State’s COVID-19 response continues scaling back

Contact tracing layoffs, voluntary quarantine lifted for 7 states

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER is taking more steps to scale back the state’s response to COVID-19, doing away with the voluntary 14-day quarantine for visitors from seven nearby states and cutting by hundreds of employees the size of the team tracking down infected individuals and their close contacts.

Baker said both moves are a response to declining infection rates and progress being made on other key indicators. On Tuesday, for example, the state reported no new deaths from COVID-19, the first time that has happened since before the first fatality in early March.

At a State House press conference on Tuesday, Baker said he didn’t known exactly how many individuals working for the nonprofit Partners in Health, which is running the contact tracing effort, had been let go. “There has been a significant reduction in force,” he said.

As of early June, Partners in Health had 1,212 employees. Subsequently, about 200 left voluntarily and sources say another large group – maybe several hundred – were laid off. A spokesman for the Baker administration did not respond when asked about the cuts.

The cutbacks are a sign the huge apparatus that Baker built up to combat COVID-19 may no longer be necessary. The contact tracing effort attempts to track down infected individuals and their close contacts and get them tested and provide support. With the number of new cases down (114 on Tuesday) and two contacts per infected person on average, there were too many tracers chasing after too few contacts.

“There’s no question that if your positive test rate goes from 30 percent to 2 percent, you’re going to have less work for those folks to do than you had for them to do when your positive test rate was 30 percent,” Baker said. “If the numbers go back up, we have the infrastructure in place to scale it back up pretty quickly.”

Baker also announced on Tuesday that the voluntary, 14-day self-quarantine that all people entering the state are asked to do is being eliminated for visitors from seven northeast states – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey.

It’s unclear whether the voluntary self-quarantine requirement actually had any impact on out-of-state travelers, but Baker said he believes it did based on feedback he has received from the lodging industry. He said removing the voluntary self-quarantine for nearby states with low infection rates makes sense and, if its removal encourages more tourists from those states, “so much the better.”

Baker also balked at suggestions made by public health officials before a Senate panel on Monday that the state needs to start offering universal testing.

“There’s no country, no state in the world that thinks universal testing is the answer to COVID,” Baker said. “Even the countries and the communities that have been the most successful in managing this have been successful not because they have universal testing in place, but because they have a universal commitment to doing the things that stop the spread.”

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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.

Baker said the keys to reducing the spread of the virus are a combination of social distancing, wearing face coverings, frequent hand-washing, and isolation.

“Testing is a vehicle for determining how well you’re doing with the devices and the protocols and the policies that you’re putting in place to manage the spread of COVID, but it is not, by itself, a solution,” Baker said. “It’s a tool you can use to determine how successful the approach you’re taking is performing, and I think it’s really important for everybody to understand that.”

The governor has not yet backed away from a planned ramp-up in testing over the next six months. The goal is to be conducting 45,000 tests a day by the end of July and 75,000 by the end of December. The state tested only 5,813 people on Tuesday.