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Coronavirus outbreak at Biogen meeting in Boston shows widening impact of illness

The scene outside of Brigham and Women's Hospital on Friday. People are being tested for the coronavirus at the hospital.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Two major Boston hospitals set up temporary facilities Friday to conduct larger-scale coronavirus testing of employees of the biotech giant Biogen, after nine cases of the infection were linked to a company meeting at a Boston hotel last week.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital erected a tent inside an ambulance bay for the testing, the hospital said in a statement. A section of the Longwood medical area was cordoned off to accommodate the screening, but the hospital said it did not expect any impact on operations.

Massachusetts General Hospital also set up a testing facility, said Dr. Paul Biddinger, the hospital’s chief of emergency services, to evaluate patients referred to it by a local company that he declined to identify. Mass. General also did not disclose the location of the testing facility.


So far, five Massachusetts residents and three people from out of state who attended the meeting, held Feb. 26-27 at the Marriott Long Wharf hotel, have tested positive for Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Additionally, an Indiana resident who was in Boston at the time has come down with the virus. That person was not at the Biogen meeting but had contact with some of its attendees. Three other people from Massachusetts came down with the illness earlier, two of whom had traveled to Italy, and the third to China.

There have been no deaths tied to the Massachusetts outbreak.

The jump in cases in just the past few days underscores how quickly — and potentially far reaching — the novel virus can spread from a single hot spot involving a large number of people. The meeting at the Marriott Long Wharf hotel last week involved about 175 members of Cambridge-based Biogen’s management team, and included Biogen’s chief executive, chief financial officer, and head of research and development, according to STAT. The company has acknowledged that two of the people from the meeting who tested positive are from Europe, but has declined to provide additional information.


The number of cases worldwide approached 102,000 on Friday, with more than 3,300 deaths, 15 in the United States.

Biogen said late Friday that every employee at the meeting showing symptoms of illness will be tested and must quarantine themselves — as well as not have contact with family members and others. Some of those relatives who had close contact with them should also quarantine themselves, Biogen said in a statement. Those employees at the meeting not showing symptoms were also asked to stay in quarantine, “and the people they live with should avoid social interaction and work from home,” the company said.

Moreover, Biogen, one of the state’s largest biotech companies, said it will restrict access to its offices in Cambridge “to essential personnel operations only,” and directed employees there, and in North Carolina and Switzerland, to work from home “until further notice.” Biogen employees in the company’s labs will receive separate instructions, a spokesman said.

The company has 2,400 workers in Massachusetts and 7,500 worldwide.

Also on Friday, Norwood officials said one of the state’s previously disclosed Covid-19 cases is a town resident. Norwood general manager Tony Mazzucco and 10 other town officials and employees attended a private gathering last weekend with the resident, and will self-quarantine for 14 days and work remotely.

There were 30 attendees at the March 1 event, and all have been contacted by local health department officials and instructed to self-quarantine and monitor their symptoms, according to a statement from the town.


In Wellesley, two public schools were closed for cleaning after a resident and parent of two children tested positive for the coronavirus. A state official confirmed the parent is a Biogen employee.

All the cases in Massachusetts involve people who had close contact with a person who had the virus or who had traveled to an affected area, the state’s health and human services secretary, Marylou Sudders, said Friday at a news conference. That means the state is not experiencing the “community spread” seen on the West Coast, where sicknesses could not be traced to their source.

State officials said all eight Massachusetts residents are at home and recovering well.

Based on current circumstances, officials said, there are no plans to cancel mass gatherings such as the Boston Marathon or the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

“The general public in Massachusetts remains at low risk,” Governor Charlie Baker said. "We’re planning and preparing for the potential for more cases to develop here. We all know this is stressful for people. But health experts have advised that a virus like this is not deadly for the vast majority of people who may get it.”

Still, city and state officials acknowledged that tensions are rising amid the uncertainty. “There’s a lot of unknowns, which is causing potentially a lot of fear,” said Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, joining others emphasizing that the best response is to follow the oft-repeated advice to wash hands often, cover coughs, call the doctor, and stay home if sick.


But the news of an outbreak related to the Biogen meeting clearly added to the anxiety.

Several Biogen employees told the Globe they received an e-mail from the company Thursday evening that asked them to refrain from going to Mass. General to be tested for the coronavirus. The e-mail asserts that such efforts “are overwhelming the emergency room” and that hospital police may have to bar Biogen employees from entering the area, according to a copy of the message one employee shared with the Globe.

Biddinger, the Mass. General emergency chief, said that no one was turned away. Everyone was evaluated, but many were not tested because they did not meet health department criteria, which require that patients have symptoms and risk factors for the illness.

“There’s a lot of concern, understandably, in the community and patients have been unhappy not getting tested if they don’t meet criteria,” Biddinger said. He said the hospital has been asking the company to urge employees without acute medical illness to avoid coming to the already overburdened emergency department.

The new testing facility, which Biddinger described as a “surge urgent care clinic," is open only to people at greatest risk of having coronavirus. The hospital is contacting the at-risk people on a list developed by Biogen and the public health department. “We’re trying not to have everyone come here for testing,” Biddinger said. “The reality is, testing is still limited.”


The state laboratory, currently the only place in the state equipped to test for coronavirus, can do 40 to 50 tests a day, according to Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel.

Several Biogen employees interviewed outside the company’s Cambridge headquarters said they were pleased with the information provided by the company, and the atmosphere inside the building was calm.

“We are a company of scientists, so the fear mongering doesn’t apply to us," said one Biogen scientist who asked not to be named. “We understand how viruses work.”

At the Marriott Long Wharf, where the Biogen meeting was held, a private cleaning crew told a Globe reporter Friday afternoon that their company had been disinfecting the hotel for three days — wearing Hazmat suits and face masks, as they normally do — but had not been told why. They declined to identify their company.

“I’m in shock, I don’t even want to go back in there,” one of the cleaners said when told the hotel had guests who had tested positive for coronavirus.

Aside from that, however, it appeared to be business as usual at the hotel. A front desk clerk greeted guests without making any mention of coronavirus, and the hotel was host to another business conference, from a company called IPREX.

“While attendees are taking general precautions like not shaking hands, our attendees are not overly concerned,” IPREX director Alaina Gjertsen said in a message.

Marriott did not respond to questions about what it was doing to ensure the safety of guests and workers or how it was treating the area where the Biogen meeting was held. However, at the news conference Friday, state officials said the hotel had already been conducting additional cleaning during the winter flu season and was prepared to respond to the outbreak. Health officials said they had met with Marriott employees Friday morning.

Globe staff members Hanna Krueger and Travis Andersen, and correspondents Anissa Gardizy and Matt Berg contributed to this story.

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at Follow her @felicejfreyer. Andy Rosen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen. Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her @ktkjohnston.