Baker declares virus state of emergency

New rules for state workers, private sector urged to follow

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER declared a state of emergency on Tuesday to give state government more tools and flexibility should the coronavirus outbreak in Massachusetts continue to spread.

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts rose from 41 to 92, Baker cut short a family trip to Utah and barred all 42,000 executive branch employees from traveling domestically or abroad, participating in large events, and going on private international trips. Baker urged private employers to follow the state’s lead, but indicated those decisions would be up to individual employers and their employees.

The governor was calm and measured, but some of the comments made by him and his aides suggested they are preparing to deal with the virus for a long time. He had been saying the risk of contracting the virus in Massachusetts was low; on Tuesday he said the risk had increased. Legislative leaders, meanwhile, said they would appropriate $15 million next week for fighting the outbreak and the governor said the state is also prepared to tap its $3.5 billion rainy day fund.

Baker said his administration’s so-called “enhanced mitigation efforts” will be disruptive to individuals and businesses, but are necessary to avoid a rapid, widespread outbreak of the virus that could overwhelm the state’s medical system.

“At this time, the number of people infected or requiring medical attention is very much within our healthcare system’s capacity,” he said. “The purpose of moving forward with these measures now is to act before the numbers increase to a point where the virus spread is severely impacting the Commonwealth. The highly contagious nature of this disease means that if everyone plays their part in slowing its spread, the number of people who become infected and require medical attention doesn’t spike all at once, which would overwhelm many of our systems.”

In other words, slowing the spread of the virus down and spreading its impact out over time should enable the medical system to do its job. Baker and his aides said 80 percent of those who contract the virus experience relatively minor systems. They said the elderly and those with chronic diseases are most at risk.

Only six of the 92 Massachusetts residents with COVID-19 are hospitalized and there have been no deaths. Fifty-two of those infected are men and 40 are women. Officials said they did not know the ages of the victims.

The number of cases is rising, but 70 of the 92 can be traced back to people being exposed to an individual carrying the virus at a conference in Boston sponsored by Biogen. What concerned state officials were the seven cases in Berkshire County, where the source of the contagion is unknown.

Monica Bharel, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health, said the cases in Berkshire County indicate that the disease can no longer be linked to international travel or isolated chains of transmission.

“Here in Massachusetts, person-to-person spread of the virus in the community is beginning to occur among individuals without identifiable risk factors,” she said. “As community transmission of COVID-19 becomes more common, the public health approach shifts to one of mitigation, and that is reducing the impact. In Berkshire County, we are assisting the people there where we are beginning to see this kind of community-level transition.”

Bharel said the state is supplying Berkshire County with supplies and equipment and testing health care workers and patients there for the virus. She said her agency has dispatched a public health expert to the area to assist on the ground. “We are at a critical point in this outbreak,” Bharel said.

The emergency declaration would give Baker’s administration the power to mandate insurance coverages, cancel large events, and access private buildings and facilities. “If we do get to the point where we think we need to shut down some assemblages of one type of another, I don’t want to have to go seek authority to do that. I want to be able to do it,” the governor said.

Some patients have complained about the difficulty of getting tested for COVID-19. Bharel said patients who suspect they have contracted the virus are asked to call in advance so their health care facility can be prepared to accept them. “The healthcare clinician uses their judgment of what the situation is, the local epidemiology, and the symptoms to discuss with the local board of health and Department of Public Health,” she said.

Bharel said a physician currently cannot simply order the test be done. “We are hoping that commercial labs and other hospital labs will be able to perform this,” she said. “Until that is worked through with the FDA, the only place where the test can be performed is at the Department of Public Health.”

About 400 tests have been conducted so far. Bharel said the Department of Public Health currently has an adequate number of testing kits and just received an additional 2,000 from the Centers for Disease Control. She said another order for an additional 2,000 has been placed.

Federal officials have allowed the state lab to automate one portion of the test, which will increase the output of results from 50 reports a day to 200. Bharel said the turnaround for test results is 24 to 48 hours.

Bharel said the state is also awaiting delivery of emergency gear from the federal government, including masks, gowns, gloves, and eye protection.

Baker said state education officials will ease rules on school attendance requirements to allow for closures when necessary. The governor refused to be drawn into debates about whether the Boston Marathon should go on as scheduled next month or whether state colleges and universities should follow the lead of many private schools and send their students home to take classes via the internet. “I do believe those folks are having that conversation,” he said of state education officials. (The state’s higher education system, as well as the courts are not covered by the measures announced by the governor on Tuesday.)

State health officials repeatedly stressed that individuals should wash their hands frequently, avoid touching their faces, and avoid large crowds. Many people are concerned they could become infected by someone who is infected but not exhibiting any symptoms yet, but Bharel said that risk is minimal. “The evidence points to individuals being most at risk when they’re exposed to somebody with symptoms,” she said. “And the reason for that is the easiest way for it to be transmitted is through droplets when we cough or sneeze. Most cases are related to that.”

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.

With Baker’s emergency declaration, Massachusetts joined a handful of other states, including Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island.

Roughly three hours after Baker’s press  conference at the State House, residents of Boston began receiving robocalls in multiple languages from Mayor Marty Walsh, who told them about the governor’s declaration and ran through the various personal hygiene measures they should take to avoid becoming infected.