Baker calls on schools to cancel all trips abroad
Says Massachusetts is prepared for coronavirus
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Wednesday urged the state’s colleges and high schools to cancel all organized trips abroad, as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expands its travel guidance regarding coronavirus.
“Due to the evolving situation, we are urging colleges, universities, and high school to cancel upcoming organized international trips at this time,” Baker said at a State House briefing. “Taking this precaution will help protect the students and the Commonwealth.”
The CDC is instructing all travelers returning from China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy to stay home and monitor their health for 14 days after arriving back in the US. Travelers from Japan are being urged to limit their interactions with others for 14 days.
State officials said individuals planning domestic travel or travel to countries not on the CDC list should make an informed decision after checking the guidelines established by federal officials. “People need to make whatever they think is the most appropriate decision for themselves and their families,” Baker said.
There are 719 people who have been asked to self-quarantine at home. Of them, 470 have completed the 14-day monitoring period and 259 are still quarantined. Twenty individuals have been tested for the virus, and a handful of those tests are still outstanding.
Testing is conducted on people who were exposed to the virus or traveled to a high-risk area and have symptoms, and those who are seriously ill and hospitalized with severe pneumonia. Under federal regulations, someone who is quarantined but has no symptoms is not eligible to be tested.
Baker said Massachusetts “remains at low risk.” But he said federal, state and local health officials are continuing to prepare and coordinate.
Baker said decisions have not been made yet about whether to cancel the Boston Marathon on April 20 or the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston on March 15.
Baker on Wednesday signed a supplemental budget dedicating $95,000 for coronavirus-related testing costs at the state public health lab.
Steve Poftak, general manager of the MBTA, said the T on Wednesday began cleaning areas like hand rails and fare equipment every four hours. It is already disinfecting every commuter rail car daily, and is working on getting enough disinfectant in place to disinfect all subway, bus, and paratransit vehicles daily as well.
The MBTA is also using signage to warn commuters about common sense personal hygiene steps, like handwashing.
Several schools have already canceled study abroad programs and organized trips. University of Massachusetts Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, whose university has 3,400 international students and had 750 students studying abroad, said the university cancelled programs and recalled students from China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy. It plans to keep residence halls open and offer educational programs during spring break – and if necessary through the summer – for students who do not want to travel home. The school is also expanding online course delivery in case it becomes necessary to close the campus.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said individuals should continue to take common sense steps to prevent illness – stay home when feeling sick, wash hands regularly, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, and avoid contact with sick people.
Paul Biddinger, vice chairman for emergency preparedness in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, noted at the briefing that most cases of COVID-19 are mild. Bharel said over 80 percent of people who contract COVID-19 have mild symptoms. It has a 2 to 3 percent mortality rate.
But Biddinger cautioned, “We do not know what the future of this outbreak may look like.”
At a Committee on Public Health hearing Wednesday afternoon, several experts noted that the situation is fluid.
Dr. Davidson Hamer, an infectious disease specialist and professor of global health and medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, who is involved with global disease tracking, said there have been cases in Paris and Madrid in the last few days, and he anticipates seeing more travel restrictions in the coming days. But at the same time, Hamer said he thinks the mortality rate is actually lower than the 2 to 3 percent that has been reported, since many mild cases are not being reported.
Dr. Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, said the disease is most likely being transmitted around the world and around the US by people who are not symptomatic and not being tested, so the actual number of cases is likely higher than is being reported.
Mina said there remain many unanswered questions, particularly when the state is limited in its ability to screen for the virus by both federal guidelines and a limited supply of tests and clinicians to administer them – for example, what should a university do when a student in a dorm tests positive? At what point should students return home from school to avoid the communal living in dorms?Nationally, there have been reports of shortages of medical supplies, such as masks.
Kerin Milesky, director of the Department of Public Health’s office of preparedness and emergency management, said at the legislative oversight hearing that the state has a resource request process. Since concerns arose about COVID-19, there have been 43 supply requests from medical providers, and all have been fulfilled at a regional level. If there is a regional shortage, the state and then federal government could step in and provide supplies.