Even with the disappointing distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the commonwealth, thanks to the adherence of social-distancing and hygiene guidelines, we have put the worst of the latest spike in infections behind us.
There’s ample evidence of that among the downward direction of positive cases within our local communities.
Several in Greater-Lowell have been removed from the state Department of Public Health’s weekly high-risk list for coronavirus transmission.
In the Twin Cities area, the city of Fitchburg became one of the state’s few urban centers to discard that high-risk designation, while Leominster, Lunenburg and Westminster still fell among that high-risk group.
In the Merrimack Valley, Billerica, Burlington, Tewksbury, Westford and Wilmington exited the high-risk list for the first time this year, joining Chelmsford, Pepperell and Tyngsboro.
It’s a similar situation statewide. According to DPH data, 110 communities remain on the high-risk list, down from 153 reported the previous week, the fourth week in a row that number has dropped.
The statewide coronavirus statistical trends, monitored daily by the DPH, show a continued drop in several key categories after a COVID-19 infection surge that came after the holiday season; that includes a significant decrease in the positivity rate, which now stands at 2.65%, compared to 8.7% on Jan. 1.
Only one of the state’s counties, Hampshire, showed a higher positivity rate over the last 14-day reporting period.
Though eight area communities are no longer considered high risk, Lowell, Ayer, Dracut, Littleton, Shirley and Townsend – despite lower COVID cases — remain on the list as of last week.
That hasn’t stopped Lowell public schools from returning 3% of its neediest students to the classroom on Feb. 22, with the expectation of increasing that number to 25% of the student population on March 1.
Fitchburg’s removal from the high-risk list comes as particularly welcome news for that city’s public-school system.
The decrease in cases, combined with other safety measures undertaken by the system, has paved the way for the return to in-school instruction through the hybrid model beginning March 1.
Health officials last week indicated that Fitchburg had an average daily infection rate of 41.4 cases per 100,000 people, a slight decrease from the previous week’s total of 47.8. That’s significantly lower than its highest yearly total — 94.3 per 100,000 — reported on Jan. 12.
The positivity rate in Fitchburg currently stands 4.8%, according to health officials.
Though Fitchburg has been removed from the state’s COVID19 high- risk category, neighboring Leominster remains on the list despite encouraging trends reported in the city.
Leominster’s average daily infection rate is 46.2 cases per 100,000 people over the last 14 days, down from 59.8 cases per 100,000 reported the previous week, which coincides with a decline in the positivity rate to 6.3%.
Leominster’s public schools had already decided to return students to class on a rotating basis before the release of the latest DPH data. By the time school resumes on Feb. 22, students in grades K through 12 will be following the hybrid model.
Fitchburg, Leominster and Lowell reflect the decisions of other large urban school systems to wean off totally remote learning.
In mid-January, Boston School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius disclosed that public-school students would have the option of returning to in-person learning in phases between February and March.
Starting Feb. 1, approximately 4,900 students with “high in-person priority needs” were invited back to school.
Descending COVID cases should continue to drive the pace of school openings until there’s enough vaccine to inoculate every classroom educator.