Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday urged state residents to cooperate with a growing team of contact tracers who are trying to track down those who have been in contact with people infected with the coronavirus.
“We consider this to be a critical effort to not only slow the spread” of the virus but also “to help our commonwealth return to some semblance of normal life,” Baker said during his daily press briefing.
The state reported Thursday that the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak had risen by 137 to 1,245, up from 1,108 the day before.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases climbed by 2,263 to 32,181. The Department of Public Health also reported a total of 140,773 people in the state had been tested, up from 132,023 a day earlier.
Baker said the contact tracing initiative, which the state is launching with Boston-based nonprofit Partners in Health, has hired 176 people, and many more will be coming online in the coming weeks. The program, Baker said, will not only help officials determine who infected patients have had “close contact with” but also help officials craft “isolation strategies” to stem the spread of the virus.
“We urge residents to take this call and provide the relevant information” if reached by the contact tracers, Baker said, adding that the initiative is “key to helping the state build a strategy for how we can get back to something like a new normal.”
The governor said officials continue to work to ramp up testing. He said models have suggested that the “surge in cases would begin somewhere around April 10,” and officials “expect to see a peak in cases sometime later this month.”
Turning to the subject of protective gear for front-line workers, Baker said the state has distributed more than 3.8 million pieces of gear, including masks, gloves and gowns, to hospitals, nursing homes, community health centers, and public safety personnel.
“We’ll continue to chase [protective gear] wherever we can get it,” Baker said.
He also addressed hospital bed capacity statewide, telling reporters that roughly half the 17,800 beds in Massachusetts are currently in use, with temporary hospitals in Boston and Worcester, as well as temporary facilities opening soon in Bourne, Lowell and Dartmouth, available to address any potential overflow as coronavirus cases surge.
“We do want to be able to rely on those beds if we need them,” Baker said.
Turning to unemployment, Baker said about 570,000 Massachusetts residents have filed jobless claims since March 15, a figure he called “eye-popping.” He said officials know that behind every claim is a person in dire need, and that as of Tuesday over 315,000 residents are receiving unemployment benefits.
The state’s beefed-up, remote unemployment call system is working, Baker said, to pay out benefits as quickly as possible, telling reporters. “It’s a situation that we take extremely seriously,” he said. "We’re going to continue to work this issue hard.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders also addressed reporters and said the state’s mobile testing unit has conducted coronavirus tests at 279 nursing and long-term care facilities in Massachusetts, and kits with the capacity for thousands of additional tests have been sent out as well.
Regarding ventilators, a crucial need for hospitals caring for the most severely ill patients, 439 of the state’s 459 available ventilators will have been distributed to 46 facilities statewide by Thursday, Sudders said. State officials have repeatedly said they’re seeking more ventilators from the federal government and elsewhere.
Asked about reports that New York, which has been especially hard hit by the virus, would be extending its shutdown, Baker said Massachusetts officials continue “to look at the data, we continue to talk to the folks in the public health and health care community about that, and obviously we know it’s something on people’s minds. It’s on ours, too. We’re going to do what we can to give people guidance so they have enough time to plan.”
Asked about schools, which have been shuttered amid the pandemic, Baker said “We’ll make a decision about schools sometime soon, too.”
The virus has caused a global pandemic that has sickened more than 2 million people and killed more than 138,000. In the United States, more than 639,000 people have been sickened and more than 30,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The state is in the midst of a surge of severely ill patients that Baker said last week was expected to peak toward the end of an April 10 to 20 time window.
Experts differ on the expected death toll in Massachusetts. As of Wednesday afternoon, modeling by the University of Washington was predicting an April 28 peak and its forecast for COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts was a staggering 8,219. Local state modeling as of last week, disagrees, however, forecasting no more than about 4,300 deaths.
The virus can cause mild to severe illness. Older adults and people with serious underlying conditions are most at risk for severe illness and death, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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