Virus notes: Baker appeals for contact tracing support

Governor: All state prisoners will be tested for COVID-19

THE STATE’S EFFORT to slow the spread of the coronavirus by reaching out to those infected and tracking down their close contacts is off to a quick start, but it has a long way to go.

Since it opened for business on April 12, the contact tracing initiative has talked to nearly 14,000 people infected with the coronavirus and 7,500 of their contacts, according to Gov. Charlie Baker.

As of Thursday, a total of 73,721 people in Massachusetts have tested positive for the coronavirus and the number has been growing between 1,000 and 2,000 a day.

The biggest problem is people not responding to phone calls from the organization. More than 10,000 people are being called every day, but less than half of those calls go unanswered, said John Welch, the director of partnerships and operations at the nonprofit Partners in Health, which is spearheading the effort along with local boards of health and the state Department of Public Health.

The original estimate of the median number of contacts for every infected person was 10, but it’s turned out to be two. Baker said the low number is a testament to the state’s success in limiting contacts between people, but it also may be reflective of the way contacts are defined.

A close contact is defined as someone who has been within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more anytime within a couple days before the person either began exhibiting symptoms or tested positive if they were asymptomatic.

Welch acknowledged the organization has hit some technological speed bumps along the way but did not go into any detail. He said the nature of the work has been too much for some of the people hired, but, overall, the attrition rate has been surprisingly low. He said 40,000 people applied for roughly 1,000 contact tracing positions.

Baker characterized the contact tracing effort as a major part of efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus and allow the phased reopening of the economy. He said people should take the phone calls and look at the effort as a way to protect themselves and the ones they are close to.

“It’s a huge chance for people to do something positive,” Baker said.

Baker to test all prison inmates

Gov. Charlie Baker said on Thursday that his administration intends to test all state prison inmates for COVID-19.

“We’re working our way through the prison system. In the end, we’re going to test everybody,” he said at a State House press conference.

According to filings this week with a special court master, the state has tested about 1,200 of roughly 7,000 people in custody and 266 have tested positive. Seven prisoners have died from COVID-19.

Nearly 1m Mass. workers seek unemployment benefits

 Close to 1 million Massachusetts workers have sought unemployment benefits since most of public life shuttered in mid-March to limit transmission of the highly infectious COVID-19, according to new data published Thursday.

Between March 15 and May 2, state labor officials received nearly 780,000 applications for standard unemployment insurance. Another 185,000 claimants have sought aid through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program — created by Congress to extend eligibility to gig workers, self-employed workers and others who do not qualify for traditional unemployment insurance — since it launched in Massachusetts on April 20.

Cumulative standard and expanded claims together total about 960,000 in Massachusetts since March 15, based on the latest figures unveiled Thursday, representing more than one-quarter of the state’s entire labor force.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Meet the Author

Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
Both the 55,000-plus applications filed at the state level and the 3.17 million nationally were the lowest one-week totals since the week ending March 21, which was the first span where the outbreak’s devastating impact on employment became clear. However, both state and national weekly claims were once again several times higher than any pre-pandemic levels observed.

The rapidity with which the spike in need emerged is also unprecedented. Over the past seven weeks, about 33.4 million Americans have filed for unemployment. From the December 2007 start of the Great Recession, the cumulative total of new weekly claims did not reach 33.4 million until mid-April 2009 — a total of 73 weeks later — though not all of those applications reflected concurrent unemployment.