Virus notes: Frustrated Baker almost says God-damned
Med students to rescue; unemployment claims soaring
IN A SIGN of his growing frustration with the challenges associated with acquiring personal protective equipment for frontline medical workers, Gov. Charlie Baker almost said “God damned” at a televised press conference on Thursday before catching himself.
Baker was explaining how so many confirmed deals to acquire equipment have fallen through at the last minute. “We’ve literally gotten to the point where our basic position is, until the God-d,” he said, cutting himself off in the middle of the word. “Until the things show up here in Massachusetts, it doesn’t exist,” he said.
The governor and his aides rattled off information about shipments to hospitals and deliveries from the national stockpile, but it was clear the protective material is not arriving in the quantity he believes it should. “We’re killing ourselves trying to make it happen,” he said.
As usual, Baker didn’t criticize President Trump directly, but he made clear that the federal government should be playing a stronger role in coordinating state and national efforts to acquire protective gear. He made the same point last week.
Baker said federal officials promised on a Thursday call to develop a more coordinated state-federal purchasing approach and he said it was encouraging that manufacturers were retooling production lines to produce protective equipment. But he is clearly annoyed at the slow progress.
“I think this is going to be critical to our effort as a country, never mind as a Commonwealth, to get access to the personal protective equipment that people actually need to do this job and do it well,” he said.
Baker also said the state’s residents should do their part, telling them to deal with their health providers by phone unless an in-person visit is absolutely required. “It’s a covered benefit,” he said of the calls. “It keeps both of you (doctor and patient) safer.”
Medical students to the rescue?
Massachusetts’ medical schools are considering whether their classes can graduate early this year, and the state is preparing to offer the graduates immediate provisional licenses to bolster frontline workers during the coronavirus crisis, Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said Thursday.
An official announcement is expected to be forthcoming from the deans of the state’s medical schools. But Sudders said at a press briefing that the change is being considered as a way to expand the number of physicians available in Massachusetts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical schools typically graduate students in mid to late-May.
A separate order issued Thursday by the Department of Public Health exempts hospitals from mandated nurse-staffing ratios as long as staffing levels “remain adequate to meet the patients’ needs.”
The state will begin allowing pharmacists licensed in other states to practice in Massachusetts. A similar order is already in place for nurses. Pharmacists will be given more flexibility in things like refilling prescriptions for patients with chronic disease without a new physician’s authorization.
Health care facilities will no longer need state approval for substantial building projects or changes in the services they provide, if they are adapting to address COVID-19.
The state has also said it will make it easier for retired physicians in good standing to renew their licenses.
Unemployment claims soaring
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Unemployment claims are soaring in Massachusetts and throughout the country as some businesses are forced to shutter amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Massachusetts received 7,449 non-seasonally adjusted claims during the week ending March 14 and 147,995 during the week ending March 21, nearly 20 times as many as usual. The 3.28 million initial claims filed nationwide last week far surpassed any previous records.
Baker said the state’s unemployment system received a “fifteen-fold increase” in applications in recent weeks, a level of demand that the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development has been able to handle without the system crashing.
About 10 days ago, the governor said, the department’s call center had roughly 50 people in it. That amount bumped up to 300 this week and will likely be 400 next week to cope with the surge, Baker said.
He stressed Thursday that workers filing claims need to list the same employer name on their applications as they did on their W-2 form to ensure proper processing.
Baker said federal legislation on the verge of passing will allow independent contractors and gig economy workers who haven’t been paying into the unemployment insurance system to gain access to it for benefits. Baker said he welcomed the provision, but said it will be difficult to implement because the existing system is also centered around employers.
“We’re going to have to create a sort of alternative universe here,” he said. “This is a really important thing. We’re going to figure it out.”
In other steps announced Thursday, the state will convert the Newton Pavilion, a former Boston Medical Center hospital building it owns, into a specialized care center for homeless individuals and families during the coronavirus outbreak. That site will feature up to 250 beds and can provide both health care and post-discharge care for individuals in and around the city without permanent residences.
The COVID-19 numbers
The number of deaths from COVID-19 in Massachusetts rose to 25 on Thursday, the number of confirmed cases of the disease jumped nearly 32 percent to 2,417, and the number of tests conducted declined to 3,287 — below the target level of 3,500.
The 10 who died all fit the high-risk profile for the disease. Nine of the 10 were in their 70s, 80s, or 90s and most of them had underlying medical conditions. Only one was in his 50s, and he had underlying medical conditions. Nine of the 10 who died were men.
Senate passes nursing bill
The Massachusetts Senate is taking its own approach to expanding the health care workforce. A bill passed by senators Thursday would expand the scope of practice for what certain nursing and pharmacy professionals are allowed to do during the state of emergency.
Under the bill, experienced nursing professionals – including nurse practitioners, midwives, anesthetists and psychiatric nurses – would be given more authority to practice independently, write prescriptions, and order tests. Pharmacists would be authorized to conduct more services, including managing patients’ medication and giving immunizations.
“Given the incredible strain on our health care system, we need to make sure everybody can work to the top of their license,” said Sen. Cindy Friedman, an Arlington Democrat who co-chairs the Health Care Financing Committee. Friedman said nurses are already performing these tasks under supervision, and this would allow them to be done independently.
Friedman said the change is necessary to ensure there are enough health care providers available to care for the expected surge in COVID-19 patients, even if some providers get sick.
The Senate included similar provisions in bills it passed in previous years, but the House never adopted the policy. Friedman acknowledged that the bill may not pass in the House this time either.
“We’re trying to partner with the House on everything we do, but I think there is a difference of opinion in the House on whether this is something that’s important,” Friedman said.
Analysis: Stimulus bill could net $2.67b for Mass.
Massachusetts could receive $2.67 billion in aid to state and local governments from the latest federal stimulus bill, according to a new analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
That is the state’s share of a $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund, which will distribute money to state, local, and tribal governments.According to the analysis, each state will get at least $1.25 billion, with more populous states getting more money. California and Texas, for example, will get more than $10 billion each.
The analysis does not include several other pots of money, which will also be distributed in Massachusetts, such as money for schools and universities, public transit, child care, elections and Community Development Block Grants.