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Baker administration says coronavirus test kits are coming to Mass., but many questions remain

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus.Associated Press

Governor Charlie Baker moved to reassure a jittery public that Massachusetts is taking decisive action to prevent the spread of coronavirus, announcing Wednesday the MBTA would begin routine disinfections of its stations and vehicles, and urging colleges and high schools to cancel student travel overseas.

Just hours after Baker’s assurances at a Beacon Hill news conference, though, state lawmakers grilled administration officials on whether they are taking enough steps to keep the public safe. They questioned whether the state has a sufficient capacity to test patients for the virus, and whether consumers will be stuck with expensive bills for testing. The lawmakers, who said they’d fielded calls from anxious constituents all week, also expressed concern about reports of burnout among local public health and hospital staff.

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“We understand the situation with Covid-19 is fluid and rapidly changing,” said Senator Joanne Comerford, chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health. "Our efforts are to ensure a unified response.”

Baker said that the threat of contracting the virus remained low in Massachusetts, which has seen only one confirmed case and another suspected case thus far. But Covid-19 continued to spread around the world Wednesday, with 95,000 people in more than 80 countries sickened by the illness, and more than 3,200 deaths reported.

Italy, the hardest-hit country in Europe with more than 3,000 cases, closed schools through mid-March and barred fans from attending sporting events until next month. In Iran, Muslim Friday prayers were canceled, and in Saudi Arabia, the government temporarily banned religious Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina for its own citizens and residents.

The United States recorded its 11th death from coronavirus on Wednesday, when an elderly man in California who had recently returned from a cruise became the first fatality outside Washington state.

Closer to home, in Rhode Island, a Catholic school in Pawtucket closed for another week after three people who’d traveled to the Mediterranean coast on a school field trip — including one person counted among the Massachusetts cases — were diagnosed with coronavirus, including a student who’d attended school for three days before going home sick.

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Baker administration officials repeatedly assured the public and lawmakers that most people who have been infected, according to the latest research, experience mild symptoms. They also said that of the 700 or so people that have been self-quarantined in Massachusetts because of concern they were exposed to the virus, 470 have completed their 14 days and are no longer in quarantine. Currently, 259 individuals are undergoing monitoring at home, they said.

The CDC issued a new travel advisory Wednesday 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 and discouraging all non-essential travel to those countries. 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.

Colleges typically hold their spring breaks in March, as do many private schools; public schools have spring break coming up in mid-April. Baker said his request to high schools and colleges in the state to cancel upcoming trips abroad would "help protect the students and the Commonwealth, since we are home to so many colleges and universities,” Baker said.

At Boston University, officials announced Wednesday evening that they were canceling all university-sponsored international group trips for the foreseeable future, including over spring break.

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In another step by the administration to prevent the virus from spreading, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority general manager Steve Poftak said the transit agency would soon 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 sanitized on a daily basis. Poftak estimated that by the end of this week the agency will be able to disinfect subway cars, buses, and para-transit vehicles daily.

The MBTA will also install hand-sanitizing equipment in stations and use electronic message boards to communicate basic prevention tips, like handwashing, he said.

Baker 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.

Access to coronavirus testing emerged as a major issue across the country this week. Vice President Mike Pence Tuesday night said new guidelines will lift all restrictions on coronavirus testing, allowing even people with mild illness to be screened.

At a hearing on Beacon Hill Wednesday, lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Public Health zeroed in on whether the state would have enough testing capacity.

The state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Monica Bharel, and Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director of the department’s infectious disease bureau, said they expected to have the capacity to conduct about 1,000 more tests thanks to a new shipment of test kits expected Wednesday from the federal government.

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“We are expanding the testing as quickly as possible,” Madoff said.

But some health specialists are voicing concern about a public rush on testing. Previously, tests were allowed only for patients with severe respiratory illness, or symptomatic people who had traveled to affected areas or had contact with a Covid-19 patient. Now, the CDC is essentially leaving the decision to doctors’ discretion, based on symptoms and the spread of the illness in their region.

Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that kind of widespread testing would overwhelm laboratories.

In a teleconference with reporters, he said it makes sense to test severely ill patients and selected patients for studies tracking the virus’s spread and severity. But testing everyone who feels ill and wants a diagnosis — especially at the height of cold and flu season — “is going to bring the health system crashing down,” Lipsitch said.

Another question is who will pay for coronavirus testing. Lawmakers at the hearing asked Baker administration officials whether patients could be required by insurers to pay for any portion of these tests through copays or deductibles.

Bharel said a $95,000 supplemental budget just approved by Baker will help the state health department pay for the tests at this point. The US Department of Health and Human Services also announced Wednesday it would send Massachusetts $500,000 in initial funding to support its coronavirus response efforts.

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Pressed on whether Massachusetts would consider following the lead of New York, which is among the first states in the country to waive some insurance fees and expenses for people who undergo coronavirus testing, Bharel said the administration would consider the issue.

Later, asked for comment on a proposal that insurers cover the full cost of tests, Lora Pellegrini, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, said that health plans are holding frequent conference calls and monitoring what is clearly “a fluid situation.”

At the legislative hearing, medical and academic specialists said the weeks of heightened alert on hospitals are taking a toll on both workers and supplies. Dr. Paul Biddinger, vice chairman for emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital, said fatigue is setting in among staff, and they are attempting to deal with it by rotating schedules.

“That’s not sustainable,” he said. “But we will go on as long as we need to.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Edward Fitzpatrick and Dan McGowan of the Globe staff also contributed.


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar. Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro. Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer