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March 23, 2020

Columbia study says Worcester County best-case scenario is 20K coronavirus cases

Photo | Edd Cote A coronavirus test kit package

Worcester County could see 20,000 coronavirus cases by Aug. 1 — and that's an optimistic scenario from national researchers if strict controls are put in place to limit the virus's spread.

If less is done to limit the pandemic, the numbers could be startlingly worse: an estimated 540,000 cases, or 65% of all of Worcester County. If transmission of coronavirus cannot be minimized by measures put in place, Worcester County would see 670,000 cases, or more than 80% of its population infected.

Cases would peak as soon as early May if no control measures are put in place, or as late until after July if strict actions are taken, according to estimates by Columbia University health researchers Sen Pei and Jeffrey Shaman.

Those estimates add a new alarm to what has already been sobering warnings from medical experts about how severe the outbreak could get for areas across the country.

[Related: DCU Center could turn into coronavirus care center]

Greater Worcester, as the Worcester Business Journal reported March 19, could have one of the worst hospital bed shortages in the country based on a number of available beds today and what is projected for the number of cases. Even if 20% of the region becomes affected — at the low end of what's expected by health experts — the need for beds could outstrip supply by 425%, according to estimates from the Harvard Global Health Institute.

If 60% of area residents are affected, which is at the lower end of the Columbia researchers' estimates, more than 5,400 beds will be needed, or 1,276% more than what's expected to be available.

The Columbia estimates, collated and reported by The New York Times, put Worcester County at a higher infection rate than the denser-populated areas in and around Boston, including Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk and Suffolk Counties. 

In a best-case scenario, cases in Massachusetts would hit an estimated more than 146,000 by Aug. 1. If containment measures don't work, Massachusetts could see nearly 5.7 million cases, or 81% of the state's 6.9 million residents.

[Related: With testing backlog, UMass Memorial had 90 patients awaiting coronavirus results]

The Columbia researchers' estimates reach broad conclusions in how many people could be affected, depending on how effective efforts are to contain the spread.

Massachusetts has closed all schools, encouraged employees to stay at home and work remotely, restricted all restaurants to take-out orders only, and banned any gatherings of 25 or more people. Yet the number of cases grew from 164 cases when Gov. Charlie Baker put those measures into place on March 15 to 646 cases by Sunday, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

On Monday morning, Baker ordered the shutdown of all non-essential businesses.

Nationwide, the number of cases has exploded over the same period from roughly 3,100 to more than 35,000 Monday morning, according to Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

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