As Massachusetts battles another COVID-19 surge, it’s a good time to look at the state of the coronavirus outbreak locally. How hard is COVID hitting the state right now?
During earlier stages of the pandemic, it was an easy question to answer: case numbers, hospitalization rates, and other metrics were reported by the state almost daily, giving residents a near real-time picture of the severity of a given outbreak. But what about now, at a time when new data is released on a weekly basis? Below are several metrics to watch:
Testing and waste water data
Waste water data is arguably becoming one of the most important metrics when assessing the severity of a COVID-19 outbreak. With the widespread adoption of at-home testing, the PCR test results reported to state health officials cannot capture the number cases in a given community. The average number of PCR tests being conducted on any given day has dropped dramatically during the most recent surge of COVID cases as compared to earlier surges. Roughly 11,000 tests per day were reported to state officials in recent weeks. Compare that level in the chart below to levels seen during the height of the Omicron surge, a time when at-home tests were in short supply:
Even before the adoption of at-home testing, waste water data served as something of an early warning system, with case rates rising and falling shortly after spikes and dips appeared in the virus levels detected from Deer Island treatment facility samples. Most recently, we can see that after levels of coronavirus rose over the holidays, the outbreak appears to be receding quickly.
Another indicator of risk for contracting COVID-19 is the Centers for Disease Control’s community level data. The CDC compiles several metrics, including case rates, hospitalizations, and hospital capacity data to determine the COVID risk level by county. The community level data also serves to offer residents guidelines on when masking is recommended in indoor public places.
Currently, the CDC’s community level data indicate that all of Massachusetts is at a “medium” level. At this level, the CDC recommends wearing a high-quality mask in indoor public places if you are at high risk of severe illness. The situation as of Thursday is an improvement over last week, when several counties were at a “high” level.
Another metric to follow closely is hospitalization data. This is a number that has been tracked closely by public health experts since the start of the pandemic and continues to be an important indicator of the severity of cases in the community. The latest numbers, released Thursday, show that the expected winter COVID surge may be levelling off, with 409 Massachusetts patients hospitalized primarily due to COVID as of Jan. 10.
Like hospitalizations, deaths from COVID has been a closely watched metric since the start of the pandemic. Massachusetts has seen the number of weekly deaths increase substantially since the beginning of the most recent COVID surge, however the figures pale in comparison to the death levels at the height of the Omicron surge, when as many as 544 people died in a single week. Toggle between the charts below to see how the recent surge compares with previous outbreaks.