BOSTON (SHNS) – With the surge of coronavirus infection weeks, if not days, away from washing over Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday said the state had not yet seen the peak and urged residents not to grow “complacent” as he announced a new mobile testing site in West Springfield and legislation to protect health care workers from lawsuits.
Baker also said he was exploring strategies outside of the federal government to obtain life-saving ventilators for Massachusetts, but his continued frustration with the Trump administration was evident as he said the process has been “a lot harder than it should be.”
“We’re entering a period of time where we could be putting serious strain on our health care system and our hospitals, so everyone needs to continue to hold up their end of the deal. Stay home, wash your hands, use hand sanitizer,” Baker said at his daily press briefing from the State House.
Massachusetts has requested 1,700 ventilators from the national stockpile to augment supplies at state hospitals, but has received just 100. As infections, hospitalizations and deaths rise, it’s unclear how many of the life-saving devices are currently in the state.
“We are trading data with the federal government around ventilators and it is my hope and expectation that we will do better on this one by the time we need them,” Baker said.
The surge in patients requiring hospitalization is expected sometime in the next two weeks, between April 10 and April 20, according to the state’s modeling.
While an increase in the number of cases was expected as testing ramped up, Baker said the state continues to see the percentage of patients testing positive also increasing, which suggests that people continue to be newly infected.
Thirty percent of all people tested Monday were positive, Baker said, and 28 percent were positive on Tuesday. Of the new 6,167 new tests done by Wednesday, 1,588 people tested positive for a rate of 25.7 percent.
“We see evidence that we’re still on the upward slope of this pandemic,” Baker said.
“At the same time, we’ve not seen the same steep acceleration seen in either Wuhan, New York or other places, which means we’re cautiously optimistic that our social distancing, essential services orders, and other measures that we and others have put in place, are helping to flatten the curve,” he said.
A new mobile testing site for first responders will be opening “shortly” on the Big E fairgrounds in West Springfield, Baker said, with the capacity to test 200 people a day.
In preparation for the surge, a panel of doctors and medical ethicists convened by Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel also published its recommendations on Tuesday for how hospitals should ration access to care and limited life-saving equipment, if it comes to that.
The recommendations call for prioritizing the young and most-likely to survive hospitalization for treatment, with special preference given to health care workers.
“It’s hard to believe we’re in a period where hospitals might have to make difficult decisions about how to distribute resources like ventilators, but that’s the worst case scenario, and we must plan for it,” Baker said.
Some communities and populations have been hit harder than others by the spread of the coronavirus, and for the first time on Wednesday the Department of Public Health reported the racial and ethnic data it has, and issued an order requiring those who report cases to the state to fill in that demographic data moving forward.
“I want to be clear. Obtaining racial and ethnic data on COVID-19 is crucial for examining where and on whom the burden of illness and death is falling,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said.
Sudders said the information on race and ethnicity was current through April 5 and “subject to change” as public health officials work to overcome obstacles to collecting personal data. She called the information “essential” to the state’s response, but admitted it remains “far too incomplete.”
The report showed that non-Hispanic whites accounted for 16 percent of all cases and 23 percent of all deaths from COVID-19 in Massachusetts, while 7 percent of cases were being seen among Hispanics and 5 percent among Blacks. The percentage of total deaths found in the Hispanic and Black population were 3 percent and 2 percent respectively, while the state could not identify the race or ethnicity of close to 70 percent of all cases and deaths.
Sudders also identified Chelsea, Revere and Brockton as “hotspots” for the virus, and said the state, which reports virus information by county only, was working with officials in those cities to set up hotels to quarantining infected residents living in dense communities and the homeless.
The governor’s new legislation, filed in the Senate on Wednesday afternoon, would grant legal immunity to health care workers delivering care to COVID-19 patients in unorthodox settings like sporting arenas, as well as the organizations that have offered up their spaces to become medical centers.
Baker worked with Attorney General Maura Healey to develop the legislation, which he said goes further than the protections in the federal PREP Act, and called on the Legislature to pass it quickly.
“We need to make sure that fear of getting sued doesn’t prevent them from being able to do what they need to do to treat as many people as possible,” Baker said.
Asked about the experimental use of the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 that President Trump has frequently touted as having potential, Baker said the state’s Board of Pharmacy took a page from Ohio’s playbook and voted to limit prescriptions to “certain circumstances in certain situations consistent with its medically prescribed use.”
Baker’s focus on making sure Massachusetts is prepared for the influx of infections was evident as he waved to the side questions about some issues that continue to percolate.
Asked about a lawsuit filed by several recreational marijuana dispensaries challenging Baker’s decision to force them to close as non-essential businesses while liquor stores remain open, the governor reiterated his position that opening pot shops would encourage marijuana tourism at a time when he wants people to stay out of Massachusetts.
“You know, I’m really focused at this point on the surge, which is going to involve trying to save the lives of tens of thousands of people here in Massachusetts, and I really hope that people in Massachusetts would focus on that too, because that is, in many respects, going to be our greatest challenge over the next two or three weeks,” Baker said.
Asked whether he or lawmakers should consider raising taxes to address what is expected to be a challenging financial stretch for the state as revenues drop off due to the decrease in retail and business activity, Baker shot down that idea.
“So in the middle of an economic downturn where there was a report issued today that as many as 25 percent of our working population could be out of work, we should raise taxes? I don’t think so,” Baker said.
The governor said his administration was making its COVID-19 information available on the state’s website in 12 languages, but still had work to do to develop multilingual capacity on the unemployment insurance website.