Despite positive trends, Baker stays course on tracing, testing

‘We’re not going to be caught by surprise in the fall,’ he says

DESPITE VERY POSITIVE NEWS on the COVID-19 front, Gov. Charlie Baker said on Friday that he has no plans to stand down or curb his aggressive contact tracing effort or his plan to ramp up testing to roughly seven times the level it is at today.

Baker said contact tracing and testing are key weapons in battling the coronavirus and made clear that he is worried about a rebound – he called it an “echo” – of the virus in the fall. He said in March, as COVID-19 began to pick up steam, there were severe shortages of tests, personal protection equipment, health care capacity, infection control, and even data.

“We, writ large, paid an enormous price as a state, as a country, and as a globe for not being prepared. And we’re not going to be caught by surprise in the fall,” he said at a State House press conference where he announced that the next step in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening effort could proceed on Monday.

The state’s COVID-19 trend lines are all headed in a positive direction right now, but Baker’s stance on contact tracing and testing are in line with a state in the middle of a surge.

For example, the job of the contact tracing effort, funded by the state and led by the nonprofit Partners in Health, is to provide help and advice to those who become infected and to track down their close contacts so they can be tested. The average number of close contacts per infected person is two.

Partners in Health, which is funded by the state through a $54 million contract, currently has 1,212 employees. On Thursday, the state reported 271 new COVID-19 cases. Using the average of two close contacts per infected person, that means 1,212 Partners in Health employees were charged with tracking down 813 people.

A spokesperson for the Community Tracing Collaborative said the staff is designed to ebb and flow with need. “Due to decline in the number of cases and identified close contacts in the Commonwealth, the CTC is reviewing staffing levels based on caseload and other factors and will adjust staffing accordingly,” the spokesperson said.

Staffing levels have already been trimmed somewhat. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts loaned 107 of its employees to the effort in April and pulled them all back as of June 12. Ryan O’Donnell, the vice president of service at Blue Cross, said there was less need for them at the collaborative because of the downward trend in cases and more need for them at the company as the state’s economy began to reopen.

Blue Cross officials say the company’s donation came to $974,000 in direct wages, taxes, and benefits for the 107 employees. The officials put the total value of the contribution at $2.62 million.

In May, Baker said he wanted to use more than $300 million in federal funds to ramp up testing to 45,000 tests a day by the end of July and 75,000 by the end of December. The governor said his goal was to lower the positive test rate (positive tests as a percentage of all tests done) from 12 percent at that time to below 5 percent by the end of December.

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.

Since the announcement, the testing outlook has changed dramatically. The number of tests has rarely exceeded 10,000, but the percentage of positive tests fell to 5 percent by May 29 and continued to drop to the 2 percent range over the last week.

Even so, the governor indicated he still wants to ramp up testing to 45,000 tests a day by the end of July and 75,000 by the end of December. Unless the number of infections rises dramatically, the positive test rate would be minuscule with that level of testing.