Increase in Red-Zone Communities Raises Questions About Mass. Reopening Plans

The number of Massachusetts cities and towns considered to be at high risk for coronavirus transmission has risen to 20, leading health officials to urge precaution as the state moves forward with its reopening

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For the first time in weeks, the number of Massachusetts communities considered to be at high risk for coronavirus transmission has increased.

While many thought they were on the right track, experts say it is cause for concern, and they are urging state officials not to reopen too fast.

As of Thursday, there are 20 communities in the red zone, which is up from 14 communities last week. Methuen is one of the cities that was newly added this week, and residents there say they are surprised.

"It seemed like we were making good progress. I was surprised to wake up and see us back in the red," resident Scott Flagg said.

A coronavirus cluster is causing Swampscott High School to go remote.

With more people getting vaccinated every day, many are wondering what is leading to the uptick.

"The most likely explanation is the variant of concern, B.1.1.7," epidemiologist Sam Scarpino said. "This variant is more transmissible, it causes more infections and it's harder to control."

Scarpino said he is also concerned that case numbers have plateaued at a higher level than the lows the state saw last summer, and yet the state is still proceeding with more reopening.

"We are seeing numbers turning in the wrong direction, but we continue to hear measures are going to be relaxed. It just increases the risk unnecessarily," Scarpino said.

The state will enter Step 1 of Phase 4 on Monday, and some experts are concerned. The Massachusetts Public Health Association wrote a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker urging him to delay lifting indoor restrictions. The letter was signed by more than two dozen other groups.

"We're concerned, especially, because of the possibility of the fourth wave of the pandemic. By moving too quickly, we will actually see an uptick in cases, and we will have to go back," said the association's executive director, Carlene Pavlos.

Dr. Anthony Fauci says it is "not surprising" to see an increase of COVID-19 cases per day in areas where mask mandates and other public health precautions are being prematurely pulled back, despite the distribution of millions of vaccines.

Lawrence Mayor Kendrys Vasquez agrees. His city has been stuck in the red for a while now. As they wait for more doses of the vaccine, he says more testing and mask-wearing is the only way out of the red.

"We are reopening too fast and we don't have enough supply for the vaccine, especially in communities like ours," Vasquez said. "I look forward to the day when we are past this pandemic, but it is still very much here."

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