Baker: “Encouraging trends” in coronavirus cases key for state’s reopening

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Like Saturday’s snowy-and-then-sunny weather, the state’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic combines two seemingly conflicting realities: the “encouraging trends” that Gov. Charlie Baker cited are still going in the right direction, even as total cases and deaths continue their growth.

Another 138 deaths reported Saturday brought the state’s total count of fatalities linked to COVID-19 to 4,840. At the rate it has been increasing lately, the death toll could surpass 5,000 in Massachusetts by Sunday or Monday.

Still, while the cumulative numbers are rising, the rate of new tests to come back positive stood at 13 percent in Saturday’s update, continuing a week of numbers near the low teens — albeit with one 28 percent outlier on Wednesday — that is lower than the 25 to 30 percent rate common in mid-April.

The number of patients currently hospitalized for the illness also continued its decline in Saturday’s data report, dropping another 120 from Thursday to Friday. Since April 26, overall hospitalizations have dropped in all but three days, driving the sum down more than 600.

While it appears social distancing will be with us for a long while, the weekend brought some increased activity. Gun stores reopened Saturday under a federal judge’s ruling, golf courses can now host players in a cautious way, and florists welcomed employees back into physical stores to fulfill delivery orders ahead of Mother’s Day.

To the south, Rhode Island launched its phased reopening on Saturday with some retail stores and other businesses allowed to resume operations so long as they abide by strict guidelines.

New York Investigating Child Deaths:

Three New York state children have died from what Gov. Andrew Cuomo said “may be a COVID-related illness in children,” raising concerns that younger populations may face previously unknown risks from the highly infectious virus. NBC News reported Saturday that a 5-year-old boy was the first fatality attributed nationwide to the condition known as pediatric multisymptom inflammatory syndrome and that two other children have now died. Public health experts had said for months that the illness appeared to be less likely and less intense in children, but Cuomo warned Saturday that a rare inflammatory condition may stem from the virus. “This illness has symptoms that are similar to Kawasaki disease & toxic shock syndrome,” he tweeted. The NBC News report said almost 100 children have been diagnosed with the syndrome in at least seven states, including Massachusetts. Baker administration officials could not be reached Saturday for more information on Massachusetts cases. “One of the few rays of good news (in the outbreak) was young people weren’t affected,” Cuomo said at a Saturday press conference. “We’re not so sure that is the fact any more.”

Air Travel and COVID-19 Safeguards:

The Transportation Security Administration, which says nearly a million passengers reached their destinations safely after screening during the one-week period ending May 2, also announced on Thursday that its employees must wear facial protection while at screening checkpoints. “TSA is making this change to protect our employees and travelers as social distancing cannot always be maintained in the screening process,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske. The agency is encouraging passengers to wear facial protection, which people may be asked to lower for identity verification purposes. TSA also said that it is “considering further changes to its screening system to further minimize the risk and to limit physical interactions in the security checkpoint.” Airlines for America, the trade group of leading U.S. airlines, applauded TSA’s decision to require face masks for its employees, but encouraged the TSA and U.S. airports to require facial protection for all travelers, in keeping with CDC recommendations. The TSA’s decision on masks for its employees came after the airline trade group’s passenger carriers voluntarily announced that customer-facing employees and passengers “will be required to wear a cloth face covering over their nose and mouth throughout the journey — during check-in, boarding, in-flight and deplaning,” according to A4A. On Saturday, A4A announced that its member carriers want the TSA to begin checking the temperature of the traveling public and customer-facing employees “as long as necessary during the COVID-19 public health crisis.”

Saturday COVID-19 Case Update:

Public health officials confirmed another 1,410 COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts and 138 more deaths Saturday as the total number of hospitalizations for the disease dropped. Saturday’s figures push the total confirmed infections since the outbreak began to 76,743 and the death toll to 4,840. Other metrics that Gov. Charlie Baker has cited as key to watch as the state moves toward a phased reopening of public life continued generally positive trends: on Friday, 3,229 patients were actively hospitalized for COVID-19, a drop of 120 from a day earlier, according to Saturday’s release. Tests conducted came back positive at a 13 percent rate, more in line with numbers over the past week than the one-day spike to 28 percent on Wednesday.

IRS Outlines Suggestion for Quicker Payment Delivery:

Qualifying Americans who have not yet received their direct pandemic relief payment from the federal government should use an Internal Revenue Service online portal by Wednesday to speed up delivery, the agency said. Paper checks will go out in larger numbers later in May, the IRS said, and taxpayers who wish to receive their money — $1,200 for individuals, $2,400 for couples and an additional $500 per child — via direct deposit should visit the Get My Payment page by 12 p.m. on May 13 to check the status and provide deposit information. Congressman Stephen Lynch broadcast the IRS and Treasury Department recommendation in a Saturday press release, writing that about 130 million people have already received the payments over the first four weeks of distribution. House Democrats have hinted interest in sending another round of direct payments, though the legislation has not yet emerged and it is unclear if Republicans would support the proposal.

Connecticut COVID-19 Cases Clustered to South:

COVID-19 case, hospitalizations and deaths in Connecticut, another state that shares a long border with Massachusetts, are heavily concentrated in that state’s southernmost two counties, with another cluster of cases in the Hartford area. According to data released Saturday by Gov. Ned Lamont’s office, more than 22,000 of Connecticut’s nearly 33,000 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases are in Fairfield and New Haven counties. Of the 1,301 people reported as hospitalized with COVID-19 in Connecticut, 424 are in Fairfield County and 437 are in New Haven County. The two counties, whose southern borders run along the coast of the Long Island Sound, account for more than 1,700 of the state’s 2,932 reported COVID-19 deaths. Hartford County, which shares a border with Massachusetts just south of Springfield and Agawam, ranks third among Connecticut’s eight counties in cases and hospitalizations and second in deaths, at 901. Connecticut has also published sector rules for a May 20 reopen, with guidelines specifically tailored to hair salons and barbershops, museums and zoos, offices, restaurants, and retail and malls.

Rhode Island Begins Phased Reopening:

Residents of Massachusetts’s southeastern neighbor are no longer under a stay-at-home order as of Saturday, and many businesses will begin a gradual process of returning to open operations. Under a new policy Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Thursday, non-critical retail stores can open their doors to customers so long as they follow capacity limits, while other businesses such as manufacturing and construction can also open. However, recreation and close-contact businesses — ranging from movie theaters to hair salons — are still closed. Employees who are able to work from home are still asked to do so, and gatherings of more than five people remain banned until at least May 22. While Massachusetts leaders have made some recent concessions such as reopening golf courses and allowing florists to operate, the state has not yet begun a formal reopening process in the same way that Rhode Island has. A panel led by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy plans to issue final recommendations by May 18 on how to ease restrictions in a phased way.

Tennis Players Request Permission to Hit the Courts:

Golf courses got the green light Thursday to reopen for players so long as they take precautions, and now tennis players want to see the Baker administration unlock their courts, too. On Friday, one day after the administration issued new guidance allowing private and municipal golf courses to resume operations, players of another game suspended during the pandemic launched an online petition titled “Please Let Massachusetts Play Tennis!” Supporters wrote in the petition that they support Gov. Charlie Baker’s efforts to limit spread of the highly infectious COVID-19, but that tennis should be once again allowed with significant changes to lower risks, such as requiring players to wear masks while entering or exiting courts and banning players from congregating or socializing. Through Saturday morning, about 1,350 people had signed the petition.

Advocates Concerned About Gun Shop Openings:

Groups that work with domestic violence survivors warned Friday that a federal judge’s order allowing gun retailers to reopen during the pandemic “may further jeopardize the personal safety of victims of abuse.” In a joint statement, Jane Doe Inc. Executive Director Debra Robbin and Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance Liam Lowney pointed to research in the American Journal of Public Health indicating that women face a 500 percent higher risk of homicide when a gun is present in a domestic violence situation. During the pandemic, with residents urged to remain at home whenever possible and thus facing isolation and stress, risks of domestic violence are higher, they said. “While these concerns are not new, the compounding stressors brought on by coronavirus add fuel to those fires,” they said. “For people experiencing domestic violence or at risk for committing suicide, more guns in the home at a time of greater isolation and barriers to services can be especially dangerous.” Robbin and Lowney urged the public to be attentive to others’ mental health needs and to check in on friends, family and neighbors.

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