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Baker approves $15 million coronavirus package

Lawmakers are giving governor discretion over how funds are spent

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, center, delivers his state of the state address in January in the House Chamber as Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, behind left, and Senate President Karen Spilka, right, look on. Legislators quickly passed a bill that will direct $15 million toward coronavirus response.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, center, delivers his state of the state address in January in the House Chamber as Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, behind left, and Senate President Karen Spilka, right, look on. Legislators quickly passed a bill that will direct $15 million toward coronavirus response.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday approved a $15 million package designed to bolster the state’s response to the rapid spread of novel coronavirus through Massachusetts.

Baker signed the bill hours after it cleared sparsely attended informal sessions in the House and Senate. Both chambers have scaled back public events and have no scheduled formal sessions, as officials and the public grapple with how to slow the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation pushes $15 million into a reserve fund to bolster treatment, prevention, and containment efforts, both at the state level and through local boards of of health and “other public instrumentalities.”

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It does not dictate exactly how, or where, the money should be spent, leaving that decision to the Baker administration. Baker indicated on Tuesday that money could flow to both the Department of Public Health, which runs the state lab performing coronavirus testing in Massachusetts, as well as local boards of health and first responders.

It’s the first significant funding the state has dedicated to the response, beyond a $95,000 pot of money that helped cover overtime and clinical costs for the lab.

“I’m sure we’ll be able to find appropriate uses for it,” Baker said Tuesday of the new cash.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Karen E. Spilka announced their intent to create the fund on Tuesday — just hours before Baker declared a state of emergency — making the legislation’s passage all the more notable within the State House’s typically slow-grinding gears.

Spilka described it as a “flexible source of funding,” and lawmakers indicated they could tackle other coronavirus-focused bills — despite the uncertainty about how they’ll conduct official legislative business moving forward.

“I expect this will be the first of many actions we will take to respond to this rapidly evolving public health situation," said Representative Bradley H. Jones, Jr., the House Minority leader.

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The Senate has canceled or postponed all public events in the State House for the next 30 days, and the House has done the same for the foreseeable future, helping clear what is a typically busy time on the public calendar. Lawmakers are also discussing postponing public hearings, or taking online testimony.

State officials on Thursday updated Massachusetts’s total number of confirmed or presumptive coronavirus cases to 108 people, a spike of 13 from the previous day. At least 82 of all cases thus far are tied to a late-February Biogen conference, and nearly 1,100 people have been subject to a quarantine at some point as of Tuesday.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus, and how is it treated?
The US Centers for Disease Control says little is known about the virus, but it still has some tentative answers.

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.