BOSTON (SHNS) – The number of new cases of confirmed coronavirus infection have declined each of the past five days in Massachusetts, but Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday it’s too soon to tell if this is a positive development in the state’s fight against the virus, or a blip in the data due to the limited nature of testing.
The number of new positive tests for COVID-19 fell from 2,262 last Thursday to 1,556 on Tuesday, according to data reported daily by the Department of Public Health. The daily dip in confirmed new cases should be a key metric for the state in understanding where in the trajectory of the virus’s spread Massachusetts is situated and for state leaders to begin to think about when to reopen parts of the economy.
But Baker, who described Massachusetts as “now a national hotspot for COVID-19 infections,” said the limited sample size, coupled with the fact that hospitalizations climbed by 83 to 3,872 on Tuesday, meant that it was too early to feel confident that Massachusetts was on the other side of the surge.
The White House has urged states to consider reopening parts of the economy after witnessing 14 days of declining caseloads, but Baker said hospitalization rates are the “piece of data we watch most closely.” The governor said 56 percent of the state’s 18,000 available hospital beds are unoccupied.
“We think it’s too soon to draw a conclusion from that data,” Baker said. “First, a few days does not represent a trend. We’ve seen this data bounce around before. And secondly, the number of positive tests is entirely dependent on who you test.”
To increase the volume of testing, Baker announced a new partnership between the private lab Quest Diagnostics and the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers focused on “areas of high need,” including densely populated urban areas.
Quest plans to send 2,200 tests per day to 12 community health centers with the capacity to increase testing, including centers in Quincy, Brockton, Lowell, Fall River, New Bedford, Worcester Provincetown and multiple sites in Boston, including Codman Square Health Center, Whittier Street Health Center, DotHouse Health and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center (EBNHC).
Manny Lopes, the CEO of EBNHC, said the partnership will support his center’s efforts to test at its emergency department, adult and pediatric flue clinics and its drive-through and walk-through testing sites. The East Boston center also plans to soon launch a mobile testing van with the help of Cataldo Ambulance.
“As we all know, testing will be critical for the well-being of our residents and to the overall statewide response to COVID-19. Testing leads to detection, which allows us to keep sick individuals at home in quarantine and reduce exposure to our community members and slow the spread of the outbreak,” Lopes said. “Having this reliable consistent supply of test kits will allow us more consistently to test those in need.”
Lopes said the Quest tests will help his health center, which has already tested 3,000 residents, increase its testing capacity to 500 per day. While EBNHC continues to follow DPH and CDC guidance on testing individuals who are symptomatic, Baker said that as the state’s contact tracing program grows he hopes that people who are identified as having come in contact with a positive case will also be able to get tested.
The governor’s briefing on Wednesday afternoon was the first since Baker issued an order to keep all public and private school buildings closed for the remainder of the school year.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said that for the half-a-million low-income students who will no longer be able to access free or reduced-price lunches at school the state had been approved by the USDA, along with three other states, to participate in a pilot program to send families a stipend to buy healthy foods.
The pandemic electronic benefit program will allow qualifying families to access $5.70 per child per day, or $28.50 per week, to buy healthy foods for as long as the schools are closed. This program, Sudders, said, will supplement the more than 1,300 “grab-and-go” lunch sites set up across the state.
“It also brings more than $100 million in the commonwealth’s economy, supporting our local grocery stores or bodegas, our corner stores, and their employees,” Sudders said.
While grocers and convenience stores remain open as “essential businesses,” Baker said the state was not ready to begin talking about opening other parts of the economy, including salons, to consumers.
The governor was asked about an online petition urging him to allow salons and barber shops to open if they only take one customer at a time so people can get their hair cut.
“First of all, we’re not going to do that until we get over the hump of the surge, period. Okay?” Baker said. “No one anywhere in the world, much less in the United States, has suggested that it’s a good idea to get into the business of giving up on distancing and the stay at-home advisories and all the rest until you get to the other side of the surge.”
Once Massachusetts does get to that point, however, Baker said it’s likely that businesses will no longer be divided along essential and non-essential lines. Instead, Baker said the state will likely develop a set of safety protocols to protect workers and consumers, and it will be up to businesses to figure out if they can adhere to those guideposts. He predicted that “pretty forceful guidance” would govern permissible activities once the state reaches the other side of the COVID-19 curve.
One of the complications arising from the fact that Massachusetts is a hotspot for infection nationally is that states around Massachusetts are in different positions with respect to the spread of infection, and thinking differently about how and when to reopen commerce.
In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu has put together a task force to help develop a plan to reopen Granite State businesses, and Baker said the only thing he can do is ask that Massachusetts not get caught off guard by what neighboring states do.
Baker said he was on a conference call Tuesday with Maine Gov. Janet Mills, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo when this issue came up. He did not mention Sununu.
“I just want to make sure we know what their next move is and they know what we’re up to so that people don’t end up surprising each other and creating what I talked about when we decided to join that larger northeastern coalition, which is a decision that somebody makes that creates tremendous difficulty for somebody else,” Baker said.
Baker said he didn’t want to “speculate” on whether he would consider a travel ban if New Hampshire or another neighboring state reopened its businesses before Massachusetts. He also declined to predict how the virus would impact July 4 celebrations.
At his afternoon briefing, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said he’s aware of the increasing talk about reopening the economy and said the city is developing public health criteria for what steps would be taken and when.
“Certainly reopening is a top priority of all of ours,” he said.
“But the fundamental requirement for public health progress is a significant increase in testing,” he said. “We need to know the full picture before we take those steps. Only testing can tell us what we need to know about how this virus is affecting different parts of our community.”
A conservative talk radio host Dianna Ploss sent out an email on Wednesday seeking to organize a protest outside Baker’s house in Swampscott on Thursday morning under the banner of “Liberate Massachusetts.”
The email laid out anger with Baker’s decision to shutter the economy, particularly churches and gun shops, and suggested that the virus’s spread in China had been exaggerated and was being used in the United States to instill fear in the public and consolidate power.
Asked about the protest at his home, Baker went into a long explanation of why he has taken many of the steps he has to protect the public, including his recommendation to wear masks and the potential prevalence of carriers of the virus who show no signs of infection.
“This isn’t being done to punish anybody, okay?” Baker said. “It’s being done to try to keep people safe and it’s being done based on data and information on an unprecedented virus as we gather it and as it comes together.”
A Swampscott Police spokesperson said various reports have shown similar events to be peaceful, however, the department is working with state police to monitor the situation and make sure people are practicing social distancing.