COVID-19 cases are surging in the United States and Massachusetts, largely driven by the rise in the highly transmissible Omicron variant — and according to projection models, the situation is only expected to worsen.
For three consecutive days last week, Massachusetts had the highest number of COVID-19 cases reported in a single day since the start of the pandemic. On Friday, Massachusetts reported 10,040 confirmed COVID-19 cases, marking the first time the state has reported more than 10,000 new cases in a single day.
The state also on Tuesday reported a record number of infections among fully vaccinated individuals, an increase that comes as public health experts have warned that so-called “breakthrough” infections are likely to rise with early data suggesting the Omicron variant is capable of evading immunity provided by vaccines.
Forecast for cases
According to a COVID-19 model by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions of the US are the areas with new daily cases and hospitalizations that are rising the fastest. The data suggest that “Massachusetts may soon reach its peak, suggesting improvements may start in the north and spread to the south in the coming weeks,” researchers said on Dec. 16.
The rise in COVID cases comes as people traveled and spent time with family and friends for the holidays, and as colder weather meant time was spent indoors where the virus can transmit more easily.
“I do think we’re going to see a rise in cases over the over the next two weeks because of holiday gatherings,” said Dr. Kimon Zachary, an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Hopefully that will be blunted by individuals practicing good sense and testing before gatherings, but unfortunately, access to testing has been a challenge this holiday season.”
The United States is currently averaging the highest number of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. The average of about 265,000 new daily cases has surpassed the previous record of 250,000 during last winter’s surge, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
Forecast for hospitalizations
While the number of COVID-19 cases are expected to rise as the highly transmissible Omicron variant continues to spread, the number of hospitalizations and deaths that come as a result of infections are expected to be fewer proportionally than those seen under previous waves, said Zachary.
“From what we have learned so far, even [for] individuals who have some degree of immunity by virtue of vaccines or by prior infection, these individuals can still become infected with Omicron, but appear to be significantly less likely to become ill enough to require hospitalization,” Zachary said, adding that those who have received booster shots appear to be best protected against Omicron.
Still, according to the most recent data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, hospitalizations are rising in Massachusetts: 1,707 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, the department reported Tuesday. On Nov. 1, according to state data, there were 522 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, marking an increase of 227 percent in about two months. Of the 1,707 COVID patients currently hospitalized, 528, or about 31 percent were reported to be fully vaccinated when they contracted the virus, according to the data.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regularly releases so-called ensemble forecasts, which are models that combine predictions from various sources into one measure that is thought to be among the most reliable ways to project the COVID situation in the near future. The CDC noted that the forecasts “may not fully account for the emergence and rapid spread of the Omicron variant and should be interpreted with caution.”
The CDC’s projections show that by Jan. 21, Massachusetts could see 349 new daily COVID-19 hospitalizations. The higher range of the estimate would be 533 new daily hospitalizations in the state, while there would be 176 on the lower end, according to the CDC’s estimate.
More patients seeking treatment for medical conditions other than COVID-19 now compared to previous points during the pandemic has added additional stress to hospitals, Zachary said.
“[Massachusetts’] capacity to handle the surge in COVID cases has been strained since we came into this with pretty full hospitals,” Zachary said.
In the United States as a whole, hospitalizations are increasing, Zachary said, but the rate at which they are rising varies across the country, so some health care systems are more stressed than others.
“It appears as though communities where the proportion of the population is relatively highly unvaccinated, they’re experiencing a greater uptick in hospitalizations,” Zachary said.
Forecast for deaths
According to the CDC’s model, the average projection shows that by Jan. 22, Massachusetts could see 404 weekly COVID-19 deaths. According to the most recent data, the state saw 219 weekly deaths reported on Dec. 25.
The number of deaths is also expected to rise in the US. By Jan. 22, the US could see 12,273 deaths per week, according to the CDC’s average forecast. On Dec. 25, the country reported 7,376 weekly COVID deaths.
In order to stay safe amid the rise in COVID-19 cases and Omicron, Zachary suggested people continue taking the precautions they have adopted throughout the pandemic, including wearing masks when in indoor places with people whose vaccination status is unclear.
“In terms of what else people can do to keep themselves safe, I can’t emphasize enough: vaccination,” Zachary said. “I think that’s arguably the most important thing going forward, and that includes getting a booster if you are eligible for one.”