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Mass. may be nearing its peak in the latest COVID surge, but two studies differ on the timing

drive through covid-19 testing

Tritown Health Department workers are assisted by Medical Reserve Corps volunteers in frigid temperatures Tuesday at a drive-thru COVID-19 rapid testing clinic organized by the Southern Berkshire Public Health Collaborative in Lee. Experts believe that the latest coronavirus surge could peak this month.

BOSTON — As Massachusetts grapples with record COVID-19 case counts amid the omicron-fueled winter surge, two widely cited analyses offer different outlooks on the state’s public health footing.

The latest Massachusetts-specific projections from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that daily case counts will continue to rise over the next week and a half, peaking at about 53,000 per day — that’s more than three times as high as the seven-day average case count reported Wednesday — by Jan. 22.

At the same time, the most recent Boston region wastewater data from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority shows a sizable decrease in the rate at which COVID-19 has been detected in sewage.

While the pilot program’s data through Monday observed COVID at rates still well above any previous peak, the average rate of COVID-19 presence in wastewater appears to have turned a corner and started dropping last week.

Health experts and elected officials are trying to get a clearer sense of how the arc of the latest wave will play out.

On Wednesday, the Department of Public Health reported 22,184 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases, about in line with recent daily case counts during the winter wave. The statewide seven-day average positive test rate stands at 21.61 percent.

The state’s high rate of vaccination — more than 5.1 million Bay Staters are vaccinated fully against COVID-19 — has helped limit the frequency of severe illness and death, but the health care system is grappling with enormous strain amid a combination of growing patient needs and labor shortages.

The DPH reported 3,087 patients with COVID-19 in Massachusetts hospitals, the first time the count has surpassed 3,000 since May 12, 2020, just about two months into the public health state of emergency.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s model, previous run Friday using data through Jan. 3, projected that the strain on Bay State hospitals will keep growing through January. The University of Washington-based institute estimated that the amount of hospital beds needed to treat COVID-19 likely would peak at about 5,882 on Jan. 29, at which point Massachusetts would need about 1,600 intensive care unit beds for pandemic response.

Those figures are based on a range of possible outcomes, and the researchers said the ICU need could fall between about 755 and 2,800 beds.

Still, even if the ultimate figure lands in the middle of those two endpoints, it would represent enormous strain. The state’s most recent data said 171 ICU beds out of 1,278 total remain available, as do 550 out of 8,781 medical/surgical beds.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation also projected the typical daily increase in COVID-19 deaths likely will rise to 70 by Jan. 30, and that the Bay State could hit 23,000 to 24,000 cumulative deaths by May 1.

The DPH on Wednesday reported 75 newly confirmed COVID-19 deaths, and the seven-day average of new deaths per day stands at 43.3.

An important distinction in hospitalization data should become public next week. For the duration of the pandemic, health care facilities have been reporting a single tally of patients with COVID-19 to the state.

This week, facilities began submitting data differentiating between patients who wind up in the hospital for serious cases of COVID-19 and those who test positive for the virus while seeking treatment for another issue.

A Baker administration official who agreed to communicate only on background said hospitals will divide patient counts into primary and incidental cases based on administration of dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory steroid that medical professionals use to treat at least 90 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

The official said data including that distinction will become available the week of Jan. 17 and added to the online COVID-19 data portal shortly afterward.

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