The state should take these numbers as evidence that it’s time to roll back reopening, said Samuel Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist.
“We’re not seeing a major surge in cases. What we’re seeing are the indicators that a surge is coming,” Scarpino said. “Given how challenging it can be to intervene and slow the spread of COVID-19, the actions we take now are what’s going to determine whether we’re risking a situation like heading back to April or a situation that’s far more manageable.”
Scarpino advocated for returning to “at least” the second stage of Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, which would mean once again shuttering a number of entertainment venues including gyms, casinos, and movie theaters. Phase 2 occurred in two steps. The earlier step, initiated on June 8, reopened outdoor dining and some retail, as well as child care and day camps. On June 22, indoor dining and close-contact, personal services, including nail salons and tattoo parlors, were added to the list. Phase 3, which began on July 6 in most of the state, allowed for more indoor entertainment.
The head of the Massachusetts Medical Society said last week that the state should seriously reconsider allowing gyms, indoor dining, and casinos to remain open — if the state wants to keep infection rates low as it reopens schools in the fall.
“I would rather act too early than act too late,” Dr. David Rosman, the society’s president and associate chair of radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the Globe last week. “Our priority should be kids, school, and health. That’s where we should be focusing.”
For weeks, Massachusetts progressed through Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan without experiencing the spikes in infection that many other states have seen. But now, with new cases on the rise and the state’s seven-day average test positivity rate exceeding 2 percent for the first time since June, disease experts and residents alike are looking for answers.
“I am not ready to say that there’s a distinct trend that things are getting out of control,” said Dr. Barry Bloom, a professor and former dean of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But Bloom said the state should consider reversing course on reopening if the positivity rate continues to climb higher.
“What we want to be is around 1 [percent]. We’re now at 2.2. I would say the absolute limit which means we really have lost the ability to track things would be 5 percent, and I would start shutting things down at 2.5 or 3,” Bloom said. “It’s much easier to shut things down when the numbers are low.”
Bloom added that new lockdowns could be more targeted if the state fine-tunes its testing and contact tracing data to find patterns in outbreaks. Scarpino agreed. “I would encourage the governor to be more specific around where cases are coming from and be more specific about the indicators they’re tracking,” he said. “Are [new cases] coming from the house parties we’re reading about, or are they coming from the casino floors, the gyms, indoor dining?”
At the time that the state released its reopening plan in May, some epidemiologists voiced concern that it did not include specific standards for what increase in cases, positivity rate, or other metric would trigger new lockdowns.
As for the cause behind increasing cases, Baker said in multiple press conferences last week that large gatherings were to blame for several clustered outbreaks throughout the state and called parties without enforced social distancing a “recipe for disaster.” However, the state has not specified what number of new cases have been traced back to gatherings or listed other explanations for the increasing number of cases.
The Department of Public Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.