Nearly a quarter of Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns are now at high risk for coronavirus transmission — with the rising number of “red” zone communities coming as health officials say they’re “hunkering down” for a surge in cases and hospitalizations after Thanksgiving.
Weekly town, city COVID count
“Just look at Memorial Day, look at the Fourth of July, look at Labor Day,” Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health, said. “We saw surges after all those holidays and it’s very difficult for me to think that we’re going in any other direction but up — which is the wrong trajectory — after Thanksgiving.”
The 81 communities in the red this week include Attleboro, Barnstable, Bellingham, Berkley, Blackstone, Boxford, Brockton, Chelmsford, Chelsea, Chicopee, Clinton, Dartmouth, Dighton, Douglas, Dracut, East Longmeadow, Edgartown, Everett, Fairhaven, Fall River, Fitchburg, Framingham, Freetown, Gardner, Georgetown, Hampden, Haverhill, Holyoke, Hopedale, Lancaster, Lawrence, Leicester, Lenox, Leominster, Littleton, Lowell, Ludlow, Lunenburg and Lynn.
Also at high risk are Malden, Marion, Mendon, Merrimac, Methuen, Middleton, Milford, Millbury, Monson, New Bedford, Norfolk, Oak Bluffs, Paxton, Peabody, Rehoboth, Revere, Rutland, Salisbury, Saugus, Seekonk, Shirley, Somerset, Southbridge, Southwick, Springfield, Sterling, Sutton, Swansea, Taunton, Templeton, Tisbury, Tyngsboro, Upton, Uxbridge, Wenham, West Boylston, West Springfield, Westminster, Westport, Whitman, Winchendon and Woburn.
The number of high-risk communities has climbed each week since the state revamped its metrics earlier this month, rising from 62 last week, 30 the week prior and 16 the week before that.
There were 144 communities listed as “yellow” for moderate risk this week, up from 140 last week. Boston, where Mayor Martin Walsh said the most recent coronavirus data show “encouraging signs,” was designated moderate-risk.
The number of low-risk “green” cities and towns dropped to 27 from 34 last week.
This week’s risk data is from the two-week period ending last Saturday, and therefore doesn’t factor in Thanksgiving. But public health experts warn the recent rise in daily case counts and in the number of high-risk communities could worsen after Thanksgiving.
“In the next two to four weeks we’ll see an increase in infections, hospitalizations and, sadly, deaths,” said Dr. Helen Boucher, chief of geographic medicine and infectious diseases at Tufts Medical Center. “So we’re hunkering down and actively preparing — all of us in the hospital business are prepared for a surge.”
The consequences of Thanksgiving gatherings could “be very significant” at a time when some Massachusetts hospitals are already “stretching our limits,” Dr. Michael Hirsh, medical director of the Worcester Department of Public Health, said in a press conference this week.
Unlike in the spring, officials say they’re worried less about getting enough personal protective equipment and ventilators and more concerned about the strain on health care workers who are continuing to fall ill with the virus.
“It’s not going to be PPE, it’s not going to be ventilators, it’s not going to be (intensive care unit) space,” Hirsh said. “It’s going to be healthy medical staff to take care of the patients.”
Experts say the full impacts of Thanksgiving likely won’t be clear until Christmas, given lag times in seeing changes in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Massachusetts General Hospital emergency preparedness director Dr. Paul Biddinger said that means the gathering limits and travel restrictions put in place ahead of Thanksgiving are likely to extend through the winter holidays.
“We need to hold the course a little while longer to try to keep this virus at bay and to try and get community prevalence low again until we have a vaccine,” Biddinger said.