Baker announces expanded testing, limits on elective surgery
Cases ‘took off like a rocket,’ he says
AS THE SURGE of COVID-19 cases continues statewide, Gov. Charlie Baker announced new measures to expand testing and keep hospital beds open.
Baker was visibly angry as he discussed the need to increase testing and stem the virus’s spread, saying that the state’s positive test rate “took off like a rocket,” because some people ignored public health recommendations and gathered with others outside of their households indoors and without masks over Thanksgiving.
“We’ve been saying for months this is one of the primary ways the virus spreads, and we talked a lot about why Thanksgiving was particularly worrisome,” Baker said at a Monday briefing. He said he had a weekend call with mayors, some of whom shared frustration at seeing neighbors hold indoor gatherings without mask wearing.
“Thanksgiving, the ultimate informal gathering among people who are informal with each other, but who don’t necessarily live with each other here and in many other places, has been exactly the kind of event that people said it would be,” Baker said. He added that he hasn’t shared a meal with his own father since February.
The five new Stop the Spread locations will be in located in Hampshire, Franklin, Berkshire, and Barnstable counties. Cape Cod in particular has seen a deficit in free testing, with the nearest Stop the Spread site located in New Bedford, almost 50 miles away from Hyannis, where cases are climbing. The Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment is opening two testing sites, including one in Falmouth, with $550,000 in state funds.
In Western Massachusetts, a partnership between the state and the University of Massachusetts Amherst will bring free testing to Amherst. A state partnership with Berkshire Health Systems will expand free testing across multiple sites in Berkshire County, and the state plans to expand free testing with a mobile provider in Franklin County.
Amherst state Rep. Mindy Domb called for expanded free test sites last week in a letter to Baker after visiting a Holyoke location and finding hundreds of vehicles lined up with people who had been waiting several hours. “It suffered from inadequate staffing, with only two people performing tests, and another two people inputting registration data,” she told CommonWealth, adding that Baker should activate the National Guard to improve testing resources.
Baker said Monday the state plans to conduct 110,000 COVID-19 tests per week by the time all sites are fully operational—representing a 50 percent testing increase for state-financed and organized testing sites alone. He said Massachusetts remains among the top five states for testing per capita in the nation.
In addition to the state’s sites, regional testing in New Bedford and Lynn will be run by the business and tech coalition Project Beacon, with another site launching in Framingham today.
The state has allocated more than $150 million for free COVID-19 testing, according to the Baker administration.
“We’re curtailing inpatient elective treatments and procedures that impact inpatient capacity,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. She said that this will be different than last spring, when all elective treatments were cancelled, including outpatient visits.
“We obviously want to keep outpatient visits,” she said, including mammograms, pediatric visits, and other routine checkups. She and Baker cited ongoing staffing shortages in hospitals, and the surge of patients taking over emergency rooms.
Baker said it’s particularly frustrating for medical professionals to see patients who are doing the exact opposite of what public officials are recommending in terms of social gatherings.
“Most people in Massachusetts are doing the right thing, and God bless them,” said Baker. He said the virus trend does look different now than it did in the spring, and he credited residents for that. “But now that people are inside, it’s critically important people up their game,” Baker said. “We’re certainly better prepared for this than we were before,” he said, citing the availability of personal protective equipment and hospital readiness.
Baker said more details about vaccine rollout will be available on Wednesday, when he plans to hold a press conference with experts who have worked on vaccine development and on formulating a plan to get immunizations to the public.
The Baker administration announced on Friday that it will receive 300,000 initial vaccine doses from the federal government by the end of December. Baker said there will be an “aggressive effort” to educate the public about vaccination.
Baker did not commit to rolling back reopening phases or placing further restrictions on businesses, but said several times he is looking at the post-Thanksgiving coronavirus case data.
Some public health experts are urging Baker to take action.
“For many months, I defended @CharlieBakerMA against critics, saying our governor has done a good job,” Dr. Ashish Jah, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, tweeted over the weekend. “Over past 6 weeks, I’ve gone from uncomfortable to aghast at lack of action. Its incomprehensible.”
Jha, who is quoted widely on COVID in the regional and national media, said Massachusetts now has more cases per capita than Texas, Florida, or Georgia, with hospitalizations and deaths up 100 percent in the last three weeks.The last time rules were changed for restaurants and businesses was in early November when Baker signed an executive order requiring certain businesses to close between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 5 a.m.
“We saw the trend flatten out with those closing times until Thanksgiving,” he said.