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Number of state coronavirus cases rises to 218 as Baker announces help to local health boards

Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders (left), Gov Charlie Baker, and Dr. Monica Bharel, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, left a press conference on the state's efforts in dealing with the coronavirus at the State House.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders (left), Gov Charlie Baker, and Dr. Monica Bharel, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, left a press conference on the state's efforts in dealing with the coronavirus at the State House.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts has risen to 218, the state Department of Public Health said Tuesday.

The number was up from the 197 cases announced Monday. Experts say the number is likely just the tip of the iceberg, with the actual tally of cases statewide possibly in the thousands. They also say the case numbers are likely to rise as more testing is performed.

State health officials said a total of 1,751 tests had been conducted by state and commercial labs, a sharp increase from Monday, when officials said 1,296 tests had been conducted by the labs.

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Baker announces $5m ‘down payment’ to local boards of health to address coronavirus
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday the state would distribute a down payment of $5 million in emergency funds to local boards of health. (Photo by MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF)

More than 100 of the positive tests are related to a conference in Boston late last month by the biotech firm Biogen. No one has died from the virus in Massachusetts.

Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel acknowledged that testing is not moving at the pace “we would all prefer,” but she said, “I want to be clear that our goal in the administration is to continue to increase our testing capability as quickly and safely as we can.”

“We want to test more individuals so we can understand the magnitude of the illness here in Massachusetts, protect people, isolate, quarantine and protect the health care staff on the front lines,” she said at a State House news conference where Governor Charlie Baker and other officials gave an update on the state’s coronavirus response.

Baker announced at the news conference that the state would distribute a down payment of $5 million in emergency funds to local boards of health across the commonwealth who are on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus.

“That money will go out today and more will follow soon,” he said. The money had been allotted by the Legislature at the end of last week. “Most of this money will go directly to our cities and towns to help them respond to this public health emergency,” Baker said.

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Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said the $5 million would be distributed in the form of “short-form” contracts local officials will sign and return to the state, which will then “immediately release” funds.

Boston will get $250,000 from the disbursement, the largest payment, Sudders said. Within the next few weeks, the municipalities are expected to submit budget proposals justifying why they need additional infusions of money.

Baker also said he and the commissioner of public health had issued orders to “expedite the on-boarding of more licensed health care professionals" to “cut red tape so hospitals can staff up faster.”

“This is all about expanding our health care delivery capacity,” he said. The orders will facilitate, among other things, out-of-state doctors and retired doctors being able to practice in the state, he said.

Near the opening of the news conference, Baker emphasized that he is not considering an order for people to “shelter in place,” which would confine people to their homes.

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“I’ve spoken about this before, but let me be clear, we are not planning any shelter in place orders,” he said, urging people to get their news from legitimate sources and to bookmark the state coronavirus website, mass.gov/covid19.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday he is considering a shelter in place order, possibly within the next 48 hours.

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Baker said he believed that there would be a “significant spike” in state residents receiving unemployment benefits because of coronavirus disruptions. Under the circumstances, he said, “I hope that turns out to be the case.”

Regarding the state’s ongoing efforts to get more protective gear for health care providers confronted with the coronavirus, Baker said state officials are “pursuing our own ... channels” and also “leaning incredibly hard” on the federal government to give the state additional access to the national stockpile.

Sudders said that the state is “continuing to identify every potential source for equipment,” and Bharel added that hospitals are conserving supplies they currently have by measures including postponing elective surgeries.

Sudders said the drive for more gear is “like a constant, everyday” initiative.

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Because of coronavirus, restaurants must stop dine-in operations. Alberto's Pub & Pizza management is worried about its workers. (Shelby Lum|Globe Staff)

Baker said the state is hoping for consistency on the part of the federal government. If, for example, the state received 10 percent of its request last week from the national stockpile, he wants to know “when are we going to get the next 10, and the next 10, and the next 10.”

Ordinary life in the state has come to a standstill as officials have issued sweeping restrictions to slow the spread of the potentially deadly disease. The idea is to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by a flood of patients with serious illnesses.

Over the weekend, Baker ordered that all public and private schools close for at least three weeks, limited all restaurants to takeout and delivery, and prohibited gatherings of more than 25 people, policies that went into effect Tuesday. That limit applies to all community, civic, public, leisure, and faith-based events, as well as sporting events with spectators, concerts, and conventions. It also covers fitness centers, private clubs, and theaters. The governor stressed that grocery stores and pharmacies would remain open.

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The virus, which has disrupted daily life and economies across the United States and the world, causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems. The virus has killed over 7,300 people worldwide so far.

Material from previous Globe stories and Globe wire stories was used in this report.



Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.