As Omicron retreats, the number of Massachusetts COVID-19 cases reported daily has continued to decline sharply. Encouraging decreases have also been reported in the percentage of coronavirus tests that come back positive and in the amount of the virus detected in Boston area waste water.
COVID-19 hospitalizations, which tend to lag cases, have also fallen, but not by as much as cases. And deaths are on the rise.
The seven-day average of confirmed reported cases dropped to 10,657 on Tuesday, less than half the peak of 22,451 reached on Jan. 11. While the news is encouraging, the current numbers are still much higher than they were in the fall, not to mention last summer, when cases numbered only in the dozens each day.
The percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive has also been declining from peaks it reached earlier this month. The seven-day average of test positivity — with routine testing by colleges factored out — was 17.88 percent on Jan. 19. It had been as high as 26.04 percent on Jan. 9.
Experts say official testing numbers don’t tell the whole the story of the pandemic because people may not have symptoms or, if they are symptomatic, may not get an official test, or may be content with doing a rapid, at-home test, with the results never officially reported.
The amount of coronavirus detected in the waste water, shed by people in fecal matter, is seen as another way to determine the level of infection — as well as an early indicator of cases. Those numbers have also been plummeting since the first days of January. As of Friday, the levels had dropped to less than a fifth of their peak.
The waste water from 43 Eastern Massachusetts communities, including Boston, is tested for the virus when it flows into the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s waste water treatment plant on Boston Harbor. The MWRA reports numbers for both the northern and southern regions of the system. The declines were seen in both.
Less encouraging are the hospitalization numbers in Massachusetts, which have not fallen at the same rate as COVID cases.
The state reported Tuesday that 2,688 patients were hospitalized with COVID, down from 3,306 on Jan. 14, or about a 19 percent drop. The number remains slightly higher than the number hospitalized during last winter’s deadly surge.
Still more worrisome is that deaths have been climbing, a follow-on effect of cases and hospitalizations. The seven-day average of daily confirmed coronavirus deaths has hovered around 66 for several days, up from 14.4 on Dec. 1.
Matthew Fox, a professor of epidemiology and global health at Boston University School of Public Health, said the pattern of steeply declining cases, with declines in hospitalizations and deaths lagging behind, was expected.
“It takes a few weeks after cases peak for hospitalizations to peak and then a few weeks after that for deaths to peak. So we reached the peak in cases earlier and are now just starting to see the impact on reduced hospitalizations,” he said in an e-mail. “Deaths won’t come down for another few weeks, though we hope earlier.”
Andrew Lover, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at UMass Amherst, cautioned in an e-mail that deaths might hit a “long plateau,” noting that there are still hundreds of patients with COVID-19 in the state’s intensive care units at this point.
Howard Koh, a former US assistant secretary of health and human services and Massachusetts public health commissioner who is now a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in an e-mail, “Rapidly dropping case rates are a great relief but the current level of hospitalizations and deaths remains unacceptable.” He urged people to get fully vaccinated and boosted.
Fox said, “Things are getting much better. But that doesn’t mean we should let down our guard completely. Once cases are down substantially, we can increase our interactions with each other, but know that other waves (hopefully smaller ones) will come and we want to be prepared to reduce those contacts early when we see cases go up so that things are not as bad. We hopefully won’t see severe impacts in the future, but we will still need to take action.”
This story has been updated with the latest numbers released by the Department of Public Health Tuesday.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.