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Coronavirus cases in Mass. reach 13, most are tied to Biogen

Three of the new cases were connected to an outbreak at a conference for biotech giant Biogen

Security was setting aside a space around Brigham and Women's Hospital on Friday for coronavirus testing.
Security was setting aside a space around Brigham and Women's Hospital on Friday for coronavirus testing.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

A spate of coronavirus infections in Boston continued to ripple across the state and beyond, as officials announced five more new cases in Massachusetts — most of which are connected to a company meeting of the biotech firm Biogen at a local hotel late last month.

As of Saturday afternoon, the total number of cases in Massachusetts stood at 13. That includes one case confirmed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 12 others that were tested by the state lab and are awaiting confirmation by the CDC.

Most of those — eight in Massachusetts — were linked to a conference of 175 top Biogen managers at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel. Another two cases in the United States and two in Europe have also been linked to the conference. Moreover, school closings in Wellesley and self-quarantining of a number of Norwood town officials have been attributed to exposure to people connected to the Biogen conference.

Biogen has also notified organizers of a separate conference of business leaders in Boston in early March that was attended by Biogen executives of the potential for exposure.

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And on Saturday, Austrian media reported that a woman who attended a conference in Boston showed symptoms of the virus shortly after she returned home Feb. 28 and has since tested positive, along with members of her family.

The woman, her husband, and two children, have shown flu-like symptoms and are now self-quarantined at a holiday home in the Austrian community of Kittsee, according to that country’s health authorities.

It is not clear whether the case in Austria is connected to the Biogen conference.

On Saturday, Massachusetts Department of Public Health officials disclosed five new cases of Covid-19, three of which had a direct connection to the Biogen meeting.

The fourth had recently traveled to northern Italy, where the virus is rapidly spreading. The fifth is under investigation, state health officials said in a statement Saturday afternoon.

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The new cases announced Saturday included four people from Middlesex County: one woman in her 40s, one woman in her 50s, one man in his 40s, and another man in his 60s, according to the statement; the fifth case is a man from Berkshire County in his 60s.

The Berkshire County man is currently in stable condition at Berkshire Medical Center, a hospital spokesman said Saturday night.

David Caouette, a Biogen spokesman, said company officials alerted state health officials about the potential exposure to Covid-19 early in the week following the conference.

“Yes, we did move with a sense of urgency. We knew the seriousness of the situation. We contacted public health authorities as soon as we could,” Caouette said in an interview Saturday. “Our chief medical officer has been in regular contact, and there have been ongoing updates between Biogen and authorities throughout the week.”

Four Biogen executives attended a subsequent conference in early March organized by investment bank Cowen and Co. at the Boston Marriott Copley Place. Cowen hosted more than 300 companies at the event, including executives from Johnson & Johnson, Gilead, and Kineta, according to press releases.

Caouette, the Biogen spokesman, said the company notified Cowen about the potential exposure to Covid-19.

Of the Biogen employees who attended the Cowen conference, two became unwell, Caouette said. They have not yet been tested for Covid-19. A representative for Cowen did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.

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On Friday, Boston hospitals set up facilities to test Biogen employees who had attended the company event.

Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital opened temporary testing facilities Friday for Biogen employees who have coronavirus symptoms. It’s not known how many tests were conducted Friday, but it typically takes about 24 hours to get results.

There were nearly 439 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the United States as of Saturday evening, along with 16 deaths in Washington state and one in California, according to Johns Hopkins University, which maintains a database of reported cases from across the world. Officials in Florida on Friday said two people with the disease had died.

In Norwood and Wellesley, municipal workers were disinfecting school buildings this weekend after cases of Covid-19 — both with ties to the Biogen conference in Boston — were reported in the communities.

In Norwood, schools Superintendent David Thomson was identified Saturday as being among 30 people who have been told they need to self-quarantine after being in close contact during a party attended by a woman who has been diagnosed with the coronavirus and who had attended the Biogen conference.

Thomson is currently healthy and has not exhibited any symptoms of illness since attending the March 1 party at a private residence, according to a statement released Saturday afternoon by town officials.

In a statement, Thomson said: “The district has remained in close contact with our town health department officials and they assure me that there is no current cause for concern for students when it comes to attending school in Norwood."

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Among the attendees were 11 town officials, including Thomson and Norwood General Manager Tony Mazzucco,.

The gathering was a fund-raiser for the Norwood Circle of Hope Foundation, a local charity that helps local residents in need due to medical issues, Mazzucco said in a phone interview from his home Saturday afternoon.

Mazzucco said he is waiting for test results that could come Sunday or Monday to determine whether he has been infected. He said he was tested after developing a cough on Friday.

“I feel fine, I’ve been home all day,” Mazzucco said.

Two other people who attended the party are expected to be tested as a precaution after showing symptoms, he said. If no one shows symptoms, their self-quarantine ends on March 16, he said.

In the meantime, officials will conduct work remotely.

“We’re still working, we are still here,” Mazzucco said. “Monday morning will be business as usual for the town of Norwood.”

In Wellesley on Friday, Upham Elementary School and Wellesley Middle School were closed early after a resident whose children attend those schools tested positive for the coronavirus, town officials said in a statement.

That parent is a Biogen employee, a state official has confirmed.

Superintendent David F. Lussier told parents in a letter Friday that staff were “deep cleaning and disinfecting” both schools, which will remain closed this weekend. Similar cleaning is underway at other Wellesley schools, and Lussier told the Globe Saturday that he expected all schools to be open Monday.

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Wellesley High School has canceled all international trips scheduled for the spring and summer because of the coronavirus outbreak, he added. Those trips would have included visits to destinations in France, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland, Lussier said.

Concerns over Covid-19 and other diseases have led officials at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth to impose temporary restrictions on visitors to the facility, according to David Reilly, a hospital spokesman. Each patient is allowed only one adult visitor who must be designated as the patient’s primary caregiver, such as a spouse, parent, or guardian, Reilly said.

The restrictions, which went into effect Friday, were put in place as a precaution to protect patients.

The restrictions also prohibit children from visiting the facility, and require visitors to avoid the hospital’s dining room and other public areas. Caregivers must go directly home after the visit, the statement said.

Felice J. Freyer of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Abigail Feldman contributed to this report.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.