MASSACHUSETTS — The state had 5.96 coronavirus deaths per 100,000 residents in September, a number that was nearly six time higher than New York State's rate of 0.96 deaths and more than three times higher than New Jersey's 1.94 deaths per 100,000 residents.
The state's high death rates in recent weeks comes despite the concentration of world-class hospitals in Massachusetts that have been at the forefront of the coronavirus fight. And experts have so far been unable to find a cause or reason for the high death rate, although many suggest the problem stems from outbreaks at nursing homes.
"I would think if anything, many of the hospitals in Massachusetts have learned how to better manage patients with COVID-19, and we should be seeing less mortality," Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease expert at Boston University School of Public Health and physician at Boston Medical Center, told the Boston Globe this week. "I just can’t easily explain why that figure in particular is much higher [than in nearby states]."
Since the first reported coronavirus death in Massachusetts on March 20, 66 percent of the state's deaths have been in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. That's well above the national average of 40 percent of deaths in nursing homes.
On Tuesday, the state legislature’s Elder Affairs Committee held a hearing examining problems in containing COVID-19 in Massachusetts's nursing homes. Dr. Larissa Lucas, who works for a physicians group overseeing five North Shore nursing homes, told lawmakers the state was slow to respond to a March report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that warned about the threat COVID-19 posed in nursing homes.
"While the [state] government focused on hospital capacity, the virus quietly crept into our buildings undeterred and undetected in March," Lucas said. "During the pandemic we were suddenly treating the same illnesses as the hospitals but without the staff, skills, and technology of the hospitals."
Massachusetts has 383 long-term care facilities that house about 36,0000 residents. As of Wednesday, 6,219 of the state's 9,429 coronavirus deaths had been in long term care facilities
Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders noted that the state has used a broad approach to categorize coronavirus deaths at nursing homes. The state has increased testing at nursing homes, and has earmarked $580 million in state and federal funds to help the facilities respond to the crisis.
But nearby states, including New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York, have had similar infection rates and have similar densities of nursing homes, but have not seen the same spike in coronavirus deaths since Labor Day. Tory Mazzola, a Massachusetts COVID-19 Command Center spokesperson, told the Boston Globe some of the discrepancy may stem from the fact that Massachusetts reports confirmed and probable coronavirus deaths, while other states only report confirmed fatalities.
"The numbers definitely seem concerning," Helen Jenkins, a Boston University epidemiologist, told the newspaper. "My question would be, is Massachusetts still doing a poor job on the [long-term-care] front?"