After a tentative start, Governor Charlie Baker has done a commendable job getting the coronavirus pandemic under control.
That doesn’t guarantee it will stay under control.
An uptick in the case count and rate of positive COVID-19 tests has some epidemiologists arguing for a rollback of the state’s reopening. They also point to the increased risk of infection that comes with tourists, returning college students, and the new school year.
But it’s simply too soon for another lockdown.
The state’s key pandemic metrics are still low, and the economy remains extremely fragile. “Shutdown: The Sequel” is a movie none of us wants to stream. It would be a painful and costly overreaction, especially when Congress has slashed jobless benefits for nearly 1 million people in Massachusetts and more than 100,000 people are in danger of being evicted.
“There are more nuanced ways [than a shutdown] to react to the impending dangers,” said Simon Johnson, an economics professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management who has worked on coronavirus response strategies since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Baker knows this. And he knows getting elementary and secondary school kids safely back in the classroom is the priority — it’s pivotal to healing the economy, not to mention parents’ mental health. There’s no chance of success unless we keep a tight lid on the virus.
Granted, there is a risk in waiting to see if the numbers get worse. But we have a small window of opportunity here to make sure that doesn’t happen. Here are four things Baker should do — or do more aggressively — right now to minimize the chances of a second COVID-19 wave and spare us from another stay-at-home advisory.
Take every opportunity to drive home this simple message: Don’t get careless
Massachusetts shifted into the third phase of Baker’s reopening plan in the first weeks of July, allowing gyms, indoor dining rooms, and casinos to reopen, and increasing the size of gatherings permitted indoors and out.
Since then, the seven-day average of positive tests — identified by the state as a key measure to watch — has risen to 2.2 percent from 1.7 percent. Meanwhile, the number of new confirmed and probable cases has lingered stubbornly between 200 and 500 a day since early June.
Some backsliding was inevitable, but increased foot traffic at stores and restaurants doesn’t seem to be a big problem. Instead, a certain complacency — or, less generously, stupidity — has set in when it comes to practicing social distancing.
“I don’t respect it, but I understand it,” the governor said Tuesday during his daily briefing, referring to reports of infection clusters caused by house parties, people not wearing masks in crowds, and other pre-pandemic routines. “I mean, week after week, month after month of paying attention to this rule book and this guidance [is] hard to do.”
Stop being so damn polite! People are being reckless, and it has to stop or a shutdown will be inevitable, perhaps within a month. That message should be delivered forcefully every day by the governor and his administration, backed up by a lot of public advertising — and some public shaming.
Do more testing, get quicker results, and don’t let tracing fall by the wayside
After an ill-advised lull, Baker has ramped up conventional testing (swabs in the nose). But a lot more will be needed. Many people — teachers, students, front-line workers — probably should be tested at least twice a week.
Moreover, too many people are waiting one or two weeks for results, and if they don’t quarantine during that time, they could be spreading the virus. Test results should take one day, two at most, MIT’s Johnson said.
Baker said Tuesday that he and the governors of five other states have signed a purchasing agreement that should give companies that make rapid-detection tests the incentive to boost production. More action is needed.
The state teamed up with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the Cambridge-based health research organization, to temporarily expand testing in cities and towns hard hit by COVID-19. That partnership itself should be expanded to boost the state’s testing bandwidth. The Broad can turn around many tests in 24 hours, and it has a lot of untapped capacity.
Johnson also recommends that Baker invest in new methods for detecting COVID-19, including rapid antigen, antibody, and waste-water testing. These approaches are not integrated into the state’s testing strategy, so the valuable information they can generate is not being used effectively, Johnson said.
In early July, Massachusetts said it was scaling back its contact-tracing program, cutting the number of workers hired by its collaborator in the effort, the Boston nonprofit Partners in Health. Baker said the downsizing ― to about 350 workers from the 1,900 initially trained — was necessary because there weren’t enough people exposed to the virus to track down.
The move is worrisome because contact tracing is a key tool to prevent small clusters of infections from growing into a wider outbreak. Let’s hope the reduced tracer ranks are sufficient to carry out the mission, and that Baker will make good on his promise to staff back up quickly if cases rise.
Use targeted restrictions to keep the virus in check
On Tuesday, Baker removed Rhode Island from the list of “low-risk” states exempt from his travel order, which requires visitors to Massachusetts or returning residents to quarantine for 14 days or produce a negative result from a test taken in the previous 72 hours. He also said Massachusetts may have to impose other restrictions or delay the second part of Phase 3 if its rate of positive cases continues to climb.
“That could mean gathering sizes could be reduced, or we could make some of our business regulations more strict,” he said at his briefing.
He should immediately lower gathering limits — now 25 people inside, 100 people outside — at least until the lack of social distancing on the part of some people is no longer sparking clusters of cases. He should require travelers and returning residents to be tested a few days after they arrive. And he should pay close attention to higher-risk activities — indoor dining, gyms, weddings, and funerals — for signs they are spreading the virus, and act quickly if necessary.
Be crystal clear on what numbers would trigger a lockdown
Baker’s mantra is “the data” will guide his coronavirus policies, and he has listed the key metrics his administration tracks closely. But as the Globe’s Dasia Moore reported Tuesday, the governor hasn’t laid out the specific conditions that would trigger a shutdown or less-Draconian restrictions, beyond suggesting that the rate of positive tests should stay under 5 percent.
Remaining vague gives Baker flexibility on when to act. But without knowing the trigger points, businesses, schools, and the public are left to guess what might happen, and when, and can’t plan properly.
That has to change.
Governor, you made the difficult but necessary choices to contain the coronavirus.
Don’t stop now.