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Mass. a top concern for federal officials; Baker says state is in ‘middle of the surge’

Governor Charlie Baker spoke about coronavirus on Saturday.
Governor Charlie Baker spoke about coronavirus on Saturday.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

Massachusetts is becoming a top concern for federal officials responding to the COVID-19 outbreak as the pandemic’s course in the state enters what Governor Charlie Baker described on Sunday as “the middle of the surge.”

Baker spoke during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” just after White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said on the show that she was treating the pandemic as a “series of small epidemics across the United States.”

“We’re still very much focused on Boston and across Massachusetts, where the epidemics continue to spread,” said Birx, who also noted her concern about Chicago and other areas.

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The state Department of Public Health on Sunday reported 146 new deaths from COVID-19, bringing the total deaths attributed to the disease to 1,706. And Massachusetts confirmed 1,705 new cases, bringing the statewide total to 38,077.

The number of cases has been declining in recent days ― the count of new cases was 2,221 on Friday ― though state officials caution against reading too much into day-to-day trends, in part because of the variation in the number of tests reported by labs in the state.

Speaking before the most recent numbers were released, Baker said the state remains in an acute phase in the crisis: “We’re in a very different place here in Massachusetts than other states are. We’re right in the middle of the surge now.”

Speaking on the television program, the governor said the continued danger here has the state’s full attention as government officials elsewhere have been under both political and economic pressure to lift restrictions intended to slow the spread of the disease.

Protesters demonstrated in several cities over the weekend after President Trump encouraged them to “liberate” three states led by Democratic governors.

Baker, without mentioning Trump by name, said the federal government has “acknowledged that the surge is in different places in different states at different times.”

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In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh rolled out a new approach toward getting people to observe social distancing measures.

Seven public works trucks fitted with sound equipment drove between noon and 5 p.m. through the neighborhoods with the highest rates of the virus — Hyde Park, Mattapan, Dorchester, East Boston, Roxbury, and Roslindale — delivering the message in seven languages to wash hands and stay inside.

“We need everyone to know that we are in a public health emergency and we need everyone to do their part," Walsh said in a statement.

On CNN Sunday night, Walsh said in an interview that “a lot of people were disappointing” as the day saw sunny, 60-degree weather.

“There were people out golfing. There were people playing soccer. There were people gathering — I think, right now — not understanding the severity of what’s happening here in this country and in Boston, in Massachusetts. It’s just wrong,” he said. “You stop coronavirus by social distancing — that’s the only way it is going to happen.”

The statewide coronavirus numbers on Sunday drove home the human cost of the pandemic, which is affecting people across all age levels but is hitting older people especially hard. While the most recent deaths included a Middlesex County woman in her 30s and a Plymouth County man in his 40s, most were in their 60s and older.

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The toll has been especially devastating in some of the state’s nursing homes. The state-run Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, the site of an initial outbreak of virus-related deaths, saw three more veterans die over the weekend, health officials said Sunday. Two of the deaths were confirmed as COVID-19 related. To date, the home has had a total of 50 confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

Baker’s plan for managing the virus in Massachusetts after the surge relies heavily on testing for the virus and quickly identifying the people who have been in contact with those infected. He said the state will benefit from the US government putting its “foot on the accelerator” when it comes to ramping up testing for coronavirus.

“In order for us to get back on our feet and start thinking about reopening, we have got to have better knowledge, and better understanding, and support for people who are dealing with this virus and people who come in close contact with [them],” Baker said.

Baker said he is listening to the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how to handle the crisis.

“Everything associated with testing ultimately has to be approved by the CDC and the FDA ― as it should be,” Baker said. “States shouldn’t be making their own decisions on that stuff.”

The governor added that the decisions on reopening will have to be made in coordination with nearby states. Massachusetts is part of a coalition of Northeastern states working together on a plan.

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“I don’t want Massachusetts to do something that makes life incredibly complicated for New York, or New Jersey, or New Hampshire, or Vermont,” Baker said. “And I certainly don’t want them to do something that creates issues and problems in Massachusetts.”

He said the states will need federal help to bail out their budgets, as Massachusetts and other jurisdictions struggle with the economic damage from the pandemic. Baker said it will be difficult to reopen the US economy if states are struggling with huge budget shortfalls. And he said the impact here might be dire.

“For states to be able to support that initiative, obviously it’s important for the feds to support our efforts to fund the stuff we do,” the governor said. “If we’re laying off tens of thousands of people at exactly the time that they want to reopen the economy, we’re going to be swimming against the current they’re trying to create.”

In Massachusetts, experts have told the state Legislature that tax revenues could decline by more than $4 billion amid the decreased economic activity and it could take years to repair the damage.

Globe correspondent Lucas Phillips and Tonya Alanez of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used.


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.