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Governor Baker insists on slow, phased return as Mass. coronavirus deaths top 5,300

Governor Charlie Baker during his visit to Stanley Street Treatment and Resources (SSTAR) in Fall River, one of 18 community health centers to expand COVID-19 testing capacity on Wednesday.
Governor Charlie Baker during his visit to Stanley Street Treatment and Resources (SSTAR) in Fall River, one of 18 community health centers to expand COVID-19 testing capacity on Wednesday.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

FALL RIVER — Days before Massachusetts is slated to begin to reopen its economy, Governor Charlie Baker insisted Wednesday that a deliberate, phased approach, underpinned by the continued expansion of COVID-19 testing, is the best path toward a new normal, as the state’s coronavirus death toll topped 5,300.

“The last thing we’re going to do is reopen in a way that fires that virus up again,” said Baker at a news conference in the parking lot of a community health center in Fall River that is providing drive-through testing.

The state Health Department reported Wednesday that the death toll in Massachusetts rose by 174 cases to 5,315. It was the largest number of deaths since May 6, when 208 fatalities were reported.

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At least one prominent business group, however, wants more answers regarding the impending reopening. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce issued a policy brief calling for Baker to provide additional information to the business community about virus and antibody testing, public transit, and the availability of child care for workers. The group also pointed out that there are “still no clear triggers” for each of the reopening’s four phases.

“The state should publish the set of metrics it is tracking and the performance necessary to trigger each reopening phase," the chamber said in the brief.

Baker spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw said in a statement that the administration "has been in constant communication with several leading business organizations and with employers across the Commonwealth and is thankful for their cooperation and ingenuity as the private sector joins government in responding to this deadly pandemic.”

In its daily release, the state said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases climbed by 1,165 to 80,497. Public health officials also reported 8,536 new tests had been conducted, marking a total of 410,032 in the state.

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The daily percentage of positive tests rose slightly to 14 percent, but continued to show a general decline from mid-April highs of 33 and 34 percent. The seven-day average for positive test rates, a number closely watched by public health experts, dipped slightly to 12 percent, continuing a downward trend from April highs.

Baker’s order closing nonessential workplaces is set to expire Monday, and he has unveiled a four-phased approach that will mandate steps businesses would have to take to reopen. Some scientists recently cautioned that it may be too soon to broadly reopen Massachusetts, one of the hardest-hit states in the country.

On Wednesday, Baker said businesses that are going to be allowed to reopen initially are the organizations the state deems most likely to be successful in not spreading the virus. He said such businesses would include those that do not have close contact with customers and organizations that could institute social distancing in an uncomplicated manner. When pressed about what specific industries would be allowed to reopen next week, Baker declined to say. He said reopening details would be included in a report from an advisory board that is expected on Monday.

“I would love to be able to open everything up tomorrow,” Baker said. “That would be an incredibly irresponsible thing to do. What we are going to do is phase the reopening.”

The governor noted that more than 3,000 state residents are still hospitalized because of the pandemic and stressed that the reopening will include a “slow rollout.”

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The cautious rhetoric from Baker is nothing new. Nonessential workplaces have been shut in the state since late March. As Baker spoke outside Stanley Street Treatment and Resources, workers dressed in protective suits, face masks and shields, and gloves administered COVID-19 tests to motorists in the parking lot to the building, reaching into cars with swabs.

“This is not a virus to be trifled with,” Baker said.

Baker: Reopening will be a slow process
"When we reopen, we’re going to want to be able to sustain that reopening over time," said Governor Baker. (Photo: Chris Van Buskirk, Video: Handout)

Hospitalizations in Massachusetts have declined 20 percent since they peaked in mid-April, the governor said. He also spoke to the importance of continuing to ramp-up testing, saying that such measures will help authorities see where the infections are and help people who are diagnosed with the virus isolate more quickly.

“We view this as a critical component of getting to a new normal,” he said.

The state has the lab capacity to conduct 30,000 tests per day, with the daily test rates hovering between roughly 8,000 and 15,000, Baker said.

Contact tracing in Massachusetts, where residents who come in close contact with an infected person are tracked down and urged to isolate, also continues. Baker’s office said a tracing collaborative has reached nearly 18,000 confirmed cases and over 14,000 of their contacts since calls began on April 12.

New public health guidelines from the state this week recommend all symptomatic individuals, including those with mild symptoms, be tested. The guidelines also recommend that anyone who has had close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case should also get tested.

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Previously, it was primarily symptomatic individuals who were recommended for testing, according to the state’s Department of Public Health. Under the new state guidance, asymptomatic individuals can be recommended for testing by providers, public health experts, or employers.

Dr. C. Robert Horsburgh Jr., a professor of epidemiology at Boston University, said the new guidelines for testing are both prudent and necessary.

“It’s a great next step,” he said.

The state’s weekly release of town-by-town data continued to show that the virus has not pummeled all cities equally.

While Boston’s 11,551 cases reported through Wednesday were by far the most in the state, small cities to the north and south continued to see the highest rates of infection per capita.

Cases in Chelsea once again rose. Chelsea’s highest-in-the-state rate of 6,404 cases per 100,000 people is nearly four times Boston’s.

Brockton’s rate of 3,490 cases per 100,000 was the second highest in the state, and slightly more than half of Chelsea’s.

Other cities in the top 10 mirrored last week’s data, with the order changing slightly: Everett, Lynn, Lawrence, Revere, Randolph, Danvers, Lowell, and Stoughton.

Top officials in Massachusetts besides Baker urged caution on Wednesday.

In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he wanted to temper expectations regarding what Monday will bring, saying authorities are moving toward reopening with decisions grounded in data, not a certain date. He said he supported a “cautious, phased-in approach” that included public health guidelines for each industry. He warned that reopening too quickly could cause a spike in cases.

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“It’s not public health versus the economy,” said Walsh at a City Hall news conference. “They can only move forward together.”

“It’s not public health versus the economy,” says Walsh
Regarding reopening, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh rejected the notion that officials had to choose between protecting public safety and the economy. (Photo: Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff, Video: Handout)

Boston reported 542 pandemic-related deaths of city residents as of Wednesday.

In a statement, Walsh said that the city has launched a hot line to help city residents who are eligible for the federal economic pandemic stimulus payments. Those with income under $75,000, including those with no income, may be eligible for the full $1,200 payment, according to Walsh’s office.

Across the country, even as many states continued to reopen, some leaders offered more sobering assessments.

The mayor of Washington, D.C., extended the district’s stay-at-home order through June 8, saying in a tweet the criteria for reopening had not yet been met.

And the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, put an even finer point on it in a TV interview.

“We’ll never be completely open," he said, "until we have a cure.”

Jon Chesto, Travis Andersen, Martin Finucane, and Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.