BOSTON — As the state battles a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, experts warn of a second wave of infections if social distancing restrictions are lifted too soon.
This week, the U.S. Centers For Disease Control said the coronavirus may become seasonal and resurface again in the fall, as happened in 2009 with swine flu.
Experts say testing capacity needs to ramp up and caution against rushing to ease virus control measures.
"We're not even at the peak yet in Massachusetts, and the rates of infection are still going up," said Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School for Public Health. "So any discussions about reopening the economy can't even begin until we're on the other side of the curve."
Koh, a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said while the current modeling suggests there will be additional waves of infection, many factors will determine whether the coronavirus becomes a persistent concern.
"There are so many variables," he said. "It will depend on how intensely we continue social distancing measures, what the rate of the transmission of the virus is, and whether we're getting rising immunity levels in order to give the general population some protection."
Koh said expanded testing is crucial to determining how widespread the initial wave of infections has been.
"We still don't even know how many people have been infected," he said.
There is currently no antiviral medicine for the respiratory illness, and the medical community has warned that a vaccine could be a year or more away.
Dr. James Broadhurst, a family physician who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Medical School at Worcester, said people should get used to living with the coronavirus, like the flu and seasonal respiratory illnesses.
"We've had SARS and MERS, and now we've got this one" he said. "If it's not this respiratory disease, there certainly will be others in the future."
Broadhurst, who chairs the Massachusetts Medical Society's Committee on Public Health, said unlike influenza, COVID-19 outbreaks can spread undetected.
"It infects people and can be transmitted before they know they're sick," he said. "So it's going to be difficult to know when it will be safe to return to normalcy."
In Washington, a battle over reopening the nation's economy is heating up, as President Donald Trump pushes to start easing restrictions in early May.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who is weighing whether to extend a May 4 deadline to lift stay-at-home orders and reopen schools and non-essential businesses, said this week he is concerned about rushing to loosen social distancing restrictions before Massachusetts gets through the worst of the outbreak.
"I know it's difficult for everybody to hear this ... but this virus obviously doesn't work on a schedule," Baker told reporters last week. "But it can be killed when we all do our jobs to slow the spread. I know it's been a long time, but letting up now would only result in greater harm."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org