By Chris Lisinski
State House News Service
NOV. 22, 2021…..Massachusetts is recording new COVID-19 cases at the highest rate since February, creating concerns among some public health experts about the impact of holiday gatherings even as Gov. Charlie Baker encourages families to “enjoy their Thanksgiving.”
With nearly 85 percent of the state’s population at least partially vaccinated against the virus, Massachusetts approaches the season in a vastly different place than it did one year ago, when the nation’s vaccine rollout had not yet begun.
But despite that progress, several worrying indicators have developed in recent weeks, prompting experts to urge a measure of caution as families plan their festive meals and gift exchanges.
Dr. Regina LaRocque, a faculty member in the infectious disease division at Mass General Hospital, said Monday that the state has exhibited “some early signs of concerning changes in case counts.”
“Our hospitals are stretched, our staff is stretched, our capacity is stretched, and I think that we are in a fragile situation with our medical system,” LaRocque, who is also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told the News Service. “More cases means a system that gets even more stretched, so that’s why I really want people to hear the message that of course they should enjoy the holidays, but not let down our guard.”
The Department on Public Health on Monday reported 6,801 new confirmed cases across Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Massachusetts hospitals currently hold 708 patients with COVID-19, and the most recent seven-day average for hospitalizations sits at 646.8, up from 84.8 on July 9.
In data tracked by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, new case counts in the Bay State are at the highest level in about nine months. The CDC said Massachusetts had a seven-day average of 2,493 cases on Sunday, the highest since Feb. 11.
Baker struck a cautiously optimistic tone on Monday, when he and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito toured a pair of small businesses in Needham to promote shopping locally.
Noting that more than 5 million Bay Staters are at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, Baker said residents “should enjoy their Thanksgiving.”
“People have worked really hard over the past year to get vaccinated here in Massachusetts, to help reopen the economy, to be able to be in a position where we can have a normal Thanksgiving,” he said. “Football games are happening on Thanksgiving morning. They don’t matter anymore in the league standings, which makes guys like me a little bit unhappy. But the bottom line is it’s still a big opportunity for us to get back to what I would describe as something that will feel a lot more like a traditional holiday.”
LaRocque agreed that residents should enjoy the season, and she said people should be aware of the growing ripples in the state’s COVID-19 outlook as they plot out their plans. In addition to getting vaccinated, LaRocque said families could take “sensible measures” to make their events as safe as possible, such as limiting the size of gatherings and getting tested for COVID-19.
One of her biggest concerns, she said, is the state of the pandemic in Europe, where several countries with high vaccination rates are grappling with potent outbreaks.
“Vaccination alone is not sufficient to prevent a surge of COVID in Massachusetts,” LaRocque said.
A more normal holiday would be a departure from 2020, when Baker urged the public to limit their Thanksgiving and winter holiday celebrations to their own households if possible.
Thanksgiving last year coincided with a massive surge in COVID-19 transmission. On Nov. 25, 2020, the day before Thanksgiving, Massachusetts averaged 2,732 new cases per day over the past week, according to DPH data. That rate more than doubled in the following weeks to a winter peak of 6,229 on Jan. 8.
At that time, none of the Bay State’s 7 million residents were vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We echo leading health experts in hoping families across the commonwealth can enjoy a more normal Thanksgiving this year,” said Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association. “This Thanksgiving, the best way individuals can express their gratitude to our healthcare community is by following public health guidance: getting vaccinated, getting the booster when eligible, and following CDC guidelines around young children or any other family members who are unvaccinated.”
“Our healthcare leaders are tracking public health trends around the clock and will continue to adjust their operations based on any scenario in the weeks ahead,” Walsh added.
Local health agencies are ramping up their messaging to urge caution amid the uptick in cases. On Monday, the Boston Public Health Commission published a list of recommendations for the holiday season including continuing to wear a mask indoors, limiting the size of gatherings, and getting tested for COVID-19 when displaying any symptoms.
“We encourage everyone to enjoy the holiday season and spend time with loved ones,” BPHC Executive Director Dr. Bisola Ojikutu said. “But please be safe. Vaccination is highly effective in reducing the risk of severe disease, hospitalization, and death. It is the most important step that you can take to protect yourself and your family and friends during the holidays.”
In Acton, officials on Monday similarly urged “continued vigilance” over the next few weeks. They suggested residents who are not fully vaccinated continue to wear masks in indoor public settings and that fully vaccinated people wear a mask indoors if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission.
Acton has 54 active recorded COVID-19 cases at the moment, the highest number since January, officials said.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing a number of breakthrough cases of COVID-19,” Acton Director of Nursing Services Heather York said in a statement. “The Town urges anyone who is showing symptoms of an illness to seek out a PCR COVID-19 test before returning to regular activities, and to follow holiday guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.”