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Baker says ‘enormous increase’ in coronavirus testing is coming; confirmed case tally rises to 328

Governor Charlie Baker gestured at a news conference on Thursday.
Governor Charlie Baker gestured at a news conference on Thursday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

MARLBOROUGH — Governor Charlie Baker pledged Thursday morning that Massachusetts would soon see an “enormous increase” in testing for coronavirus as he acknowledged that the state’s capacity to screen people remained far below what was needed to blunt the local impact of the pandemic.

Hours later, the state Department of Public Health announced that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state had risen to 328 from 256 the day before, with more than 3,100 tests conducted by state and commercial labs.

Baker, for the first time in the crisis, specified how many people in Massachusetts needed to be tested each day to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Citing the success of South Korea’s mass screening operation, Baker said Massachusetts needed to perform tests on “at least 3,500 a day.”

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That daily goal of 3,500 people a day is more tests than have been run in the entire state since Feb. 28. Data provided by the state Department of Public Health Wednesday showed that roughly 2,300 people had been tested in the last 19 days.

State officials Thursday could not immediately say how many people were being tested each day in Massachusetts for coronavirus, but the governor made the goal clear.

“We need to get to at least 3,500 a day,” Baker said at a news conference. “But even once you get to 3,500 a day, you have a whole series of other issues you have to start to deal with and respond to, some of which have to do with .. personal protective equipment” for medical staff.

Baker spoke to reporters after touring the private laboratory at Quest Diagnostics, which plans to rapidly ramp up its coronavirus testing. By next week, Quest hope to preform 2,000 to 3,000 tests a day at its facility in Marlborough, according to its chief executive officer, Steve Rusckowski, who joined Baker at the press conference.

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Quest will use technology developed by Roche Diagnostics that will significantly accelerate the number of tests that can be run. Soon Quest will be running 20,000 tests a day across the country, Rusckowski said.

“We believe that over the course of the next several days and weeks, there will be an enormous increase in the amount of testing that takes place on a daily basis here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Baker said.

“It can’t happen fast enough. But I do believe that, with the pivots and adjustments that are being made by organizations like Quest here in Marlborough and by many of our hospital partners and by the state lab and other organizations, we will get to the point where we’re doing the amount of testing every day that we believe we need to be doing,” he said.

Baker says state to increase coronavirus testing capacity
"There will be an enormous increase in the amount of testing that takes place on a daily basis here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” said the Governor. (Photo: John Tlumacki/Globe Staff, Video: Handout)

Baker said his administration has been pushing the Trump administration for supplies from a national stockpile of protective equipment for medical staff and first responders.

“I think every governor in the United States has been banging on the door of the federal government with respect to the stockpile. We certainly have and we’re going to continue to,” he said.

“I fully believe that we in Massachusetts are doing the things we need to do to catch up. But there’s no question the federal government has a lot of catching up to do as well,” he said.

Another challenge, he said, was ensuring sufficient hospital bed space for people who are expected to become ill.

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The wait for coronavirus test results in Massachusetts can be as long as a week, a delay that exacerbates equipment shortages, frustrates worried patients and families, and hamstrings front line health care workers’ efforts to combat the growing pandemic, the Globe reported Wednesday.

Faster test results can help determine which patients need to be treated by medical staff in protective gear. Tests processed in the state lab take a day or two, officials said Wednesday. But according to a review of area hospitals and caregivers, the delay can be much longer, often forcing medical staff to waste already scarce protective gear on patients who are not infected.

State officials attributed the delays to slower processing at private labs just coming online.

Sudders said at the news conference that “the speed to get test specimens in and responses back to providers will be quickened.” She said that Quest had “really stepped up to help.”

Doctors are also reporting another problem: a shortage of swabs used for the tests. Without enough swabs, hospitals must ration tests, administering them to only the sickest patients.

Officials say the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus is expected to rise as more tests are conducted. Some experts believe that as many as 6,500 people in the state could be infected.

On another front, Baker also announced that the US Small Business Administration had approved the state’s requests for disaster recovery loans.

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The SBA has “acknowledged and approved Massachusetts small businesses for disaster recovery relief,” he said.

Baker also used his own experience with his 91-year-old father to underscore how people should be careful of not infecting the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to serious health complications if they contract the virus.

Baker said he and his father have been talking by phone as opposed to their normal face-to-face interactions.

"It has to be the way it is, for their sake," Baker said, referring to the state's elderly residents. "That physical presence for them, at this point in time, is exactly the wrong thing to do."

He urged residents with aging loved ones to use alternatives to in-person meetings such as phone conversations, Skype and FaceTime.

“We need to give those [elderly] people space, because for them this is a very different issue medically and clinically than it is for the rest of us,” Baker said.

The coronavirus pandemic that has swept across the world has caused massive disruption to daily life and bodyslammed the economy as restrictions have been put into place to slow its deadly spread.

Worldwide the death toll crept toward 10,000 as the total number of infections topped 220,000, including nearly 85,000 people who have recovered.

The U.S. death toll rose to 168, primarily elderly people. Johns Hopkins University, which has been tallying the virus’ spread around the world, said the U.S. had more than 11,000 cases.



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. Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.