Ashish Jha: COVID cases rising in the Northeast, but an important pattern is also emerging

"We're at a point in the pandemic where we know how to manage the virus.”

A nurse performs a COVID-19 test at a Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center testing and vaccination site April 6, in Dorchester. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Usually when COVID-19 case counts rise, an increase in deaths and hospitalizations soon follow.

But Dr. Ashish Jha, who is serving as the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said Sunday that in the Northeast, which has seen cases increase since around March 20, death counts and hospitalization rates are not as high as expected. 

Since last week, half of the counties in Massachusetts have been issued “high” COVID community levels by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of data reported May 6, the state has had a seven-day average of more than 2,000 cases since April 24, much lower than the seven-day average in January which peaked at more than 20,000. The state has also had a seven-day average of less than 10 deaths a day since March 14.


Boston, meanwhile, is seeing a seven-day average of 401.6 cases per day, as of data from May 3. Almost three-quarters (73.2%) of the population eligible for vaccination in Boston is fully vaccinated, and in Massachusetts 89% of the population has received at least one dose, as of data reported by May 9.

Looking at the data for Massachusetts and other northeastern states, Jha, who is on short-term leave from his position as dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, noted that the case fatality rate, or CFR, is lower than it has been on average during the pandemic, sitting at 0.3% as compared to 1.6%.

“Cases are up 3-4X in the northeast — from New York to CT, RI, and Massachusetts,” he wrote on Twitter. “As you see, it began rising around March 20. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen about 3 week lag until deaths begin to rise. So we’d expect by April 10 or so, deaths beginning to climb. Do we?”

Not so much, the doctor wrote.

About six weeks after cases started rising, deaths are up “a bit” and hospitalizations are also up, but “not as much as one would have expected,” he said.

Jha said the lowered death rate is likely due to high booster rates, treatments being available, and more widespread testing.


And the pattern being seen in the Northeast “helps chart the path forward,” he said.

“Unfortunately, other parts of our nation have lower booster rates and less testing,” Jha wrote. “So the virus can spread more easily without detection And the population is less well protected.”

Jha said he is worried about the potential for another wave of infections in the fall or winter. The doctor said another generation of vaccine, more treatments, and more tests are likely coming, but not if Congress doesn’t step in and provide funding for COVID recovery efforts. 

“The bottom line is this: we’re at a point in the pandemic where we know how to manage the virus,” Jha wrote. “To keep infections low, to prevent serious illness, and to protect the most vulnerable. And that’s our focus right now.”

Read Jha’s full thread below:


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