A few weeks ago it was easy to think that we might have turned a corner in this pandemic.
Students in most school districts were finally back in class, even if not for five-day school weeks and even if classrooms were only half-full. High school sports and youth sports were starting again, albeit on a limited basis. Colleges were back in session. The four major pro leagues were all playing — beginning a season, winding one down or in throes of tournaments.
Then last week happened.
News darkened locally and nationally. A surge in cases tipped more than a half-dozen cities and towns in our area into the “red” on the state’s map tracking COVID-19 transmission, prompting local leaders to buckle down and suspend play in one high school sports league, the Merrimack Valley Conference.
The darkening map was shaded, in part, by a COVID-19 cluster at North Andover’s Merrimack College, which shifted all of its classes online after college officials discovered dozens of cases among students living in its Monican Centre dormitory.
That was to say nothing for the national news — a cluster of cases reported within the White House at the end of the week, with President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump among them. This weekend’s Patriots game against Kansas City was postponed, with quarterback Cam Newton having tested positive along with a player for the Chiefs.
By week’s end, it felt as though we were sliding back toward those dismal days in the spring, when so much of society and the economy had seized up, frozen in place by pandemic. In England, some are already declaring the arrival of the dreaded “second wave” of the pandemic, although that assumes a gloomy projection of what so far has been only an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
All of this should lead us to resolve.
Wearing a mask, keeping six feet of separation from others, washing your hands and staying home if you’re feeling sick are steps just as important today as they were in April and May. If the optimism that surrounded going back to school and restarting certain aspects of our regular lives a few weeks ago had some of us letting our guard down, well, it’s time to pick it back up.
It’s also time to keep things in perspective.
Even if the number of daily cases reported in Massachusetts surged last week — Monday’s 843 confirmed cases were the highest daily total since 884 on May 26 — other data show we are in a far different place now than we were five months ago.
Most significantly, the portion of COVID-19 tests that come back positive has not risen above where it was in late August. One explanation for that, even in light of the spike in cases, is the aggressive testing happening on college campuses. Many more tests are being given, in other words, which is a positive development itself because it means a more robust web of testing and a greater likelihood that cases are discovered and contained through contact tracing.
“I fully expect that we will find cases as a result of doing that,” Baker said at a news conference this past week, according to reporting by WGBH.org. “It will be the finding of those cases and the isolation and quarantining and contact tracing that’s associated with that, that will be our greatest weapon in stopping the spread in this communities.”
Even just surveying the state’s map of COVID-19, far more communities fall into the “green,” with fewer than four cases reported per 100,000 people, adjusted for population, or the grey that signifies a city or town with fewer than five overall cases.
Rates in much of Massachusetts remain so low, in fact, that those parts of the state are taking another step forward on the reopening timeline.
Last week’s rush of bad news is jarring but no cause for despair. Still, it absolutely serves as a reminder that we cannot let down our guard or lose our collective will to protect the health of ourselves and one another.