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Walsh announces plans for convention center to become field hospital; Baker warns of upcoming coronavirus peak

BOSTON, MA - 5/30/214 - Boston Convention Center (BCEC). (David L Ryan/Globe Staff)
BOSTON, MA - 5/30/214 - Boston Convention Center (BCEC). (David L Ryan/Globe Staff)David L. Ryan

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced Thursday that the massive Boston Convention and Exhibition Center would become the site of a field hospital, as Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker warned of a peak in coronavirus hospitalizations that could arrive in a little more than a week.

Walsh, at a City Hall news conference, said officials envisioned a 1,000-bed hospital, with 500 beds for the city’s homeless and 500 for overflow patients coming from the city’s hospitals. Work on 500 beds for the homeless began Thursday, and the city has launched a request for proposals to find a health care provider to operate the facility, he said.


“We’re hoping that we don’t need it,” he said.

Baker updates virus projections, thanks Kraft family
Baker estimates number of coronavirus cases in Mass. could range from 47,000 to 172,000, and thanks Kraft family for their aid with PPE. (Photo: Blake Nissen/For The Boston Globe, Video: Handout)

Data released by the state Thursday afternoon showed the virus is advancing at a remarkably consistent rate. The state reported 32 new deaths, down slightly from the 33 deaths were reported on both Wednesday and Tuesday. The number of infections grew by 16 percent, a rate that has held steady for the past five days. The state reported the results of 4,870 new tests, which was roughly the same as Wednesday.

Some data did stick out. New state-reported hospitalizations for confirmed coronavirus patients hit another daily high at 131, up from 120 Wednesday, and 109 Tuesday. Officials also began on Thursday reporting aggregate details for long-term care residents infected (197) and the number of long-term care facilities with confirmed cases (85).

A Suffolk County woman in her 30s with preexisting conditions was among those reported dead Thursday.

Earlier, Baker said at a State House news conference that, based on expert estimates, he expects that coronavirus hospitalizations in the state will peak between April 10 and April 20.

He also said that modeling indicates the number of coronavirus cases in the state could range from 47,000 to 172,000 over the course of the epidemic, or about 0.7 to 2.5 percent of the population.


Baker said the current Massachusetts case fatality rate, 1.5 percent, is lower than in many other parts of the country and of the world, adding that 80 percent of infected people have flu-like symptoms and “many have no symptoms at all.”

He also noted that the models were based on the experience in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, but there are differences between Massachusetts and Wuhan, including Massachusetts’ lower population density, earlier enactment of strict social distancing rules, and lower smoking rate.

He warned that “even with the best planning, we certainly expect our medical system will be stretched” and said the state is headed for “what will likely be a very difficult period.”

“We know all models are not perfect but obviously you need to plan for the worst and hope you don’t have to go that far,” Baker said.

He said that the models suggest that Massachusetts hospitals won’t be able to handle the coming surge without help

“We believe that after hospitals execute on their surge plans … more beds will still be needed for both intensive care and acute care here in Massachusetts,” he said.

He said 500 additional ICU beds were needed in the coming weeks. He also said more ventilators were needed, noting that the state has been pursuing them through the federal government and other avenues.

Officials had previously said they were promised at least 1,000 ventilators by the federal government. Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said Thursday that the state had repeatedly requested ventilators from the federal government and increased the number it was requesting on Thursday but had not yet received any.


The Boston convention center field hospital will play a big role in the expansion of health care capacity as the surge in cases arrives.

In addition to housing homeless people recovering from the virus, it could be used to treat other coronavirus patients, either after hospitalization but before full recovery, or in cases where their symptoms are too severe to stay at home but not severe enough to require a stay in a traditional hospital at a time when capacity is strained by the growing number of serious cases, Boston officials said.

“A surge right now is in motion. It’s going to be difficult and hard," Walsh said.

The 2.1 million-square-foot BCEC has almost 12 acres of contiguous floor space. Meeting rooms throughout the building could be used to isolate patients, officials said, and there are relatively few entrances and exits, making it easy to secure. The center also has New England’s largest kitchen, and there are plenty of bathrooms.

Baker said the state is continuing to try to ramp up testing efforts, adding that Massachusetts is now the “third largest tester in the country” behind New York and Washington states.

“It’s hard to tell where the end is,” he said of the pandemic


Baker also thanked the Kraft family for its efforts in bringing more than 1 million N95 masks to the state, as well as health care and government officials in the US and China.

“Thanks to the hard work and generosity of the Kraft family and many other partners, Massachusetts will receive nearly 1 million N95 masks,” he said. “This was a collaboration between [the American] and Chinese governments and private sector folks.”

He said the state is “grateful that the Patriots plane was able to land in China, load up and return quickly” to the US. “There is still, with respect to PPE [personal protective equipment], much more work to be done.”

Sudders also announced that Partners Healthcare had been able to procure an N95 decontamination system from Battelle that will go into operation at a Somerville site by Monday and can decontaminate 80,000 masks a day, “which should cover all demand in Massachusetts over time.” The machine is seen as a possible game-changer.

Sudders also delivered an update on the status of two soldiers’ homes where residents have recently died of coronavirus, the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, where two people have died, and the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where 18 people have died, including at least 12 from the virus,

She said officials have identified 78 facilities serving seniors that are showing COVID-19 “clusters.”

“We are working hard to mitigate these clusters and keep residents and staff safe,” she said.

Also Thursday, Baker issued an order requiring all coastal beach reservation parking areas to close.


Officials said the intent was to reduce large concentrations of people at beaches. Coastal parkways that provide access to state beaches will also be closed to both parking and dropping off passengers, the state said.

The beaches will remain open if you can get there, but only for “transitory” activities such as walking and for fishing. Sunbathing has been ruled out, according to the order.

At the same time, the state Department of Conservation Recreation will open select seasonal state parks early and expand access at other parks to give more opportunities for residents to get outside – and alternatives to more popular parks, the governor’s office said.

The state will be limiting the amount of parking available at certain high-visitation state parks.

“DCR continues to stress that if a park is crowded, visitors should consider visiting a different location or returning at a later date or time. The state parks system has over 450,000 acres of property, and every region of the state contains multiple parks to explore that may be less busy than others in the area,” the governor’s office said.

When people do get out in the wild, the DCR advised them to, among other things, stay within small or solitary groups, avoid groups of 10 or more, keep at least 6 feet away, participate in only non-contact sports.

Walsh at his news conference stressed that social distancing is important and asked people not to flout the rules as temperatures rise and the sun peeks out over the weekend.

“That doesn’t mean you can go out and socialize,” Walsh said. “If you think you’re immune to this illness, you’re wrong.”

“I don’t want to issue fines, and I don’t want to send police officers out” to enforce the distancing, Walsh said. “But we are prepared for those steps. ... As mayor, I will do whatever it takes to protect the city of Boston.”

He said the city is exploring tighter restrictions at parks and grocery stores. At the same time, he said, “We need people to do your part now.”

On Tuesday the White House offered projections that 100,000 to 240,000 Americans will likely die of the coronavirus even if current social distancing guidelines are maintained.

Daily life around the world has been transformed as businesses and schools have been closed and people have been advised or ordered to stay at home, in desperate attempts to slow the spread of the virus. The world economy has also ground to a halt.

Worldwide, the virus has killed more than 51,000 people so far, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Previously reported forecasts have said that by summer the virus will have killed nearly 1,800 people in Massachusetts.

The virus causes mild to severe illness. Older people and people with severe chronic conditions are at higher risk of developing severe illness, which can prove fatal, according to the CDC.

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. Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.