scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Mass. seeks disaster assistance as toll of pandemic mounts

Governor Charlie Baker spoke Thursday about the issues facing the state during the pandemic.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

State health officials on Thursday said the death toll from COVID-19 has reached 25 and the number of cases climbed by nearly 600, amid troubling signs that the coronavirus is creeping into senior housing in Massachusetts, a state prison, and other institutions.

More than 20 cases have been confirmed in at least seven senior living sites in the state, and two residents have died. The Jack Satter House in Revere has the largest known outbreak at senior facilities statewide, with seven residents testing positive for the virus, city officials reported Thursday. Five have been hospitalized, one is recovering, and one has died, though the cause of death has not been officially determined.


Meanwhile, as unemployment claims surged to historic levels, Governor Charlie Baker said the state is seeking federal disaster aid for the fight against the pandemic and its deepening toll.

At a State House news conference, Baker expressed frustration at the difficulties the state faces in procuring personal protective equipment for medical personnel.

“We are doing everything we can through an incredibly messy thicket," Baker said. “Our first responders, our health care workers, everybody deserves to have that gear, and I’m telling you, we’re killing ourselves trying to make that happen."

Baker asks for ‘major disaster declaration’
Governor Charlie Baker speaks on coronavirus response work in Massachusetts. (Photo: Blake Nissen/for The Boston Globe, Video: Handout)

The disaster assistance would “give support and flexibility to our communities as they respond to the COVID-19 outbreak,” Baker said. “We hope to see the feds move on this quickly so we can get those resources deployed to our residents as soon as possible.”

The number of confirmed cases in Massachusetts rose from 1,838 to 2,417, as testing continued to expand, officials said Thursday. The 10 new fatalities were eight men and two women, ranging in age from their 50s to their 90s. More than 200 people have been hospitalized.

The highly infectious disease poses the greatest danger to the elderly, and senior living sites have gone to great lengths to isolate residents and bar visitors.


“This is an incredibly aggressive virus,” said Lou Woolf, president of Hebrew SeniorLife, which operates Jack Satter House and seven other senior facilities in the Boston area. “People need to take this as seriously as they possibly can.”

Along with Jack Satter House, the others with cases are Rogerson House, Jamaica Plain; Branches of North Attleboro; Commons in Lincoln; Waltham Crossings; Assisted Living at Silver Lake in Kingston; and Cape Cod Residences in Bourne, the sites’ managers confirmed to The Globe.

The actual number of cases at the state’s senior housing facilities, including independent living residences like Jack Satter along with nursing homes, long-term care, and memory care sites, is almost certainly higher than what has been reported.

Nationally, public health officials and senior housing operators are increasingly concerned about the outbreak. A report this week by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulates skilled nursing facilities, said 147 nursing homes across 27 states have at least one resident who has tested positive for the virus.

“The elderly are at great risk,” said Mark Parkinson, president of the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living in Washington. “We’re talking about a fast-moving virus that’s a perfect killing machine for the elderly.”

The risk of serious complications or death from the coronavirus is particularly severe for older residents and those with serious underlying medical conditions. The risk was highlighted in a Kirkland, Wash., nursing home, Life Care Center, where investigators this month recorded 129 cases of COVID-19, killing more than 30 people.


In greater Boston, hospitals reported an alarming rise in the number of infected workers, from just a handful last week to more than 100. Community spread, rather than contact with infected patients, is believed to be the larger factor.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, 41 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, as have 51 employees at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. At Tufts Medical Center, 52 workers have the virus, and at Boston Medical Center, 22 have tested positive.

In a more hopeful development, Baker reported that the state is making progress on expanding testing, which is seen as is crucial to isolating patients to stop the spread of the virus.

He said he expects the number of tests will continue to increase every day. Twenty-one labs are now testing samples, he said.

The state’s medical schools, meanwhile, are preparing to graduate hundreds of fourth-year students early to boost the number of doctors available to handle a surge in coronavirus patients.

Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders this week asked Boston University, the University of Massachusetts, Tufts University, and Harvard University medical schools to graduate medical students in April, instead of waiting until May. The state has also agreed that after they graduate, they will be able to received expedited 90-day licenses.

“The health care workforce is key to us,” Sudders said Thursday. “We’re trying to increase the cadre.”


State officials said a former Boston Medical Center hospital building would reopen as a temporary location to care for the homeless who have tested positive or are awaiting test results. The facility will be run by a consortium of providers, including Boston Medical Center, Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, shelters including the Pine Street Inn, and the City of Boston’s COVID-19 response team.

The state’s prison system is seen as particularly susceptible to the outbreak and the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater, which houses roughly 560 inmates convicted of sex crimes, has emerged as the main hot spot. A total of nine inmates and three staff members have tested positive so far for COVID-19, according to the Department of Correction.

Attorneys for some of the inmates say their clients have no way to practice social distancing at the prison, since many have multiple roommates in small rooms where they share restrooms, making them unusually vulnerable to an outbreak of coronavirus. The Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments next week from several advocacy groups who say that many state prison inmates should be released for their own safety.

In Washington, D.C., President Trump said Thursday that federal officials are developing guidelines to rate counties by risk of virus spread, as he aims to begin to ease nationwide guidelines meant to stem the coronavirus outbreak.

In a letter to the nation’s governors, Trump said the new guidelines are meant to enable state and local leaders to make “decisions about maintaining, increasing, or relaxing social distancing and other measures they have put in place.” States and municipalities would still retain authority to set whatever restrictions deem necessary.


In Boston, Baker said the state was seeking federal disaster assistance funds for cities and towns, state agencies, and certain nonprofits, as well as for individuals. Under federal disaster programs, individuals could get help with crisis counseling, and unemployment assistance could go to workers that don’t qualify for regular unemployment benefits, he said.

That would “mitigate the impact of the disaster on this particular group of workers,” he said.

Baker thanked state residents for their “cooperation and community spirit” amid the crisis.

“The many acts of kindness, compassion, bravery and creativity that we hear every day remind us that you are all very special,” he said. “These are uncertain times, for sure unprecedented, but we’re confident that we can get through this together."

Travis Andersen, Gal Tziperman Lotan, Larry Edelman, Shirley Leung, Deirdre Fernandes, Priyanka Dayal McCluskey, Vernal Coleman, and Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.

Robert Weisman can be reached at Martin Finucane can be reached at