Coronavirus

What does the new data about recovered COVID patients tell us?

Over 78,000 patients have completed their three-week isolation period after testing positive for the coronavirus, state data shows.

Medical Assistant Abigail Libman swabs a patient at the drive-through testing in the ambulance Bay at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe

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For the first time during the coronavirus pandemic, Massachusetts public health officials this week released data showing that 78,108 people are considered to have recovered from the contagious illness.

The figure, included in the Department of Public Health’s weekly report, is significant in comparison to the total number of cases recorded, 97,964 — the statistic as of when the data was released Wednesday.

Officials say that the over 78,000 individuals have been released from isolation. Another 12,844 people remain isolated.

“Individuals who had a confirmed case of COVID-19 and are no longer in isolation are considered for purposes of this report to be recovered,” the report says.

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According to DPH, officials consider cases no longer in isolation to mean people released after 21 days of illness, or 21 days past the date of their test.

While the number of “recovered” patients may be welcomed information for those curious, officials say the metric is merely proof of what’s been surmised throughout the course of the pandemic: that most patients in fact recover and are released.

“We have known for some time that most people with COVID-19 are hospitalized and successfully released from isolation within a few weeks. These numbers are simply evidence that that is true in Massachusetts,” Dr. Catherine Brown, state epidemiologist, told Boston.com in a statement. “It is a reassuring measure of the effects of COVID-19, that the majority of individuals who test positive recover.”

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Dr. Helen Jenkins, an epidemiologist at Boston University, said the number would be more illuminating — and would potentially offer a glimpse at how many people may now have immunity — if experts knew the true total of the number of people who contracted the coronavirus.

Many people who became ill were never tested, and therefore their cases were never recorded, she said.

And with that caveat as well as the fact that the length and severity of illness can vary between patients, Jenkins said the statistic as it’s measured by DPH is not as informative as other metics experts watch, such as the number of people who were hospitalized and discharged compared to the number currently being admitted.

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“The reality is that a lot more people than that have gotten better,” Jenkins said in an interview.

As of Friday, DPH reported 102,557 total confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 and 7,235 related deaths in Massachusetts.

As the state gears up for Phase 2 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s gradual reopening plan, Brown said “the most important re-opening metrics measuring disease will continue to be case counts, hospitalization due to COVID-19, and deaths.”

Baker has said that each phase would last at minimum three weeks, and phases would only advance if officials see encouraging trends in the positive test rate, death rate, and hospitalization rate, as well as progress in health care system readiness, testing capacity, and contract tracing capabilities.

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Phase 2 could begin Monday at the earliest. Baker is slated to announce Saturday when the phase will kick off.

“Reopening has to be very cautious and very much in a staggered manner,” Jenkins said. “You have to keep a close eye on the numbers.”

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