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Baker says 1,000 ventilators en route to Mass. as coronavirus cases surge

Mary Beth Mesrobian is a dental hygienist at Massachusetts General Hospital but has now been deployed to hand out masks and hand sanitizer to all who enter the lobby.
Mary Beth Mesrobian is a dental hygienist at Massachusetts General Hospital but has now been deployed to hand out masks and hand sanitizer to all who enter the lobby.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

As Massachusetts hospitals brace for an expected surge of coronavirus patients, Governor Charlie Baker said Monday that the federal government had swiftly approved the state’s request for at least 1,000 ventilators, crucial lifesaving equipment in the fight against the growing pandemic.

The order is expected to arrive by next week and would drastically bolster the state’s current supply of about 1,400 ventilators. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, can severely damage the lungs, in some cases leading to acute respiratory failure.

Baker has expressed frustration over the difficulty in acquiring protective equipment for front-line medical personnel but said the request for ventilators was processed in “maybe 48 hours” with a recognition that “we do, in fact, have a demand or need for somewhere between 1,000 and 1,400 ventilators," Baker said.

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“It was a big positive step forward in the right direction,” the governor said at a State House news conference. “That will make a big difference for many folks in our hospital community."

News of the additional equipment came as state public health officials announced eight more people had died from the virus, bringing the death toll in Massachusetts to 56. The number of positive cases rose by 797 to 5,752, with a total of 42,793 people tested. More than 450 people have been hospitalized.

The latest Massachusetts fatalities were six women and two men, in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, from Middlesex, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Bristol counties, health officials said.

Meanwhile, cases of the virus continued to be reported around the state. Nineteen Boston police officers and three civilian employees of the department have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, a department spokesman said Monday.

The officers and staff members work at different sites, and there is no clear connection among the cases, said Sergeant Detective John Boyle, the spokesman.

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All of the infected personnel are off duty as they recover, Boyle said, and the department is taking extra precautions in an attempt to halt the virus’s spread.

“A couple of stations have received deep cleanings,” he said. “We continue to clean and follow all the guidelines.”

The department remains fully staffed, and patrols are at normal levels, Boyle said.

In Chelsea, meanwhile, two employees of the Market Basket store have tested positive for the virus, the supermarket chain said.

“In addition to Market Basket’s heightened disinfection program, we brought in a specialized cleaning crew who cleaned and disinfected the store over the weekend,'' Justine Griffin, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Baker said models show a surge in coronavirus cases is expected in Massachusetts between April 7 and April 17. In preparation, the state is securing ventilators, increasing bed space, obtaining personal protective equipment, and increasing medical personnel, Baker said.

“We literally have people working all four of those issues to make sure that none of them is ultimately the problem for us once the surge happens,” he said.

Baker has voiced frustration about the hurdles the state has faced in ordering medical supplies and personal protective equipment, such as N95 respirator masks, including after the Trump administration itself thwarted several of its orders.

Over the weekend, some 878,000 pieces of new equipment arrived from the National Strategic Stockpile, pushing the state’s allotment to 1.63 million, according to figures the state provided Monday. But that’s just 36 percent of the 4.5 million pieces the state has requested since March 5.

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Florida, by comparison, requested nearly 1 million pieces of equipment on March 11, and within three days, received all of them. An identical order arrived on March 23, and the state has begun receiving a third order of the same size, said Jason Mahon, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Once complete, Florida will have gotten 2.99 million pieces of equipment from the stockpile, including 1.3 million surgical masks and 540,000 N95 masks, he said. The state, which has 21 million people, has reported 5,276 confirmed cases.

Baker said Monday federal officials have told his administration they’re distributing stockpile supplies based on projections of “where the most significant issues are at any given time." States, including Washington, California, and New York and its surrounding metropolitan area, have been the “primary areas of concern" over the last 10 days, Baker said.

Feds approve 1,000 ventilators for Mass.
At his Monday coronavirus press conference, Governor Baker says the federal government has approved Massachusetts' request for 1,000 ventilators. (Photo: Sam Doran/Pool, Video: Handout)

The state is entering its second week under a stay-at-home advisory that has sliced traffic on highways and turned the typical workday rush into an eerie calm. A video on Twitter showed an empty Green Line train rolling past an empty platform in mid-morning, and the usually packed Alewife MBTA parking garage was 4 percent full.

Baker said he expects to make an announcement on Tuesday on whether he’ll be extending the order to close all nonessential businesses. His current order is set to expire on April 7.

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The state is also working to designate skilled nursing facilities in the state for treating older residents recuperating from the coronavirus.

Baker said the newly passed federal stimulus bill offers unemployment benefits for certain workers who don’t normally qualify, but states are still awaiting guidance on how to distribute the money. He urged those workers not to apply for the new benefits until the new guidelines are in place.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, meanwhile, outlined new efforts to help homeowners and renters, as well as city public school students and veterans.

Walsh prepares Bostonians for the long haul
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh urges Boston residents to think months, not weeks, ahead in the fight against the coronavirus. (Photo: Pat Greenhouse, Video: Handout)

He said the Boston Housing Authority and the city schools would provide rental vouchers to 1,000 families over the next year. The vouchers will go to 500 families in shelters and 500 families at risk of displacement.

Amid concerns that people are gathering to play sports in city parks, zip ties would be placed on basketball hoops, hockey and tennis nets were being removed, and new signs were being put up, he said.

He urged people to maintain social distancing to slow the spread of the epidemic, saying, “These are extremely difficult times. These adjustments are all hard and these decisions we’re making are not easy.”

And he said he was concerned about the arrival soon of warm weather. “People need to understand that if we get a 60- or 70-degree day, that doesn’t mean you hang out with each other, that doesn’t mean you have a cookout,” he said. “For the foreseeable future, it’s a very different life we have to lead right now."

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Noting that Baker has closed the state’s schools until May 4, Walsh said, “I’m going to be completely honest with you. If we think that May 4 the coronavirus is going to be gone, it’s not. I think that we’re in this for the long haul.”

He also noted that the city continues to plan for an even more restrictive lockdown of residents, if it’s necessary.

The novel coronavirus has spread to Boston’s homeless community, with eight people testing positive for COVID-19 in recent days, city officials said Monday.

Of the eight, five spent time at local shelters in recent days. One of the infected homeless residents had spent time at the Pine Street Inn and another shelter, said Marty Martinez, the city’s Human and Health Services chief. City public health workers were able to isolate 14 or 15 people who had been in contact with the infected person.

“We were able to do that, immediately get people out of the shelter, reduce the risk, and really do everything to keep people protected,” he said.

Vernal Coleman, Martin Finucane, and John Hilliard of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.



Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.