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Mass. reports 2,151 new coronavirus cases, 70 new related deaths; Baker promises to direct benefits to unemployed workers

The Massachusetts National Guard removed their hazmat suits after leaving Alliance Health at Marina Bay on Thursday. They were deployed to Quincy to assist nursing homes with COVID-19 testing.
The Massachusetts National Guard removed their hazmat suits after leaving Alliance Health at Marina Bay on Thursday. They were deployed to Quincy to assist nursing homes with COVID-19 testing.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

The devastating costs of the coronavirus pandemic continued to climb Thursday as the death toll in Massachusetts surpassed 500, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases saw its largest single-day increase, and the state sustained a third consecutive week of massive layoffs.

More people have filed jobless claims in the past three weeks than in the prior 78 weeks combined, state officials said, with cumulative job losses topping 25 percent for lodging, food, and construction workers.

Governor Charlie Baker vowed Thursday that the state would make every effort to deliver jobless benefits to the more than 470,000 residents who have filed unemployment claims in the past three weeks.

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“These numbers are obviously staggering, and we all know the story behind all of them is about more than just numbers,” Baker said. Behind the claims, he said, are people who have lost their jobs “through no fault of their own.”

As the economic fallout from the pandemic widened, state health officials reported that 70 more people had died from the outbreak, bringing the total to 503. A Suffolk County woman in her 30s was among the casualties.

The number of confirmed cases climbed by 2,151 to 18,941, the largest daily increase to date. That rise coincided with the largest daily increase in test results, which climbed by 7,447 to nearly 95,000.

Elderly residents continue to bear the brunt of the virus’s onslaught. The overwhelming majority of the 503 deaths related to the coronavirus have been of people ages 70 or older, many with underlying health conditions. One percent of fatalities in Massachusetts have been residents under age 50.

In Massachusetts, almost half of the people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are under age 50. That figure is disproportionately low for a state in which 62 percent of the population is under 50, according to US Census figures.

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“It’s really more about who has the complications leading to hospitalization and death,” said Dr. Shira I. Doron, an epidemiologist at Tufts University School of Medicine. “You expect your hospitalization data and your death data to track with age, but you don’t necessarily expect your positive test data to reflect a difference over age groups.”

Even at this point in the outbreak, it remains unclear how widely the virus has spread in Massachusetts. Although the state has significantly ramped up testing in recent weeks, there still has not been enough to provide a complete picture, Doron said.

Baker reiterated that state officials expect the COVID-19 “peak” to hit Massachusetts at some point between April 10 and 20, a surge of patients that will severely test the capacity of the region’s hospital system.

“I don’t have a crystal ball with respect to how long it’s going to last or how high it’s going to go," Baker said. “I really appreciate the seriousness that the people of Massachusetts have brought to distancing and staying at home.”

Nationally, Anthony Fauci of the White House coronavirus task force said that the number of deaths might reach 60,000 — far lower than the original 100,000 to 200,000 estimate.

In Chelsea, where at least 10 people have died from the illness and nearly 400 people have tested positive, the city manager urged residents to remain indoors at all times to slow the outbreak.

“These are desperate times,” said Thomas Ambrosino. “It seems like Chelsea is the epicenter of the coronavirus ... based on the sheer number of people infected per our population.”

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Ambrosino called on state officials to commandeer local hotel rooms so residents can recover from COVID-19 in isolation and said widespread job losses have devastated the city. Chelsea and the city of Revere are already spending $800,000 to rent a motel for two months for recovering COVID-19 patients, he said.

“In the best of economic times, many people get by here on the margins. They scrape by working two or three jobs,” Ambrosino said. “Those jobs are gone now.”

At his daily briefing at the State House, Baker said Massachusetts officials had received some guidance on how to administer federal jobless benefits. Starting Thursday, all residents eligible for regular unemployment benefits will receive an additional $600 per week under the federal initiative. The funds are retroactive to March 29, he said, and will continue through the end of July. People who are eligible and already receiving unemployment benefits do not need to do anything to receive the extra money, he said.

The state expects to begin processing benefits through a second federal program at month’s end. That program will provide benefits to “individuals who are not working as a result of COVID-19 and are self-employed, independent contractors, gig economy workers, and others,” Baker’s office said.

Baker acknowledged delays in processing unemployment benefits and said improving the system is a priority.

“This is frustrating for many, many people here in Massachusetts who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own," he said. “You have our commitment that we are going to continue to do all that we can to get the resources out the door.”

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State lawmakers continued to address the widespread fallout from the pandemic.

Under a bill that the House and Senate sent to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk on Thursday, State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley would be required to waive MCAS requirements for the current academic year.

The bill also permits the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to modify or waive high school graduation competency requirements to address the disruptions caused by the outbreak of COVID-19, which has forced schools to close.

Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said state officials are concerned about victims of domestic and sexual violence who may feel trapped at home.

Polito said she wanted to make it clear "that they are not forgotten and that we are here to provide resources to support them and to keep them safe.”

“Friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers all have a role to play, too," she said. "It is critical that we maintain social connection, especially for people who have experienced sexual and domestic violence, who are at greater risk when they are isolated from support.”

In Boston, city officials released data that showed stark disparities in infection rates between the city’s Black and white residents. Of the cases in which an infected resident’s race was identified, more than 40 percent were Black, the data show. Yet these residents account for just 25 percent of Boston’s population.

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Meanwhile, infection rates among the city’s white residents are almost the reverse. They account for about 28 percent of the city’s COVID-19 cases, even though they make up 45 percent of the population. Similarly, Asian residents account for about 10 percent of the city’s population, but make up just 5 percent of COVID-19 infections. City officials had race and ethnicity information for about 62 percent of the city’s 2,513 cases.

“Equity remains a major focus as we respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said. “We will be taking a good hard look at the numbers in Boston to understand and address any inequities that exist because we believe that data is critical.”

At a news conference, Walsh said he was forming a COVID-19 Health Inequities Task Force to look into racial and ethnic disparities in the impact of the disease.

Walsh also noted that, although Sunday is Easter and Jewish residents are currently celebrating Passover, residents should continue to avoid large gatherings.

“God certainly understands” that residents can’t go to church or temple or celebrate with large gatherings this year, he said, urging residents to “respect life by protecting life.”

On Friday, the city will open the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center to COVID-19 patients, officials said.

In a hopeful sign, testing has begun in Somerville on a massive decontamination machine that officials hope can eventually clean as many as 80,000 respirator masks a day.

“We are doing test runs now,” said Dr. Paul Biddinger, medical director for emergency preparedness at Partners HealthCare. “We have to make sure it works.”

The system, made by an Ohio nonprofit, Battelle, uses concentrated hydrogen peroxide vapor to clean N95 masks. N95 masks are usually discarded after each use, but with this system they can be reused safely up to 20 times, according to Battelle.

Andrew Ryan, Kay Lazar, Larry Edelman, John Ellement, and Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report, which includes information from State House News Service .


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.