MAY 6 – The number of cities and towns the Department of Public Health considers to be at the highest risk for COVID-19 transmission was cut in half over the last week and now just 13 communities remain "in the red," DPH reported Thursday.

There were 26 communities in DPH's highest risk category last week and 48 communities deemed to be at the highest risk the week before. Now, only Brockton, Chicopee, Dracut, Edgartown, Haverhill, Lawrence, Littleton, Lowell, Nantucket, New Bedford, Rochester, Springfield and Taunton remain in that group.

DPH also confirmed 1,004 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the first day since Saturday that the daily count of new cases topped 1,000. Since the start of the pandemic, 650,859 people in Massachusetts have been confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus and another 43,910 people have been inflicted with probable cases of COVID-19.

The public health authorities announced five recent COVID-19 deaths Thursday, raising the death toll among people with test-confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 to 17,663 in a little less than 14 months.

The 1,004 new COVID-19 cases confirmed Thursday came from 105,102 tests -- a single-day positivity rate of 0.96 percent. That helped drive the state's seven-day average positive test rate down from 1.5 percent to 1.37 percent as of Thursday, DPH said. Hospitals saw a net reduction of 16 patients since DPH's update on Wednesday and there were 469 hospitalized COVID-19 patients as of Thursday's report.

Through Wednesday, 2,774,629 people in Massachusetts had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and about a million more people are halfway through their two-dose vaccine regimen. -- Colin A. Young

604 New Student Cases Reported: Massachusetts K-12 schools reported 669 new cases of COVID-19 during the week from April 29 to May 5, according to new Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data. That total includes 604 cases among the estimated 690,000 students attending in-person school, and 65 among staff members accessing district buildings. Brockton reported the most student cases, with 24, followed by Worcester's 22 and Rockland's 16. Brockton also joined Lynn at the top of the list for the most staff cases, with both districts reporting five. The education department's most recent numbers for pooled COVID-19 testing in schools cover a slightly different time period, April 26 to May 2. That week, the tests turned up 90 positive pooled results and 12,111 negative pooled results, for a pool positivity rate of 0.74 percent. - Katie Lannan 5:16 PM Thu

2.77M Fully Vaccinated: About 60,000 more people in Massachusetts were reported as fully vaccinated between Wednesday and Thursday, according to Department of Public Health figures. The latest daily update shows 2,774,629 people in Massachusetts have completed their COVID-19 vaccine regimen, including 216,680 who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot. More than 3.7 million people have received at least one Pfizer or Moderna dose. So far, the DPH said, Massachusetts has administered 83.8 percent of the 7,759,930 doses shipped here by the federal government. - Katie Lannan 4:15 PM Thu

Baker: "Other States Will Do What Other States Will Do": In his latest defense of the administration's timeline for lifting COVID-19 restrictions, Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday said he does not want to alter the approach in Massachusetts based on other states. "We're gonna play this game based on our data and our information, and other states will do what other states will do," Baker said Thursday when asked about the state moving up its targeted reopening dates. In states such as New York and New Jersey, governors have targeted mid-May for steps such as lifting capacity limits on businesses. Capacity limits in certain sectors will increase next week, but the timeline Baker laid out calls for restrictions to lift completely in August. Baker said Thursday that Massachusetts had some of the lowest positive case counts and hospitalization rates in the country during the fall second surge amid a cautious approach. "We did not have the same kind of triage going on here in Massachusetts that was going on in many other places," he said. "We're going to continue to play this game based on what we think makes the most sense for the people in Massachusetts. We're going to balance the economic stuff with the public health data, and if we see significant improvements in our data over the course of the next month or so, we'll make adjustments." - Chris Lisinski 4:07 PM Thu

Testing Decline Stems from Vaccinations, Baker Says: Testing for COVID-19 has slowed in recent weeks, a trend that Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday attributed to the state's growing number of vaccinated residents. The seven-day average of new molecular tests conducted in Massachusetts stood at 53,345 on Wednesday, a nearly 40 percent drop from the April 1 average of 88,039. Asked about that change, Baker said the figures are not the result of a concrete strategy from the administration. "As more and more people get vaccinated, fewer and fewer people are as concerned about getting tested as they might have been before," Baker said. "Testing remains critically important and we've made decisions to maintain a lot of our free testing sites and our free testing partners here in Massachusetts at least throughout the month of June and into July, and we'll see where we are at that point in time." Baker said the decline in testing in Massachusetts happened several weeks after a similar trend emerged in other parts of the country, noting a recent drop in daily average tests from 1.8 million to 1.1 million. - Chris Lisinski 3:20 PM Thu

Lower Merrimack Collaborative Winding Down: Citing more widespread vaccine ability and decreasing demand for appointments, the Lower Merrimack Valley Regional Collaborative announced Thursday it would sunset its weekend sessions earlier than anticipated, setting May 22 as the date for its final regular weekend clinic. The collaborative, which typically gives its shots out of Amesbury High School, consists of Amesbury, Georgetown, Groveland, Merrimac, Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, Salisbury and West Newbury. "The vast and overwhelming majority of our seniors, homebound and chronically ill residents -- in all nine communities -- have now received their COVID-19 vaccines, and thousands of others have been vaccinated close to home," West Newbury health agent Paul Sevigny said in a statement. "We could not be prouder of what we have accomplished as the state's first regional vaccine collaborative." The collaborative expects it will "likely run a number of smaller clinics" focusing on youth vaccines, pending approval of the Pfizer shot for children ages 12-15, and said it will "continue to assess the needs for possible future booster shots." As of Thursday, the collaborative said it had distributed a total of 22,328 vaccines. - Katie Lannan 12:31 PM Thu

DOR Issues Updates on Business Tax Relief: The state Department of Revenue on Thursday morning announced updates to administrative tax relief measures provided to businesses during the pandemic. The agency said that its updates include resuming monthly return filing and payment remittance as scheduled starting June 30 for vendors and operators, only on a going forward basis, beginning with returns and payments attributable to May tax collections. DOR also announced an extension of the previously announced deferral of regular sales tax, meals tax, and room occupancy taxes for small businesses, with eligible businesses now able to defer until October 30 returns and payments otherwise due from March 20, 2020 through June 1, 2021. "Businesses that collected less than $150,000 in regular sales plus meals taxes in the twelve-month period ending February 29, 2020 are eligible for relief for sales and meals taxes, and businesses that collected less than $150,000 in room occupancy taxes in the twelve-month period ending February 29, 2020 are eligible for relief with respect to room occupancy taxes. For these small businesses, no penalties or interest will accrue during this extension period," DOR said. "For businesses with meals tax and room occupancy tax obligations that do not otherwise qualify for this relief, late-file and late-pay penalties for returns due from March 20, 2020 through June 1, 2021 are waived through October 30, 2021." The agency plans to issue emergency regulations and a technical information release to implement the changes. - Michael P. Norton 12:04 PM Thu

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