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Baker says Mass. will significantly bolster coronavirus testing as death toll continues to rise

Governor Charlie Baker.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Facing an economy gut-punched by the pandemic and a death toll that continues to rise, Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday that the state plans to significantly bolster testing for COVID-19 in coming months to the point where Massachusetts would have the highest testing rate for the disease in the world.

The announcement came as authorities said more than 1 million unemployment claims have been filed since March 15, an astonishing figure in a state with a labor force of 3.7 million.

And just days before Baker’s administration is set to announce more details for reopening, other local leaders outlined aspirations for a slow thaw. The court system said Thursday that courthouses are expected to physically reopen this summer, with caveats. Judicial authorities hoped that jury trials could resume in September.

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Speaking at a State House news conference, Baker said he wants to boost the state’s overall testing capacity to 45,000 daily tests by the end of July and 75,000 daily tests by the end of December, with the goal of decreasing the positive case rate to less than 5 percent.

"If we actually pull this off, this will be the largest testing program, on a per capita basis, anywhere," said Baker.

Currently, the state has the lab capacity for about 35,000 daily tests, according to the governor. The state reported Thursday that more than 14,300 people were tested. Baker’s plans also call for faster turnaround times for tests, so that health care providers can make same-day or next-day decisions based on results. The state is also working with labs to prepare for a potential surge in testing this fall, he said.

Massachusetts continues to be among the states hardest hit by the pandemic, a point Baker emphasized Thursday, when the state’s death toll reached 5,482, an increase of 167 from the previous day.

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“We’re top 4 or top 5 in every awful category you can think of,” he said.

Still, there are hopeful signs. The daily positive rate among those tested statewide has decreased significantly since mid-April highs of 33 and 34 percent.

On Thursday, the daily rate was 12 percent, a slight dip from Wednesday. The seven-day average for positive test rates, a number closely watched by public health experts, stayed stable at 12 percent, continuing a downward trend from April highs.

The number of confirmed cases in the state stood at 82,182 on Thursday, an increase of 1,685 from the previous day.

And hospitalizations due to COVID-19 also dropped below 3,000 for the first time since mid-April.

The state said 781 cases were in intensive care units, a figure Baker said he pays close attention to because “it’s really important with respect to our ability to help people get better.”

Baker’s order closing nonessential workplaces is set to expire on Monday, the day a report from an advisory board is expected to offer more detail regarding the reopening. The governor has unveiled a four-phased approach that will mandate steps businesses would have to take to reopen.

The state may have already met one of the thresholds laid out in mid-April in the White House guidelines for reopening. The nonbinding document calls for, among other things, a “two-week downward trajectory of documented cases or positives as a percent of total tests.”

The seven-day average of total positive tests has been dropping every day since April 29, when it was 2,179, to Thursday, when it was 1,209.

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Dr. Thomas Tsai, a surgeon and health policy researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said last week that decisions about easing up on business closures “need to be based on the data.” Transparent metrics, according to Tsai, are important.

“Massachusetts has a very transparent dashboard on the daily progress” the state is making against the virus, Tsai said, “and I think that’s a good template” for how a similar dashboard could inform how the state phases in reopening.

The clarity around the metrics guiding the decision-making process is important because restrictions are going to have to be tightened again at times as flare-ups in the virus occur, Tsai said. Clear communication is necessary to avoid confusion and to ensure the public trusts that any changes are being driven by the data, not arbitrary decision-making or a sign government officials are changing their minds.

“This is going to be a very dynamic process. There may be peaks and valleys in terms of the pandemic. The big question is how will the state respond to that. If we see cases rise” in two weeks, or four weeks, after the economy starts opening up, “what should people expect?” Tsai said.

“This is going to be hard. There’s going to be two steps forward, one step back for the next weeks and months,” he said.

While testing is crucial to the state’s reopening, the governor said the state will not be pursuing universal testing, which would be extremely difficult in a state of nearly 7 million people.

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As the testing capacity in Massachusetts is expanded, the Baker administration plans to prioritize locales with low-testing availability, hot spots with high positive rates, and high-density areas.

Baker also highlighted new self-swab-and-send testing sites located at 10 CVS drive-through locations throughout the state.

Massachusetts court authorities, meanwhile, are considering a reopening of their own. The state’s courthouses, which have been physically shuttered for the last two months are expected to reopen for in-person proceedings this summer, with caveats. Jury trials could possibly return in September if children can return to school.

The update on state courthouses, which have been hearing emergency matters and more routine proceedings such as arraignments remotely during the health crisis, came in a letter from a trio of top judges to members of the bar.

Gaming regulators are also looking toward reopening but said casinos will remain closed until at least June 1.

Other states, meanwhile, continue to wrestle with the reopening process.

Although there won’t be graduation ceremonies for the high school class of 2020 in Rhode Island, Governor Gina M. Raimondo said that the local PBS station will air a special televised graduation ceremony on June 15.

Raimondo said Rhode Island is “more than holding our own" as it battles the coronavirus, and she will speak Friday about how the state will move into phase two of reopening the economy.

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“I feel confident about where we are and where we’re going," Raimondo said Thursday. "That in no way minimizes the challenges Rhode Island is facing . . . but we are on the road to recovery.”

Still, she said, “the situation is fragile right now . . . please be flexible and patient.”

In Maine, officials said Thursday that lodge operators and innkeepers can begin accepting reservations starting June 1 for Mainers and out-of-state residents who comply with the state’s 14-day quarantine requirement.

New Jersey's governor announced that beaches there will be open for the Memorial Day weekend, with social distance guidelines in place.

Wisconsin has been thrown into chaos after the state Supreme Court threw out the stay-at-home order of Governor Tony Evers. Crowds descended on some bars that opened immediately after the court’s decision.

Martin Finucane, Travis Andersen, Victoria McGrane, and Amanda Milkovits of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from State House News Service, Bloomberg, The New York Times, Associated Press, and The Washington Post was used.



Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JaclynReiss