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Baker ‘enormously skeptical’ of claim asymptomatic spread is rare: ‘No one should take the foot off the pedal’

Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito on Tuesday visited the New Balance's factory in Lawrence, which has been making personal protective equipment.
Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito on Tuesday visited the New Balance's factory in Lawrence, which has been making personal protective equipment.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday cast doubt on comments from a World Health Organization official that asymptomatic spread of the novel coronavirus was rare, saying he is “enormously skeptical” of such a broad generalization.

Just 24 hours after the comment prompted widespread confusion, WHO officials on Tuesday sought to walk back what they called a misunderstanding about what is known about how infection can spread from those showing no signs of sickness.

The original characterization, however, could have widespread repercussions after public officials, including Baker, shaped policies and orders around the potential of asymptomatic patients infecting others.

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The threat was the foundation for Baker’s order last month requiring face coverings in all public places if people couldn’t socially distance from others, and has buttressed repeated calls for caution even as states and countries begin easing restrictions on daily life.

Speaking at a news conference in Lawrence, Baker warned that “no one should take the foot off the pedal,” calling COVID-19 a “legitimate and dangerous” health threat. The state on Tuesday reported 263 new cases and 55 more deaths, pushing the statewide total to 103,889 cases and the death toll to 7,408.

Asked about the WHO’s claim on Monday, the governor paused for several seconds as he carefully chose he words, eventually telling reporters he earlier had a call with health care officials, “all of whom basically said they were enormously skeptical of that conclusion for a whole bunch of reasons. And so am I.”

“I continue to believe that . . . people who are asymptomatic, who become symptomatic, are absolutely capable of spreading the infection, and so are many of the asymptomatic people who never show symptoms at all,” Baker said, pointing to limited antibody testing performed in Massachusetts and “serious” studies that found huge swaths of infections were spread by people who didn’t show symptoms.

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Maria Van Kerkhove, the UN health agency’s technical lead on the virus pandemic, had said Monday that asymptomatic transmissions were “very rare," citing what she described as reports on contact tracing conducted in several countries. Kerkhove said Tuesday that she was referring only to a few studies, not a complete picture.

Baker’s own public advice has shifted at times since the pandemic began, a nod to what the called the virus’s unprecedented nature and developing research by health officials.

“But I am enormously skeptical of such a broad generalization about something where there is so much data and information already available that says just the opposite,” he said Tuesday.

That the WHO quickly walked back the comments speaks to the uncertainty still surrounding the virus months after it began proliferating worldwide. Baker and other officials in the United States and around the world have sought to balance how to ease social restrictions on a struggling economy while guarding against a potential second wave of infections — meaning advice from leading world health experts could affect how billions live their daily lives.

Baker said Tuesday that the data on COVID-19 on Massachusetts are continuing to trend downward as the state moves into Phase 2 of reopening the economy, including with the return Monday of outdoor dining and retailing.

He also acknowledged a test rate that has begun to decline, despite ambitious plans to push the state’s capacity well beyond the 30,000 it currently can handle each day.

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The state reported Tuesday that 4,660 new patients had been tested, well below the 8,800 it had averaged into early June. Baker said testing rates are generally “driven by demand,” but said the state is adding 20 more sites and has submitted plans for how it will use $374 million in federal funds to expand testing.

Separately on Tuesday, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office said the city is partnering with the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center to offer free and confidential COVID-19 testing to symptomatic and asymptomatic people “in a pop-up location in Roxbury.”

The testing will be available noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday in the Washington Park Mall parking lot, Walsh’s office said. The city said anyone who has joined “large gatherings” recently should get tested. Boston is among the many cities that have seen protests against the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We’re very much still in this fight against COVID," Baker said. “We will be in this fight until there are treatments and vaccines, and I would urge everybody to recognize and understand that it is the decisions that people have made” in regard to masks, distancing, and hygiene that are “the primary reason[s] why we saw dramatic drops” in coronavirus metrics.

Baker on Monday filed a bill with the Legislature that he said aims to improve how COVID-19 data are reported to the state. The governor over the weekend signed a bill passed by the Legislature that beefs up what data the state reports, including from nursing homes, state-run soldiers’ homes, and assisted-living facilities.

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But his new proposal would enable his administration to levy fines of up to $2,000 on laboratories, hospitals, and other providers that fail to report data to the Department of Public Health.

Baker said the goal is to create a permanent standard for reporting that can exist after Baker ends the state’s emergency declaration and the dozens of orders he has put in place “fade away.” (A timeline remains unclear.)

“We would really like that statutory authority, which can sustain this process going forward, in place,” Baker said, “so that there is no doubt about the fact that this isn’t something we’re expecting people to participate in for just the period of the emergency.”

Travis Andersen and Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed. Material from the Associated Press and STAT News was used in this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout