COVID case continue their drastic drop from January’s highs

BOSTON — Two years ago this week, Covid-19 officially became more than a theoretical threat to Massachusetts residents, when public health officials announced the first evidence of community spread.

Those cases, in the Berkshires, brought the total case count that week in March 2020 to just over 100. The first state death from Covid-19 was still 10 days away.

Since then, Massachusetts has seen more than 1.5 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 -- and more than 23,000 deaths.

“No one expected it to be this bad and last for so long,” said Richard Ellison, MD, an infectious disease specialist at UMass Memorial Medical Center. “Most infectious disease doctors and epidemiologists looked back and said, there was an outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong. That was brought under control in a couple of months. Then there was MERS, which had been going and going in Saudi Arabia. but never spread to a worldwide pandemic. So everyone was thinking, this could be bad a little bit, but hopefully it’s going to be acting like those two coronaviruses.”

Instead, two years later, Covid-19 continues to ravage certain populations and to disrupt others. But is the pandemic’s end finally in sight?

“I’ve been reassured that the drop in cases, hospitalizations, even deaths has now proceeded in a steady way,” said William Schaffner, MD, a professor in the Infectious Disease Division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “We’re out around six to eight weeks now and that reassures me we’re on the right track.”

Those drops are happening in just about every state -- including Massachusetts -- where the daily case count has dropped 99.56% from its high of more than 36,000 on January 3rd. Tuesday, the state recorded just 160 cases.

Positive tests are also way down -- from a peak of more than 23% on January 5th to 1.62% this week. That 93 percent drop coincides with a drop in testing so dramatic that the state plans to close several testing sites later this month.

Also down -- vaccinations. The latest data from the state Department of Public Health shows just over a thousand first doses of Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines administered Tuesday -- and just over a thousand second doses of Moderna and Pfizer. Booster shot administration is more robust, with a daily average of 19,000 shots.

“By every measure, we’re looking at, things have really dropped off dramatically,” Ellison said. “But I also view this as somewhat of a dangerous time, which you always see at the end of some kind of outbreak situation.”

For one thing, Ellison said there is still Covid in the area and people are still getting sick.

For another, it’s still winter.

“I’m looking out the window of my office and there’s snow coming down,” he said. “People are not going outside. And until they are spending more time outside, windows open, better ventilation -- this is still the kind of weather where cold viruses spread.”

And there remains a pool of people who can readily become infected

“It won’t disappear,” Schaffner said. “It will continue to smolder in our population, finding under-vaccinated and unvaccinated people and putting them in the hospital.”

And finally, there’s the wild card of covid.

“It’s a definite that there will be more variants,” Ellison said.

But whether those variants will be of consequence -- that is the overall question.

“Will they be able to compete, will they be more transmissible,” said Schaffner. “Will they possibly cause more severe disease? And most of all, will any new variant be able to evade the protection of our vaccines?”

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