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Mass. steps up its response to virus threat with focus on MBTA, and colleges and schools

Massachusetts officials are increasing up their level of precautions and preparation as the global threat continues.

Governor Charlie Baker walked to a morning press conference to talk about the state's continued preparedness for the Coronavirus.
Governor Charlie Baker walked to a morning press conference to talk about the state's continued preparedness for the Coronavirus.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The MBTA will begin routinely disinfecting surfaces at transit stations and on its vehicles while state officials Wednesday urged colleges and high schools to cancel any overseas travel by their students, as more than 700 people in Massachusetts have self-quarantined amid the global coronavirus outbreak.

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority general manager Steve Poftak said the transit agency will begin disinfecting any surface that commuters touch inside stations — such as rails or fare equipment — every four hours, and that every MBTA vehicle will be disinfected on a daily basis.

“We are stepping up our level of inspection,’’ Poftak said at a news briefing held by Governor Charlie Baker at the State House.

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Despite saying the risk for coronavirus remains low in Massachusetts, Baker asked high schools and colleges in the state to cancel upcoming trips abroad. Colleges typically hold their spring breaks in March, as do many private schools; public schools have spring coming up in mid-April.

"This precaution will help protect the students and the Commonwealth since we are home to so many colleges and universities,” Baker said.

Kumble R. Subbaswamy, the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the school would follow the guidance, which could impact trips some classes take overseas during spring break.

“Some programs, like business schools or so on, will have a week in Vienna or something like that as part of a course,” he said following the news conference. “And that will definitely be affected. And certainly it has an impact, but then we have to consider the public health impact as well.”

Baker urges high school and colleges to cancel international trips
Governor Baker leads update on coronavirus in Massachusetts. (Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff, Video: Handout)

The guidance comes after two coronavirus cases surfaced in Rhode Island, where a private school administrator and a student tested positive after returning from an educational trip to Europe.

Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the state has so far tested 20 residents, with one positive case and one presumptive case. A “handful” of those who have been tested are still awaiting results, she added.

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Of the 700 or so people have been self-quarantined in Massachusetts, Sudders said 470 have completed their 14 days and as such are no longer in quarantine. Currently, 259 individuals are undergoing monitoring at home, she said.

On the T, Poftak cautioned that the ramped-up cleaning schedule depends on getting enough commercial-grade disinfectant on-hand, and he estimated that by the end of this week the agency will be able to disinfect subway cars, buses, and para-transit vehicles also daily.

Poftak added that the MBTA will install hand sanitizing equipment in stations and use electronic message boards to communicate basic prevention tips, like handwashing, amid the outbreak.

It is not alone in stepping up cleaning initiatives. New York transit officials on Monday said they would begin a major initiative to regularly use industrial-grade disinfectant on all its equipment after a commuter was confirmed to have the virus, according to the New York Times. In the Seattle area, where the coronavirus, known as Covid-19, has killed nine people, accounting for all US deaths, officials said they would boost efforts to clean all surfaces that bus riders may touch.

Also Wednesday, Baker said the CDC had issued a new travel advisory urging US travelers returning from so-called Level 3 alert nations — China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy — to stay home for 14 days upon their return. The CDC is also advising travelers returning from Japan, which is under a Level 2 alert, to monitor their health and limit interactions with others.

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Massachusetts may soon see other impacts from the outbreak. A seafood expo planned for the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center later this month was postponed over concerns about the coronavirus. Baker on Wednesday said there are ongoing discussions about whether major public events such as the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade or the Boston Marathon could be canceled, but that it was premature to make any decisions.

“I think there are a few more facts on the ground to be collected before those decisions get made,” Baker said.

Covid-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China.

Jaclyn Reiss and John R. Ellement of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.