Hard-hit Massachusetts worries COVID-19 respite is fleeting

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A customer at Answer is Fitness gym, who asked that his name not be used, works out on a piece of exercise equipment, Monday, July 6, 2020, at the gym, in Canton, Mass. Casinos, gyms, movie theaters, and museums are among the businesses allowed to reopen in the state on Monday, under the third phase of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker's coronavirus economic recovery plan. The rules don't apply to Boston, which is to move into phase three on July 13. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

A house party attended by restaurant workers in a picturesque beach town in Massachusetts has led to more than a dozen new coronavirus infections.

On the western side of the state, a Springfield hospital is dealing with an outbreak of at least 40 cases traced to a hospital staffer who recently returned from an out-of-state vacation.

Less than a month after Massachusetts allowed gyms, movie theaters, museums and other public venues to reopen on July 6, there’s an increasing sense of dread that the hard-hit state’s summertime respite from the pandemic is waning just as families are looking ahead to the start of school.

“Pay attention #Massachusetts — #COVID19 is on the rise. The numbers show it. The anecdotes show it,” Dr. David Rosman, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a series of widely shared tweets Sunday.

Rosman, who is also the associate chair of radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said in a followup interview Wednesday that the recent uptick should be a clarion call to redouble virus prevention efforts in Massachusetts. The state has more than 8,300 deaths from COVID-19, among the highest in the nation.

He and others have also urged Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to consider rolling back his decision to move the state into the third phase of his reopening plan if case numbers don’t improve.

In the Boston suburb of Somerville, home to Tufts University, Mayor Joseph Curtatone has voiced similar concerns for weeks.

The Democratic mayor, who this month opted to hold fast to the state’s previous, stricter coronavirus guidelines, said Friday his city will hold off on enacting Phase 3 of the governor's reopening plan for another two weeks.

“Pressing pause on this next phase is painful, but necessary," Curtatone said in a written statement. “We are watching as the virus rages and businesses are shut back down in states that ignored clear warnings that they were opening too quickly. We are also watching state and local data head in the wrong direction.”

Worries about a summertime resurgence extend into neighboring Rhode Island, which mobilized National Guard troops in the earlier days of the pandemic to go door to door tracking down visitors from New York — then the pandemic's epicenter — to ensure quarantines.

The tiny state has been relatively spared from the pandemic, but saw a spike of more than 100 newly confirmed cases Tuesday — Rhode Island's highest single-day total in months.

In response, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo on Wednesday delayed the next phase in the state’s reopening plan by another month. She also cut back the maximum size of house parties and other social gatherings from 25 to 15 people, citing infections linked to parties, particularly among young adults.

“We’re partying too much,” Raimondo said. “It’s clear we’re not ready to move forward.”

She also imposed stricter limits at the Ocean State’s increasingly crowded beaches in recent weeks, and has threatened to impose tougher measures on bars and restaurants after some owners continue to flout the state’s virus regulations.

Baker on Friday similarly threatened to cut the number of people allowed at private gatherings, but hasn’t publicly entertained the idea of rolling back other parts of the economic reopening in Massachusetts, which had the highest unemployment rate in the nation in June, at more than 17%.

He maintains that much of the state’s recent uptick can be attributed to individuals “letting down their guard” and not practicing proper virus safety etiquette — rather than to reopening the state economy too soon or too widely.

At the same time, Baker has announced stricter travel restrictions on people coming into the state starting Aug. 1, in recognition of soaring caseloads elsewhere.

Baker and other state officials stress Massachusetts' key virus measures remain far below those in other states, and below where Massachusetts stood when he began the phased reopening in mid-May. The state’s seven-day positive test rate was nearly 10% back then; it’s now around 2%.

Rosman and other leading physicians counter that Massachusetts has averaged roughly 300 daily cases in recent days, a roughly 30% increase from prior weeks. They also point to anecdotal evidence that the public has grown too lax in the virus fight.

Besides the outbreaks tied to the Chatham house party and the Baystate Medical Center, state officials are investigating COVID-19 clusters from a lifeguard party in Falmouth, a high school graduation party in Chelmsford and an unauthorized football camp in Weymouth, among other large gatherings, Baker said Friday.

“We think we’re winding down on COVID-19, but we’re not,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said earlier this week after an image of a seemingly packed harbor cruise ship went viral last weekend. “If we’re in a sporting event, we’re probably at halftime right now.”

Rosman, the medical society president, said a return to virus safety fundamentals is even more crucial as local communities prepare to reopen schools and tens of thousands of college students arrive on campuses in the coming weeks.

“If the goal is to get back to school, we have to do the actions needed to get there,” he said. “It’s like trying to lose 20 pounds. You don’t get there by eating McDonald's. You do it by exercising and eating right.”