If you live in Massachusetts, you probably looked across the state line with a twinge of jealously recently.

Gov. Chris Sununu extended his state’s stay-at-home order though the end of the month, but that came with the promise of hair salons, barber shops and retail stores starting a limited reopening sooner. Restaurants will be allowed limited outdoor seating a week after that.

Who doesn’t need a haircut? And who doesn’t want to sit down and eat a cheeseburger you didn’t cook at a table not in your kitchen or dining room?

Massachusetts, meanwhile, still drifts in the other direction. Its governor recently announced an order requiring anyone in a public place where you’ll be closer than six feet from someone else to wear a face covering. He gave local health officials and police authority to back up his order with fines of up to $300.

So while New Hampshire gets to shop, Massachusetts gets another forced layer of protection.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s stay-at-home order expires May 18, but who really expects it to lift all at once?

The news was disheartening, to be sure, but it wasn’t all bad.

Simply waiting for a spike in COVID-19 cases to pass before leaving our houses is no way to weather this century’s answer to the Spanish flu. As we’ve heard repeated by experts from the vaunted Dr. Anthony Fauci on down to local boards of health, there’s no getting around this pandemic until we can reliably test for COVID-19 and react to it. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of time before waves of coronavirus spread over us again and again.

The good news for Massachusetts is that the state is at the leading edge in that regard. Nearly 1,000 contact tracers are now at work calling people known to have been in recent touch with a coronavirus patient, to ask those who’ve been exposed to quarantine themselves.

“Tracing, of course, must go hand in hand with fast and accurate testing,” wrote Dr. Jim Yong Kim, a cofounder of Partners in Health, the group helping to marshal the effort with the state, local health officials and others in the health care industry. “… Under currently available technology, Massachusetts has already managed to dramatically increase the number of tests that it administers, from 41 on March 9 to more than 8,000 on April 17.”

That number only stands to grow, Kim noted in his essay for The New Yorker, in which he laid out a case for a combined strategy of social distancing, contact tracing, testing, isolation and treatment as the only way to get ahead of the coronavirus.

It’s not enough to wait for the number of cases to fall, then resume our old lives. Doing so only puts us back into the wilderness. “Now, even though we’re still fighting the virus, we see a clear path to its defeat,” wrote Kim.

Again, there are real signs of success in Massachusetts.

In his regular press briefing, Baker recently noted that hospitalization rates from COVID-19 have been flat in Massachusetts for more than two weeks. It’s not until that number starts to dip, he added, that we’ll feel comfortable pursuing plans to reopen the state.

He also pointed to the success of ramping up the 1,000-person team of contact tracers, as well as some of its early findings. Initial estimates were that each COVID-19 patient would have 10 or so close contacts that needed to be reached, Baker said. The average so far is two.

According to the State House News Service’s account of the briefing, Baker sees in that low number a sign of encouragement that all of the precautions being taken have “made a big difference.” It signals that efforts to chase down this virus could be backing it into a corner.

It’s little wonder that reopening Massachusetts will take longer than reopening New Hampshire. Massachusetts has confirmed almost 28 times as many cases of COVID-19. But rather than be disappointed by the slow pace, we all should be reassured by a sensible strategy not only for reopening safely but for driving down cases of infection so as not to give the coronavirus another footing.

 

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