It’s COVID-19 crunch time

As cases rise, should we keep opening or shut down?

THE SAME DAY President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden debated for a final time, the US set a record for the number of daily new coronavirus cases — 77,640 — topping a previous record set in July. For nearly 75 percent of the country, case numbers are increasing.

NBC News’s Kristen Welker asked the candidates something that is on the minds of millions of Americans, even when increased human contact brings about higher infection rates: “What do you say to Americans who fear the cost on the economy, depression, domestic and substance abuse outweighs exposure to the virus?”

Trump didn’t answer the question but drew a sharp contrast with his rival, telling viewers that “all Biden talks about is shutdowns.” He also downplayed the severity of COVID-19, saying that his son Barron became infected and by the time Trump spoke with his doctor “it went away.”

Biden took a different tone, saying he would “shut down the virus, not the country,” and said the president’s ineptitude in responding to the virus early on is what caused the pandemic to become so severe that the shutdown of businesses and schools was necessary. He said he isn’t ruling out more shutdowns but they “need standards,” including a constant look at reproduction rates of the virus, and a plan in place for rapid testing, social distancing, and protective equipment for employees and customers.

The debate over reopening and closures resonates locally. In Massachusetts, 986 more cases were confirmed Thursday, a five-month high, with over 20 percent of the state’s municipalities designated as high-risk zones for the infection.

“It’s the trend that we’ve been worried about,” said Dr. Nahid R. Bhadelia, medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center, to The Boston Globe, noting that some parts of reopening may need to be rolled back, including indoor dining.

Salem has canceled Halloween activities and is trying to deter visitors. Boston announced its students would all be returning to remote learning as the city’s infection rate spiked. The Department of Public Health put a two-week pause on ice rinks after at least 30 clusters of COVID-19 were associated with organized ice hockey activities involving residents from more than 60 municipalities in the state.

It was widely anticipated that the return of students to some college campuses would cause a small increase in COVID-19 cases. But more specifically, it’s been the house parties and indoor gatherings where people, mostly under 40, have held during their “Covid fatigue” that has set up the state for its second wave.

As much of the state moved into Part 2 of Phase 3 in early October, reports of house parties increased, as people began to take a lax attitude, not necessarily to frequenting businesses without proper coronavirus precautions, but to the virus itself.

Amid calls to roll back indoor dining and even shift back to earlier phases, Gov. Charlie Baker remains unfazed.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

“Household transmission, intergenerational transmission is where we are seeing a lot of new case growth,” Baker said on Thursday. “People are doing the right things in formal settings — downtowns, supermarkets. That’s not where we’re seeing most of the growth in cases.”

He said a “huge portion” of the increase is from people between 19 to 39, and most of that is related to personal contact. “In many cases with groups of friends and people they know without any of the guidance we’ve talked about with respect to distance or masks being applied,’ he said. He also joined Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley in saying that there is “very little evidence” that schools are spreaders of the infection.

But schools are not silos. The number of communities in the red zone – those with 8 or more cases per 100,000 people over the previous two weeks – hit 77 this week, up by 14. While local officials, like Mayor Dan Rivera in Lawrence, may entreat residents to social distance and not hold indoor gatherings, those pleas may end up falling on deaf ears, creating a need for the state to step in again.