There are nearly 40 fewer Massachusetts communities at the highest risk of coronavirus transmission than there were last week, health officials revealed. It's the third straight week that number has fallen.
Thursday's town-by-town coronavirus risk data -- which classifies communities' risk level on a scale from red, the highest, to grey -- puts 153 cities and towns in the red zone, from 192 last week. (See this week's full list of red zone communities below.)
Massachusetts' coronavirus metrics have been trending down since roughly the new year, seeming to signal that the state's second surge is abating. The drop in communities in the red zone may be another sign the surge is receding.
The Department of Public Health also released its weekly vaccine dashboard Thursday, which showed that the pace of both vaccinations and vaccine dose shipments to Massachusetts is increasing, but the former is outpacing the latter.
There have been frustrations over the rollout of vaccines in Massachusetts, with tens of thousands of new appointments going live Thursday. Also Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that he will ease capacity limits on restaurants, gyms and other businesses in the state starting next week.
Massachusetts COVID Hot Spots
The following 153 communities are in the highest risk level as of Thursday: Abington, Acushnet, Adams, Agawam, Ashburnham, Attleboro, Auburn, Avon, Ayer, Barnstable, Barre, Bellingham, Berkley, Berlin, Blackstone, Boxford, Boylston, Braintree, Brewster, Bridgewater, Brockton, Canton, Carver, Charlton, Chatham, Chelmsford, Chelsea, Chicopee, Clinton, Cohasset, Dartmouth, Dedham, Dennis, Dighton, Douglas, Dracut, East Bridgewater, Edgartown, Everett, Fairhaven, Fall River, Fitchburg, Foxborough, Framingham, Freetown, Gardner, Georgetown, Granby, Great Barrington, Groveland, Halifax, Hamilton, Hampden, Hanover, Hanson, Harwich, Haverhill, Holbrook, Holyoke, Hopedale, Hudson, Hull, Kingston, Lakeville, Lancaster, Lawrence, Leominster, Littleton, Lowell, Ludlow, Lunenburg, Lynn, Lynnfield, Malden, Mansfield, Marion, Marlborough, Marshfield, Maynard, Mendon, Merrimac, Methuen, Middleborough, Middleton, Milford, Millbury, Millis, Monson, Nahant, Nantucket, New Bedford, North Attleborough, North Brookfield, Norton, Norwood, Oak Bluffs, Orleans, Oxford, Palmer, Paxton, Peabody, Pembroke, Pepperell, Plainville, Plymouth, Quincy, Randolph, Raynham, Rehoboth, Revere, Rochester, Rockland, Rutland, Salisbury, Sandwich, Saugus, Seekonk, Shirley, Somerset, Southampton, Southborough, Southbridge, Southwick, Spencer, Springfield, Sterling, Stoughton, Sutton, Swansea, Taunton, Templeton, Topsfield, Townsend, Tyngsborough, Uxbridge, Wakefield, Walpole, Wareham, Webster, West Boylston, West Bridgewater, West Brookfield, West Springfield, Westfield, Westminster, Westport, Westwood, Weymouth, Whitman, Winchendon, Winthrop, Worcester and Wrentham.
Of those communities, four are newly in red on the list this week: Charlton, Lynnfield, Mendon and Westwood. Massachusetts as a whole is in red as well.
And 43 communities dropped out of red: Belchertown, Billerica, Burlington, Dalton, Dover, Dudley, Duxbury, East Longmeadow, Easton, Falmouth, Franklin, Gloucester, Grafton, Hadley, Holden, Ipswich, Lee, Leicester, Manchester, Mashpee, Mattapoisett, Medway, Newbury, Orange, Plympton, Rockport, Rowley, Salem, Scituate, Sharon, Shrewsbury, Tewskbury, Tisbury, Upton, Waltham, Ware, Warren, Westford, Wilbraham, Wilmington, Woburn and Yarmouth.
To qualify for the red, high-risk category under the new metrics, communities with populations under 10,000 must have more than 25 cases. For mid-size communities of between 10,000 and 50,000 people, they must have an average of more than 10 cases per 100,000 people and a positive test rate of more than 5%. And for larger communities of greater than 50,000 people, they must have more than 10 cases per 100,000 people and a positive test rate of more than 4%.
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Previously, the state used the number of cases detected on average each day over two weeks to determine if Massachusetts' communities are at high risk for coronavirus transmission. The new list factors in population size and positive test rate.
Read this week's full report here, with data on communities' percent positivity, county- and state-level data and more.
The Department of Public Health is no longer including a map of the community-level risk in the weekly report. An official told NBC10 Boston that the map is no longer seen as being as helpful as it once was, now that coronavirus cases are being reported in most communities.
Mass. Vaccine Data
This week's vaccine report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health shows that 681,472 vaccine doses had been administered as of Tuesday, the most recent day for which data is available, with 149,030 of those doses within the week leading up to Tuesday.
That's the most vaccinations given in a week so far in the Bay State, up from 111,901 the week before.
Vaccine shipments were also up, but not enough to keep pace with vaccine doses distributed. There were 112,550 doses delivered to Massachusetts in this week's report, up from 107,525 in the prior report, despite this week's report saying that the shipment amount dipped by 31%.
In recent weeks, vaccinations have also outpaced the number of doses. Overall, there have been 214,828 more doses shipped to Massachusetts than have been administered.
The two coronavirus vaccines approved so far in the country's fight against the pandemic, from Pfizer and Cambridge-based Moderna, both require that people receive two doses, which are recommended to be spaced out over three or four weeks.
Vaccines are the key to getting society back to normal, since they have been found to offer the greatest protection from serious complications in people who are infected with the virus. The widespread distribution of the vaccines will trigger the final phase in Massachusetts' reopening plan, when restrictions will be lifted.
Vaccinations began in Massachusetts last month. See the Baker administration's plan for rolling out the vaccine here.
More on Coronavirus in Massachusetts
Changes to Massachusetts' Hot Spot Data
The weekly report has a history of somewhat abrupt changes.
When Massachusetts health officials first unveiled a digital coronavirus dashboard in early January, they stopped releasing town-by-town coronavirus metrics on a weekly basis, since they are included in the "city and town" tab of the interactive dashboard. It shows communities' positive test rate and overall testing rate, though not other metrics that were included in the old format.
"Data previously found in this report, including town-by-town cases and testing reporting, can now be found in the daily interactive dashboard," a note in that week's pared-down weekly report said. But a new version of the report was issued later that night brought back the data.
More major changes before that knocked the number of communities in the red zone from 121 to 16 as what was defined a high-risk community changed. Officials said the adjustment brought Massachusetts more in line with risk levels in other states.
However, the numbers grew again as the weeks passed, eventually rising to 190 communities in the red zone before the data switched to the interactive dashboard.
That week's report also dropped the map that displayed the town-by-town coronavirus data. It showed where in the state communities were at high, moderate or low risk of transmission, but officials said it was no longer very informative.
In the weeks before that, officials added information on COVID-19 clusters, both on where major clusters have been identified -- they're listed in the report with an asterisk -- and on trends among clusters.
The color-coded town-by-town data was introduced in August, and the Baker administration announced that the state would focus its strongest COVID-mitigation efforts on towns in the red category. Communities can only move to Step 2 of Phase 3 of Massachusetts' reopening plan, announced in late September, if they are not consistently in the red.
Before the introduction of that data, the standard for measuring hot spots had been the positive COVID test rate over the preceding 14 days. The Department of Public Health's weekly report still includes that information, along with other metrics like how many tests are being conducted locally and how many cases have been reported locally.
Some of Massachusetts' smaller towns had taken issue with having their risk assessed based on cases per capita alone. They said that, when a town only had a few thousand people, an outbreak in just one household could send it into red under the criteria at the time: 8 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents.