Mass. Gov. Baker: 'Tough Days Ahead Of Us' As Battle Against Coronavirus Begins

Mar 18, 2020

Cautioning of tough days ahead, Massachusetts officials said Tuesday they are pursuing multiple ways to ramp up the capacity for coronavirus testing in the state, and outlined several other new initiatives to address ramifications of the pandemic.

Governor Charlie Baker, in an afternoon press conference, announced the distribution of $5 million in emergency funds to local boards of health, along with new emergency orders he said will "cut red tape so hospitals can staff up faster," adjust minimum standards for ambulance staffing to maintain EMS availability, and facilitate telehealth services across state lines to help keep people out of hospitals in non-emergency situations.

The number of COVID-19 cases reported by public health officials in Massachusetts rose from 197 to 218 on Tuesday, including 21 hospitalizations. At least 33 of the cases involved local transmission, according to the Department of Public Health.

Baker said he is also formally requesting that the Small Business Administration issue a declaration of economic injury for Massachusetts to make low-interest loans available to small business owners affected by the outbreak. That move follows the governor's announcement Monday of a new $10 million recovery loan fund for small businesses.

Baker said he was also glad to see federal officials "talking earlier today about a major recovery package." He said he expects to see "a significant spike" in the number of Massachusetts residents applying for and receiving unemployment benefits.

"Without question, we are likely to have some very tough days ahead of us as we are still at the beginning of the battle against this virus," Baker said. "But we continue to have great faith and confidence that we will get through this by pulling together, caring for one another, and doing what's right for our neighbors and our communities, because that is who we are."

Baker said he'd like to see "way more testing" for the coronavirus than is currently available, both to determine where the most significant challenges are and to plan for the future.

State health officials continue to encourage residents to engage in social distancing practices. Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel said doing so "is a way for each one of us to have an impact on the outcome of the disease."

"And I know it is challenging for your family and mine to do it, but it is critical in assisting us in flattening the curve," she said.

Tuesday marked the first day of a new set of widespread closures in the Bay State. Under emergency orders from Baker, schools are shut down for at least three weeks, while restaurants are limited to takeout and delivery only. Most gatherings of 25 or more people are banned, and many people across the state are now working from home, often while juggling childcare responsibilities.

Executive branch employees will receive new telework guidance Tuesday, Baker said. He also said he does not currently have plans to order a statewide ban on regular construction activity like the citywide suspension Boston Mayor Martin Walsh imposed Monday.

Baker opened his remarks Tuesday by reiterating that he is not planning to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, saying that rumors persist despite his past denials. He stressed the need to obtain information from reliable sources -- "not from your friend's friend's friend's friend's neighbor" -- and urged grocery shoppers to "use common sense and moderation and avoid hoarding large quantities."

At around the same time Baker began his press conference, a group of 10 state representatives and local officials from Cambridge and Somerville sent him a letter urging the governor to follow the lead of communities in California's Bay Area and order that Massachusetts residents stay home except for trips related to essential needs.

The group asked Baker to issue a shelter-in-place order by the end of the day, saying it's "essential that the spread of the virus be suppressed to protect the ability of healthcare providers to handle the influx of new patients and safeguard public health and safety."

Baker said that managing the spread of the illness is "going to come down here in Massachusetts to the work that everybody does collectively to deal with social distancing and to the extent that they possibly can, not being part of the spread, because that's going to be the mechanism that ultimately determines where the peak is and where it comes down.

The governor's new emergency orders on health care will allow the reactivation of licenses of physicians who have retired within the last year in good standing, and allow providers in other states to obtain emergency licenses to practice in person or through telemedicine.

They also stipulate that no doctor, nurse, social worker or psychologist will be prohibited from using telemedicine across state lines to care for their patients who have been enrolled this year in Massachusetts colleges or universities, which have largely moved to remote learning and sent students home.

The state is also "working all avenues to rapidly increase" capacity to test for the virus, said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who is leading a COVID-19 response command center.

Baker said he would like to see more testing, in part to assist the command center in its ongoing "scenario planning" efforts with the medical community around what the ultimate demand for care might look like.

"From my point of view, I would like to see us test way more than we've tested up until now," he said. "I mean, first of all testing is an important way of determining where you have your most significant issues and challenges, and secondly, it's also something you can use as scenario planning."

Sudders said she spoke Tuesday with local companies PerkinElmer and Thermo Fisher Scientific, who have both committed to help the state in testing. She said officials believe the Broad Institute, a partnership between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could serve as a state reference lab, with Thermo Fisher test kits.

"If we're successful, the Broad Institute would be able to test almost 1,000 kits per day," she said. "The PerkinElmer CEO has offered to supply the state lab with a testing machine and supplies with additional capacity for almost 1,000 tests per day."

The command center is also "matchmaking" between academic medical centers that have machine capacity and companies that produce test kits and supplies, Sudders said.

The state public health laboratory had conducted 1,367 tests as of Tuesday morning, yielding 197 positive results. That number is up from 1,092 on Monday. Commercial labs Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp have reported a total of 384 tests, including 13 positives.

Testing numbers had previously been released on a weekly schedule, and Bharel said the new goal is to update those figures daily along with the number of cases.

Bharel said the state lab is able to test 400 patients a day, up from an original 200 a day, and maintains adequate supplies. She said the administration's goal "is to continue to increase our testing capability as quickly and as safely as we can."

"But I understand that it is not at the fast pace that we would all prefer," she said. "Some of this is due to federal level shortages that Massachusetts and many other states are facing. We are moving as quickly as we can."