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Is Massachusetts In A Post-Thanksgiving Coronavirus Spike? It Depends On Who You Ask

Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday said the state's data show a spike in coronavirus cases following Thanksgiving. Whether the increase is from holiday gatherings or a continuation of the state's autumn surge in cases is unclear, however.

The Republican governor first pointed to the state's test results following new restrictions on public gatherings and a curfew on indoor dining that went into effect near the beginning of November. Those efforts, Baker said, helped to stop the growth in new cases and curb the increase in the state's positive test rate.

"And then in about five to seven days after Thanksgiving, which is the typical incubation period, they took off like a rocket," he said.

That increase, he said, is in line with what he and health officials had warned about heading into the holiday.

"Four weeks before the Thanksgiving holiday, we stood here and so many other folks in the public policy, government, public health and health care community stood in other places and said to people that it was critically important that they understand and recognize that Thanksgiving, an informal gathering among people we all know, is by far and away the most significant opportunity for spread," he said.

While there certainly have been more new cases reported in the post-Thanksgiving period, it may be that more time is still needed to see the full picture of the holiday's impact on the pandemic here. Rather, the rise could be tied to a course set weeks and weeks beforehand.

Sam Scarpino, assistant professor of network science and head of Northeastern University's Emergent Epidemics Lab, said the case increase in Massachusetts has been building for months.

"If you just basically fit an exponential growth curve to the data in October and then just run that line forward through November, it kind of cuts right through the middle of the testing patterns during Thanksgiving and pretty much exactly predicts the test positivity rates that we're seeing over the past few days," Scarpino said.

"I actually think, if anything, we're probably not seeing the huge surge from Thanksgiving," he continued. "I think we'll start to see that in the coming days, or, at least, we're kind of holding our breath to see if it's going to happen and how big it's going to be."

In particular, Scarpino said he's concerned about the number of first-time test takers who are positive for the coronavirus. He said that figure is perhaps the best predictor of increased hospitalizations over the next seven to 14 days.

"This is something the state stopped reporting on their dashboard a few weeks ago and is now, you know, basically at 20% on the seven-day rolling average," he said. "And this number is way up, has consistently increased over the past months. And so I think, if anything, the governor was slow to announce that there was a surge in cases and has continued not to take any action to try and slow down COVID-19."

Here are the state's new cases, recorded by the day each positive result was recorded. WBUR marked when the new restrictions were put into place, and Thanksgiving, to make the comparison easier. (Cases are often reported days after they occur, which is why there's a noticeable tail-off in the most recent days):

Here's that same chart, but beginning on Nov. 1:

What's true, whether a result of a post-Thanksgiving spike or not, is that hospitals are starting to fill up again in Massachusetts. To address that, Baker announced Monday that the state will "curtail" some elective inpatient procedures as a way to free up beds and staff to address the growing number of coronavirus infections. The state also has reopened a field hospital at the DCU Center in Worcester, and is building a similar makeshift hospital in Lowell.

To Scarpino, the state must do more now to prevent another full lockdown like the one issued in the spring. It's a sentiment shared by other public health experts.

"When we see the governor saying that they're going to curtail elective procedures and they're reopening some of the field hospitals, it's because they have to know what's coming," Scarpino said. "The cases today, those are the hospitalizations in two weeks. There's nothing we can do about those at this point.

"We can do something about the hospitalizations in three weeks if we put in measures," he continued. "But I suspect that the governor's team are looking at the same data I am and reaching the same conclusion. They're just coming up with a different set of policies, which don't include interventions to actually slow down COVID transmission."

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Roberto Scalese Twitter Digital Producer
Roberto Scalese is a digital producer and editor. 

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