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‘My God, this thing is really contagious.’ Charlie Baker reflects on the coronavirus crisis

An interview with Governor Charlie Baker about his thoughts and actions during the COVID-19 crisis

Governor Charlie Baker sat in his office at the Massachusetts State House.
Governor Charlie Baker sat in his office at the Massachusetts State House.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Globe reporter Bob Hohler interviewed Governor Charlie Baker on April 25, 2020.


Bob Hohler: This must be the greatest leadership challenge of your life. Is there any particular source — a person, book, experience — that you have drawn strength, inspiration or expertise from?

Governor Charlie Baker: That’s a good question. It is the greatest management and leadership challenge certainly that I can ever recall. That’s because you’re up against an enemy here that most people are still learning a lot of things about, so you don’t have the natural ability to review all the history and all the research and all the writings and the experience people have had with it before because there isn’t any.

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I can’t think of any particular leader, but I will say this. One of the things that happens when you have this job for a while is you spend a lot of time with a lot of people who have gone through some really horrible situations in their lives, and it reminds you that no matter how bad your day is, it’s probably a lot better than many others. Honestly, I get a lot of perspective from them. When you attend a lot of funerals for first responders who get killed in the line of duty or you meet a family at the airport when their child is coming home [deceased] from Afghanistan or Iraq, or when you spend time talking with people who lost someone in their family to an overdose or are struggling to keep their son or their daughter or their husband or their wife clean, honestly their best day is a hell of a lot worse than my worst day.

BH: How has your life changed? Do you in some ways feel like a hostage, like some of the rest of us?

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CB: Whenever people ask me what my favorite part of this job is, or was, I always used to say it was being out and about and talking to people, high-fiving, chit-chatting. If you’re in public life, most of us anyway, you probably like the figurative and literal embrace of the people you’re working with and dealing with. My day used to have between 10 and 15 things on it, and it would start early in the morning and end late at night and I would be talking, meeting, or speaking in front of hundreds or thousands of people every day, and it would be all over Massachusetts. Now, like a lot of people, I spend an enormous amount of time working from home, and when I’m not working at home I’m spending my time at the State House, and every once in a while I go someplace else, like today we went to Western Mass. to thank Hasbro for the reworking of their manufacturing facility in East Longmeadow to reproduce 50,000 face shields, I think a day, which is incredible. Generally speaking, I get up in the morning, I get on the phone, I come to the State House, I remain on the phone, then I go do a media avail, and then I get on the phone again, and eventually I go home and I stay on the phone. People in public life, at least most of us, we like the physical intimacy of being with people.

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BH: This must be killing you.

CB: It’s just so different from anything I’ve ever done before, and it has totally changed, as it has for most people, the way you think about what you do and how you do it. (His voice rises). I miss being with people. I miss it. I miss it a lot.

BH: Do you work out a lot?

CB: I used to go to the gym a couple times a week, and I used to take a kickboxing class with my wife on Sunday. I don’t take the kickboxing class anymore or go to the gym. Instead, I do a Zoom workout with a friend of mine who’s a trainer, and it’s mostly really calisthenics for old people. He just tells me what to do and I do it until he stops telling me what to do.

BH: Same time every day?

CB: It’s three times a week, and it’s just usually in the early morning.

BH: Can you walk me through your early thinking on the virus. You said in The [New York] Times op-ed that you saw it coming in January. I think a lot of us early on thought it was going to be like SARS: bad, but not a huge threat to us. Was that your thinking, too, or no?

CB: Well, we had like one case, right, the kid from Wuhan [at UMass Boston] who went home for the holidays and came back. Our department of public health and the city’s department of public health were all over him, and he was isolated and quarantined and all the rest. And then we had a few hundred people who got flown in from China and got screened and then got sent home, and the local boards of health and the state public health department got notified, and we were tracking those folks, every one of them. They were all quarantined. At that point, I think we thought there was a big outbreak in China of some kind that nobody really knew much about. We were just trying to follow the public media and the public health commentary on what was going on, and honestly, back then, there wasn’t a lot...the way I would describe it is, there was a lot of messaging and a lot of signaling that was saying a lot of different things, which made it very hard to figure out where truth was, I guess. And the thing that really put it in front of all of us was the Biogen conference — I’m not going to get my dates right because this whole thing seems like one day from the beginning of March until now — but there was a guy who tested positive, I think in Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, who was at the Biogen conference. That then led to a sort of quick rip into what actually happened at the Biogen conference, and I think that all happened right around the time — [press secretary] Sarah [Finlaw] can check the dates on this — right around the time we declared the state of emergency. I think this was all unfolding around the time we declared the state or emergency and we asked HHS Secretary Marylou Sudders to stand up a command center and put Dan Tsai, who is one of her assistant secretaries, in charge of Health and Human Services. And it was right around the time we put limits on gathering, we closed schools for a period of time, and we put the order in on bars and restaurants, which I think was the weekend of the 15th of March.

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BH: So, going back a little bit, after the Wuhan kid, in early February, you were at the governors conference in Washington, and the Maryland governor has said Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and other public health people there talked about the virus, and he said it raised alarm bells for him and that he knew he had to get to work. Did you hear Fauci? And, if so, did it raise alarm bells for you, too?

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CB: I’m going to have to check my notes, Bob. I don’t think I heard Fauci speak at that conference.

BH: OK, so we get to the first week of March, and that’s when all hell starts to break loose. The second case confirmed in Norfolk County, the Biogen cluster, the Wellesley and Plymouth schools closing. But there hadn’t been any community spread at that point, and before you left for vacation, you said the risk remained low. Did you feel any different privately?

CB: No, that’s what the public health people were telling me.

BH: So then you get to Utah and something happens. What was it?

CB: I was on the phone pretty much the whole time I was there, and I think, based on the back and forth I was having with our own people, I just concluded that I should come home. So I took the red-eye home on Monday night.

BH: It might have been the community spread, because I think it was right around then that it was found out there in the Berkshires. I’m figuring that message got to you. Do you recall that?

CB: The Berkshires were definitely early, and no one, at that point in time, we were pretty sure we didn’t think it started with a person from Massachusetts, that it started with somebody from somewhere else.

BH: So, I think we all had a holy sh.., holy cow, moment when we realized this was bigger than what we thought. Do you recall, was that yours? Was it out there [in Utah], when you got some message about community spread?

CB: No, I came home because of the conversations…because I was spending so much time on the phone that it was clear to me there was just no way I could stay away. I think for me the big holy cow moment was more the unwinding of the Biogen stuff. When it became clear how many people were at that, how many people those people had been in contact with, how many people were starting to show up testing positive. I think that weekend of the 14th, we set up two test sites in Boston and just started testing everybody who was at the conference, and a lot of them were coming up positive, and that was sort of like, Oh my God, this thing is really contagious.

BH: So you didn’t have this ominous sense flying back, or did you, that things are really going to be different now, we’re really going to have our hands full? Because I think you went into crisis mode right after.

CB: Well, I came home certainly because I was concerned, but your level of concern grows the more you know and that’s when I just started really losing track of the days because there was just an avalanche of information and new data, not just coming in in Massachusetts but coming in all over the place. I mean, that’s really when we got a lot of the global information about what was going on in Italy and Spain and what had happened in China, it was just boom, boom, boom.

BH: And that’s when you did go into crisis mode. You created the command center. I think you started talking to hospital leaders every day. Did that start around then, too? Can you take us behind the scenes a little bit there?

CB: Honestly, I don’t remember when we started doing that [talking to the hospital leaders]. We can check the calendars and figure that out. I think it was maybe a week after that that we started talking to people every day.

BH: That must have been an incredibly frantic or high-energy week, trying to get the command center up. Anything you can say about behind the scenes.

CB: The biggest thing I would say is that the conversations, again mostly over the phone, just never stopped. You were basically getting on the phone when you got up in the morning and getting off the phone when you went to bed. And you were talking to all kinds of people. You were talking to health care people, municipal officials, business people, people in the Legislature, and you were reading and tracking as much as you could about what was coming out of other places, talking to other governors, and just realizing that this thing was really big and really dangerous, and that you still couldn’t get, at that point in time, a lot of key questions answered that weren’t really qualified. The thing you search for when you’re trying to make decisions, especially if you’re trying to make them in a hurry, is, what’s the quality of the information you’re making the decisions with. And there was a lot of variance in what people were saying about what was true and what wasn’t. Do you remember, Fauci said early on — I can’t remember exactly when, I’m going to get this wrong, too — that he was not that worried about asymptomatic carriers? Eventually, as some of the data started to develop, that became something people started talking about. And people were like, well, we think maybe 5 percent are asymptomatic. Then it was maybe 5 to 10 percent. Then maybe it’s 10 to 20 percent. Some of the latest data say it could be as much as 20 to 40 percent. Well, if you have a contagion where 5 percent of the people are asymptomatic, you think about making decisions in one way. If you have a contagion where 20 to 40 percent of the people who get it are asymptomatic, you think about it really differently on almost every level. That’s the danger and the challenge of a novel virus, which is that you’re going to learn in real time and real experience what on many other issues in public health and health care people already know because they’ve been there and seen it before. That’s going to force people to change their game plans and adjust what they’re doing on a pretty regular basis.

BH: My only federal question, and you led me right to it, is that they didn’t seem to be prepared as much as they could have been, and so you had Secretary Sudders and Commissioner [Monica] Bharel saying that we were well prepared, that we had an adequate supply of PPE, testing, adequate funding. Was that a matter of them relying on the federal government for their guidance? Or what?

CB: I don’t think anybody appreciated the scarcity associated with available gear of all kinds. You know, the fact that I ended up competing with the federal government on PPE acquisition, or that I had to become a global procurer of personal protective equipment, and that I would be spending a significant amount of time calling people that I knew and chasing down leads and hearing from people who said, I got a guy here, I got a guy there, I got a girl here, I got a girl there, it was just constant, and I don’t think anybody thought at the beginning that the federal stockpile would be as limited as it was or as limited relative to the demand that it was. Honestly, I don’t think anybody back then understood or appreciated that all these global supply chains that worked so well when we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic were suddenly going to get really tight because countries where a lot of these supply chains started were going to get really aggressive about holding on to their own.

BH: How desperate did you feel before you got the Krafts on board?

CB: Well, I thought I had 3 million masks that were coming from a BJ’s Wholesaler’s order that involved us and Costco that didn’t happen. And when that didn’t happen, it put a tremendous strain on PPE for us in Massachusetts and for all of us. People were losing sleep over this. All of us were.

BH: So you’re lying awake at night thinking what the hell am I going to do here?

CB: Thinking I called 25 people today and only three of them got back to me. I’m going to have to call the other 22 in the morning and find out where they are. And we had other people getting incoming from other people about what they could get from here, there, and everywhere, and I think in many ways, I think if you talk to almost any state, they’ll tell you that the competition between states and the competition between states and the federal government over key ingredients of supply, not just masks but everything, was unbelievably difficult and time-consuming and enormously challenging because of the difficulty of moving stuff out of places that were dealing with their own issues around this. A lot of the supply chains for this started in the Far East, but some of them also started in Europe. The cotton swabs, one of the major sourcing locations for cotton swabs in that fine fabric, is Italy, which was in the middle of a coronavirus meltdown of its own at exactly that time. So, by the middle of March we were all working on PPE procurement, which, if you told me at the beginning of March that would become 25 percent of my day, I wouldn’t have believed it.

BH: Let me ask you what the lowest or saddest or grimmest part of this has been? I know there has been so much death and despair, but I’m thinking maybe Holyoke, would that rank up there?

CB: You’re right. There have been many grim moments. Many. Holyoke would be right up there. All of the issues associated with seniors and senior care, and the issues associated with managing a contagion like this when a huge part of what people who take care of seniors do, especially in nursing homes and in other kinds of assisted living facilities, is you help them dress, bathe, eat, you recreate with them. It’s close-quarters work, and it’s almost designed to be incredibly hard when you get into a contagion that, remember, no one thought 20 to 40 percent of the population that got this was asymptomatic until fairly recently. My best friend’s mom died of this at a facility that she and my best friend loved, that took wonderful care of her.

BH: You must think of your dad at moment’s like that, right?

CB: Of course, I think about it all the time. And I think about talking to the faith community about them not being able to have services anymore, not being allowed to have memorial services, and about talking to people in the funeral business about the fact that we’re no longer going to be doing wakes and funerals. I mean, I’m old enough, I used to go [before the shutdown] to a lot of wakes and funerals because I’m in my 60s, which means almost all of my friends’ parents are in their 80s and their 90s, and these are important rituals. First of all, there is the whole issue of being able to spend time with people before they pass, OK? COVID-19 pretty much took that away from people. Then you add to that the fact that there aren’t going to be gatherings where people are going to have a chance to celebrate a life. It was on Feb. 29 that I attended my last celebration of a life. I attended a Mass at St. Cecilia’s [in the Back Bay] for Vin McCarthy.

I knew Vin McCarty forever, going all the way back to the Bill Weld campaign in 1990. I was 33 years old. He was obviously a lot older than that. He was so kind to me and so willing to listen to someone with sort of the energy of a child almost. I had never worked in state government at that point, never been around the block [Baker would become Weld’s undersecretary of HHS in 1991]. He had been married and been divorced. He was a lawyer at Hale and Dorr, and he was one of the first major professional people...one of the first people to come out and say he was gay, and he was many years sober. He had battled the bottle for years. He was battle-tested, is the way I would describe it, and he put up with my noise and my nonsense and he would explain to me how the world really worked and gave me 30 years of grownup advice about all kinds of things and probably kept me out of a lot of trouble and probably made me much better at my job than I would have been otherwise, and I just never forgot it. His funeral was one of the most beautiful and glorious and wonderful events I’ve ever been to, and so when ministers and priests and rabbis and funeral home people start telling me that you’re destroying people’s opportunities to say goodbye and thank you to people they love and that you’re taking away this incredibly important opportunity for closure with what you’re doing, that was really grim. I hated that, especially given the last one I went to. But what do you do at a wake or a service like that? You hug people and you cry and you cry some more and cry some more, and a lot of the people who go to them are peers and colleagues of the people who passed, which means you’re dealing with a community for the most part that is usually vulnerable to this stuff. [His voice rises] I mean, God.

BH: So it must have been wrenching or maddening when you got that word on Holyoke? Can you recall that moment?

CB: Maylou Sudders and Karyn Polito and I were on the phone. It was 9 o’clock on a Sunday night, and I think Karyn heard from the [Holyoke] mayor, Alex Morse, and then Karyn said, ``This is what the mayor is telling me,’’ and Maylou and I were both shocked and shattered. So Marylou got off the call to call the mayor and talk to him for about 20 minutes and then got back on our call and said basically, ``Oh my God.’’ Then she got off the phone and started calling people to put a plan in place for Monday morning, which we executed on. She called us back later that night to let us know what the plan was going to be and who’s involved. And thank God I called out the National Guard before that so we were able to scramble the Guard to be there in the morning to provide assistance and support for Val Liptak who took over as the interim CEO there that morning. We also had a bunch of people there from DPH and others as well. I’ve been in and out of that place dozens of times and people loved it and they loved it because of the people they were serving and because of the sense of mission that came with it. It was awful. A tragedy. Terrible.

BH: Have you tried to phone some of the families of the veterans who died there?

CB: I want [former federal prosecutor] Mark Pearlstein to finish his investigation. [Baker hired Pearlstein to conduct an independent inquiry. State and federal prosecutors are also investigating.] I want to know what happened when and who knew what and why it was that we were getting a call from a mayor on a Sunday night to tell us about it.

BH: When this investigation is over, how much mercy are you going to have for anybody who messed this thing up?

CB: I want to see the report.

BH: You’ve gained national acclaim for the contact tracing program. Is there anything behind the scenes you can tell us about?

CB: The biggest thing I would say about that is that it all started with a phone call between Marylou and Steve Kadish, who was my chief of staff in my first couple of years in the administration, a guy I have worked with forever, and Jim Kim, who Steve worked with at Partners in Health and when Jim went to Dartmouth to be the president there. It was a late-night call. Jim was the first person to say to me, this shelter in place, this hunkering down, that’s probably the right thing to do now, but at some point you’ve gotta get up and you gotta run at this thing and you have to take it on. There is a long history of contact tracing as the primary tool that people use to take on a virus and a contagion, and he had real-world, real-life examples of work that Partners in Health had done in places that he’d been, and he knew practically everything that was going on in South Korea, and at the end of the call I talked to Marylou and said I think we have to do this. I think this is like a must-do. I don’t know how we ever get people a sense...that there has to be a strategy that exists beyond staying at home. This is proven. It has worked before. We have a great partner in Partners in Health. We really should go all in on this, and Marylou said the same thing. So we started building it out almost immediately. We should have about a thousand people doing tracing by the end of the month. And, I'll tell you something, I’ve had a lot of governors reach out to me since the story broke that we were doing this, looking to do similar things in their own states. Because if you can’t identify and isolate the folks who test positive and the people close to them, it’s going to be a problem. That is how you contain this, and then you support people who are isolating. And one of the good news things here is, they’ve started to call people and check in with them and ask about close contacts, most people don’t have many close contacts at this point, maybe two or three people because people have been doing the work associated with distancing. That’s a positive. Usually, they said, it would be eight or 10 people who fall into that category.

BH: Speaking of close contacts, what was your reaction and maybe your wife’s reaction when Dr. Bharel came down with it? That must have hit home.

CB: Well, and Tom Turco, the secretary of public safety. Dr. Bharel is a really good physical distancer. I was never very close to her in a room. The closest I ever got was 6 to 8 feet away from her at a press conference. My big concern was, how would it hit her, because the variability of how people get hit by this varies so much. The good news is, she got better. She got really sick, but she got better. And her husband also got really sick and got better. And I’m glad she’s back on her feet and back at work. She made it very clear to us that having this [virus] gives you a whole new perspective on what people who get this are dealing with. And Tom Turco, the same thing. I saw Tom at a distance, I saw him and talked to him, 5 or 6 feet away from him, two days before he tested positive.

BH: Have you been tested?

CB: Have I been tested?

BH: Yuh.

CB: I was tested and I tested negative. After Tom Turco got it, I thought I should in an abundance of caution. I didn’t have any symptoms, but now that we know how many asymptomatic infections are out there, the lieutenant governor and I both had seen Tom the previous couple of days, so we both got tested. We both thought we had done a good job of distancing. We weren’t worried about it, but we thought we should test, and we did, and we were both tested negative.

BH: Is there one inspiring moment from all of this that you will remember? Light in the darkness type of thing.

CB: One is, there are a lot of people in state government who work with at-risk people. DCF social workers who work with at-risk families. Folks who work in 24/7 facilities, whether you’re talking about the Department of Correction or the Department of Mental Health or Public Health. A lot of people who spend a lot of their day doing important things, and I can’t tell you how fast we stood up a state government that to the best of our ability practiced social distancing, worked remotely, and dealt with the people we needed to deal with on a regular basis, and there was so few people who didn’t show up. People showed up, and some of them showed up knowing the work they were doing was challenging and difficult. The people at the T, DCF, people who work with people with developmental disabilities, people who work with seniors showed up, and I think — we’ll get you a number on this — I think that call center we set up at DUA [Department of Unemployment Assistance] had 150 people in it on March 6. It now has almost 1,000 people working remotely from all over state government who volunteered to train to help people process their unemployment benefits and deal with the stupendous increase in volume that came with that. There is a lot of purpose in that.

The other thing I would say, there have been so many stories about just small things that make a big difference and matter to people that have come across my desk, either through e-mails that go into our public account and find their way to me or handwritten letters. There is a company that makes coffee cakes in North Andover, they’ve been dropping them off at first responder police and fire stations, all over Massachusetts, just to say thanks to the men and women for what they do.

And I think sometimes in the midst of all this, we look for the big moments and things, and I actually think what makes this stuff bearable for most people is the constant small things that are going on every single day, where neighbors help neighbors and friends help friends and family helps family. It’s just constant and continuous and it never stops. Almost every time I go for a walk in Swampscott, I wear a mask, and I will see lots and lots of people I know and they’ll all be doing that, and I’ll say that’s a really cool mask, where did you get a mask that has the Boston Bruins logo all over it. They’ll say my neighbor made it or my daughter made it or somebody else made it. You know, people are trying pretty hard in the midst of all this to find time to do nice things for people, and because they are doing hundreds and thousands of nice things that are kind of off the screen, they don’t get the same visibility or attention that some of the big things get, but that stuff is going on all over the place, and I take an enormous amount of comfort from that.

I’ll go back to where I started with you when you said this is a really hard thing, tough to do, right? Compared to [someone saying I’m] trying to help my 18-year-old stay sober or trying to help my wife and me put our lives back together after our 22-year-old son committed suicide because of an opioid addiction, it doesn’t feel that hard.


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com. Neil Swidey is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail him at neil.swidey@globe.com or follow him on Twitter @neilswidey. Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.