Model: MA COVID infections will surge in fall

BOSTON — For a year-and-a-half, COVID kept Joan Jordan from seeing her seven grandchildren. At the rate things are going, she fears that kind of thing could happen again.

“Now we’ve got the variant, which is affecting more of us,” Jordan said. “And if people don’t get vaccinated, they’re going to prevent me from seeing my grandchildren again. All I can do is hope.”

It is, indeed, the Delta variant likely to cause a mini-surge in cases in Massachusetts well into the fall, according to the latest projections from the University of Washington.

“The combination of people who assume I’m in good shape because I’m vaccinated, and, of course, the percentage who are not vaccinated and still susceptible to the virus are sustaining a surge in many states in the United States,” said Dr. Ali Mokdad, professor of Global Health at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which has been modeling the pandemic since last year.

Mokdad said states in the northeast, such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire, are likely to see a fall surge because they did a good job protecting residents from getting infected earlier in the summer. That gives the Delta variant plenty of victims to prey on who do not have immunity to it.

In Massachusetts, the University of Washington model sees a mid-October peak of about 7,000 infections – diagnosed, undiagnosed and subclinical. But that figure could climb as high as 17,000 if mask use and physical distancing practices are completely suspended. Conversely, around 1,000 infections are possible if universal masking is adopted.

The promising news is that the surge in infections will be relatively short-lived, with a long, broad decline projected to last through December. However, daily infections, including undiagnosed ones, could remain in the 5,000 to 6,000 range for months, the model projects.

None of this is set in stone. Possible confounding factors for the better include a sudden burst in the state vaccination rate – which seems highly unlikely – and more widespread use of masks and distancing. Possibly tipping things in COVID’S favor: a new variant could enter the picture, Mokdad said. And holiday travel might ramp up the infection rate for a number of reasons.

>>>MORE: State reports cumulative breakthrough cases in MA at 19,443

Total deaths by December 1, 2021 will likely total just over 20,000, the model projects, but could nudge closer to 22,000 in a worst-case scenario.

Meanwhile, the model shows vaccination rates in Massachusetts have nearly peaked. At present, 69% are fully vaccinated. By December 1, 2021, the model predicts a modest rise to 73%. Mokdad said that likely represents the best Massachusetts can do.

“Unfortunately, our country is divided when it comes to the vaccine,” Mokdad said. “A large segment of the population is very keen on not getting vaccinated. And there are so many rumors out there and we need to address them.”

Dr. Justin Lessler, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, also works on COVID modeling. His group regularly puts out a composite model that incorporates several different models to give a broader picture of pandemic possibilities. COVID, he said, has proven a tough virus to make predictions about.

“The rapid changes we’re seeing from new variants and, I think, rapid swings in recent months in how people are responding to the virus have really caused difficulty in making any meaningful projections,” Lessler said.

On top of that, Lessler said disease forecasting is a lot like weather forecasting in that the further out you go, the less you really know.

“We can kind of tell you something about what will happen in the next few weeks based on the current trends,” Lessler said. “And we can tell you that ultimately immunity will win out and cases will go down to very low levels, at least severe and hospitalization cases. But in between, we can do no better than the Farmer’s Almanac, often. Just like in weather, we can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen on the third Wednesday of October for the weather or for COVID.”

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