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Mass. in “much better place” on COVID anniversary



By Colin A. Young

MARCH 9, 2022…..Almost exactly two years to the day that the coronavirus pandemic was declared an emergency in Massachusetts, the state’s top public health officer painted a brightening picture of the pandemic Wednesday and said she is optimistic about the trajectory of the state’s response.

“With vaccines and boosters and new COVID-19 therapeutic treatments, we are in a much better place than we were at this time last year,” Commissioner of Public Health Margret Cooke told the Public Health Council. “Residents have finally been able to gather more safely with family and friends. Students are in classrooms where they should be and more people are returning to their workplaces. I am confident that the commonwealth and the department will continue to make progress on the COVID-19 front and, with our help, will bring life to a new normal.”

Cooke said the state’s COVID-19 data points are encouraging “across the board.”

Since the Public Health Council’s last meeting on Feb. 9, Cooke said, the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases has decreased by 65 percent and COVID-19 hospitalizations have decreased by more than 70 percent. Roughly 77 percent of Massachusetts residents are now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, she said.

In about two years, there have been 1,545,910 confirmed coronavirus infections in Massachusetts and at least 22,916 people have died of the disease here. Gov. Charlie Baker on March 10, 2020 declared a state of emergency around the pandemic, which lasted until June 15, 2021. Since the early days of the pandemic when COVID-19 tests were in short supply and extremely hard to secure, Massachusetts has now administered more than 41.3 million tests for the virus.

Cooke stopped well short of declaring victory over the coronavirus Wednesday. About 10 months ago, when he ordered the end of most state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions, Baker came as close as any elected official has come to putting the pandemic in the past.

“Unless something very odd happens I would say that it is pretty much over but … I would put an asterisk on anything that says it’s over,” the governor said on May 28. “But I do believe that it is certainly on the run in a big way and, given the data as it currently exists right now, Massachusetts is in a place where we can lift these restrictions and do so with a fairly high degree of confidence that people have done the things that we needed to do to beat this thing down.”

The asterisk Baker put on his statement turned out to be warranted. After remaining at favorable levels through last summer, the delta and omicron variants fueled a fall COVID-19 resurgence that saw new cases skyrocket above previous surges, though vaccines and treatments helped to hold down hospitalizations and deaths.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the Public Health Council also voted to amend its regulations dealing with the reporting of potential exposures that first responders like EMTs, paramedics and police officers have to infectious diseases dangerous to the public health. In addition to setting up a multi-step framework for the reporting of potential exposures, the council also voted to add both COVID-19 and Hepatitis D to its list of “infectious diseases dangerous to the public health.”

“The Drug Supply Is Contaminated”
Cooke also wanted the Public Health Council to know that while the pandemic has commanded much of DPH’s focus over the last two years, its other work has continued. She highlighted DPH’s recent efforts to collect and analyze data related to the opioid crisis. She said DPH would provide its next in-depth opioid report in May but shared some of the trends that the agency has already picked up on from opioid overdose death data.

There were “concerning increases” in the prevalence of fentanyl and cocaine in opioid overdose deaths in the first three quarters of 2021, she said. Fentanyl, an extremely powerful synthetic opioid that is often used to cut less potent drugs and can be present without the user’s knowledge, was present in 94 percent of opioid overdose deaths in which a toxicology screening was conducted, Cooke said.

The number of opioid overdose deaths in which cocaine is detected in the deceased person’s system rose 8 percent from May 2021 through the end of the year, she said. The commissioner said those cases include both the intentional dual use of cocaine and opioids and the use of cocaine that is contaminated with fentanyl.

“We want to send a message to people in the commonwealth who use drugs: You need to know that the drug supply is contaminated. Fentanyl has been found in many other types of drugs in the drug supply. So if you do use drugs, please be as cautious as possible. Don’t use alone. If you overdose, you need someone nearby to administer naloxone and call for help. Carry naloxone. Through DPH’s standing order, this medication is available every pharmacy in the commonwealth and will save your life in the event of an overdose,” Cooke said. “Fentanyl test strips are a tool to test drugs for the presence of fentanyl and can indicate if fentanyl is present within a few minutes. These life-saving tools are available at needle exchanges and harm reduction services throughout the commonwealth.”

Cooke also suggested that anyone who is struggling with drug use or who is worried about someone else’s drug use call the Massachusetts substance use helpline at 800-327-5050. The line is staffed 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Total opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts climbed to a record high of 2,104 in 2020. In the first nine months of 2021, DPH reported a roughly 1 percent increase in fatalities from the first nine months of 2020.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Frank C

    March 10, 2022 at 12:04 pm

    Vladimir Putin ended COVID-19, not shutdowns, boosters, and masks.

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