relief,” McKee said of business owners.

In addition, Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor said several industries will be allowed to reopen at 100 percent capacity, including indoor dining with 3-feet spacing, catered events, houses of worship, retail stores, gyms and fitness centers, personal services such as salons, funeral homes, and offices.

Social gatherings are still limited to up to 25 people indoors and 75 people outdoors as of May 7. However, on May 28 there will no longer be a limit on social gathering.

“This is a terrific day for Rhode Island,” Pryor said.




Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com. Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.