Concerns that Sun Belt surge in COVID-19 cases could haunt Mass.

Fears that summer vacationers could bring virus home

BOSTON — It literally took months for California, Texas, and Florida to reach 100,000 cases of coronavirus. But it took each state mere weeks to reach 200,000 cases. 

The Sun Belt pandemic set some unwanted milestones over Independence Day weekend. On July 4, Florida recorded what was the largest one-day total of coronavirus cases in the United States, at nearly 11,500. 

The dubious record was short-lived, as California recorded 11,700 cases on Sunday. On Saturday, Texas reported its largest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases: 8,258. 

The only other state to record more than 200,000 cases of coronavirus is New York. 

“I was also very surprised to see the numbers in California begin to rise because at one point they were very proactive,” said Alvin Tran, ScD, MPH of the University of New Haven. “I think this underscores the importance of maintaining those strict public health protocols. And keeping them in place until we know for sure that we are curbing this pandemic and that there’s a vaccine out in the public.”

California’s stay-at-home order went into effect on March 19, 2020. The gradual reopening of the state began in May. Prior to the lifting of the order, California, with a population of more than 40 million managed to keep infection numbers extraordinarily low. On April 30, 2020, the state had about 50,000 infections. On that same day, Massachusetts recorded more than 62,000 infections out of a population of less than 7 million. 

"What we need to fear now is the mixed messaging between public health officials and other officials," Tran said. "We have an opportunity to stay ahead of the game by paying attention to what they're doing -- identifying what they're doing wrong and also what they're doing right."

Dr. Paul Sax, an infectious disease specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, suggests one of the things states now surging with coronavirus infections did wrong was reopen venues highly conducive to viral transmission. 

"One thing we've learned about this virus is it's not so much about briefly passing someone in the hallway or passing someone briefly outside, it's really prolonged contact with someone who has the infection sometimes when they're even unaware that they have it," Sax said.  

Two places that can pretty readily happen is in bars and indoor restaurants. Both Texas and Florida allowed bars to reopen -- but, as infections spiked, forced those that primarily make money from alcohol sales to close. 

At this point, Saks does not recommend travel from Massachusetts to highly infectious areas unless absolutely necessary. That would include Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and South Florida. Those who do travel to any states other than those in the Northeast deemed 'under control' by the Baker Administration are asked to self-quarantine for 14 days. 

“That 14 days is based on what we call the incubation period -- from the time of exposure to the time of getting the infection,” Sax said. “And it does seem to be a very safe estimate.”   

Although the numbers coming out of the Sun Belt look frightening, Sax says there is a way to get it under control -- and the Northeastern states proved it can be done. 

“If people wear masks in public, avoid indoor dining and bars, avoid going to religious services that are inside -- then we can get control of this and bring down the transmission rate,” he said.    

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