The CDC says three Massachusetts counties now have “medium” community levels of COVID-19, an elevated designation shared by just 5 percent of all counties nationwide.
The new designation for Berkshire, Middlesex, and Suffolk counties was posted on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website Friday. The state’s other counties remain in the “low” category for community level of the virus.
The increased risk level reflects the latest evolution of the virus in Massachusetts, one expert said.
“What this is telling us is that ... BA.2 has taken over,” Dr. Sabrina A. Assoumou, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center, said in an interview Friday evening. “It is a more transmissible subvariant. The fact that we’ve moved to a different level is telling us that we need to be more cautious.”
The medium risk level designation comes as the number of daily case counts, and COVID-19 levels detected in waste water, are rising across Massachusetts. Newly confirmed cases Friday totaled 2,470, a marked jump compared with the 1,637 cases reported the prior Friday, according to state data.
It also comes weeks after Governor Charlie Baker’s administration closed most of the state’s mass COVID-19 testing sites.
Asked for comment on the medium designation, a spokesperson for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services issued a statement citing the state’s 82 percent vaccination rate, and lower virus positivity and hospitalization rates than the rest of the country.
“The people of Massachusetts have ready access to vaccines, rapid tests, and therapeutics — all the resources needed to stay safe from severe illness. The Administration will continue to work with the health care community and the federal government to monitor all of the latest developments,” the statement said.
County risk levels are determined by looking at hospital beds being used, hospital admissions, and the total number of new COVID-19 cases in an area, according to the CDC website.
The agency recommends a variety of measures to protect local residents, depending on risk level.
If you live in a county with a low level of the virus, you should stay up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines and get tested if you have symptoms.
If you live in a county with a medium level, you should take additional precautions. Among them: If you are at high risk for severe illness, talk to your health care provider about whether you need to wear a mask or take other protective measures. If you have contact with someone at high risk for severe disease, consider self-testing before meeting them and wearing a mask when indoors with them.
In Boston, which encompasses most of Suffolk County, the city’s public health commission had urged vigilance even before the CDC labeled the county increased risk.
The Boston Public Health Commission, pointing to rising COVID cases and other leading virus indicators, said it is imperative that “everyone remain vigilant and take the necessary precautions to protect themselves, our communities, and our health care systems.”
“In particular, as we approach school vacations, the Marathon, Easter, and other religious holidays, let’s use the tools — testing, masking, vaccines, and boosters — to slow the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the risk of severe infection,” the commission said in a statement.
The CDC determines community COVID-19 levels by using three metrics: cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, new COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 people, and percentage of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.
Berkshire, Middlesex, and Suffolk counties all had 200 or more cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days as of Thursday (207.29, 209.28, and 235.1, respectively), which earned them medium level designations. Their numbers on the other two measures weren’t enough to get them the high level designation.
All Massachusetts counties had been low for weeks, as the pandemic seemed to wane. But confirmed reported cases statewide have been moving back up from low levels, albeit not at the breakneck speed they rose during the Omicron surge.
The CDC’s online national map said Friday that 94 percent of all counties nationwide were seeing low community levels of the virus. Just 5 percent of all US counties were in the medium category, per the map. About a half-percent were seeing high levels.
Last week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky advised the public via Twitter to act when the data start trending in the wrong direction.
“Communities should watch for changes in COVID-19 Community Levels and take action when needed,” she tweeted, noting that the Omicron subvariant BA.2 has arrived in the United States “and a handful of counties have seen increases in #COVID19 cases as well as COVID-19 Community Levels.”
Assoumou said Massachusetts has “done a really good job” of getting people vaccinated, but the state is lagging on booster shots. Data released Friday showed that 5.3 million out of roughly 7 million state residents are vaccinated, but only 2.9 million booster doses have been administered.
Those who haven’t been vaccinated or boosted should do so, and as infections rise, people should again consider wearing a high-quality face mask, avoiding crowds, and seeking out well-ventilated spaces, she said.
“This is telling us that the pandemic is not over,” she said. “We have a lot of tools, and we just need to use them.”
If you just tested positive for #COVID-19 and have any symptoms, there are free treatments that may be right for you. Over 40% of MA residents are eligible. Contact your doctor or the self-referral line at 508-213-1380 to learn more, or visit: https://t.co/COQALwF9v6 #Covid19MA pic.twitter.com/Kjgg1QAqL8— Mass. Public Health (@MassDPH) April 14, 2022