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Amid sterner warnings of virus spread, state reopens field hospital

Makeshift hospital rooms filled the floor of the DCU Center in Worcester on April 7.
Makeshift hospital rooms filled the floor of the DCU Center in Worcester on April 7.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker on Friday issued a markedly grave warning for residents to change their behavior in the face the "sustained and troubling” resurgence of the coronavirus that, in Central Massachusetts, is beginning to test the limits of the health care system.

Underscoring the serious turn, Baker said the state will reopen its first field hospital in roughly five months, a 240-bed facility at the DCU Center in Worcester that should be primed to accept patients the first week of December, if need be.

The announcement came on the heels of a steady spike in the numbers of new infections in Massachusetts that is approaching those seen during the first peak of the virus in the spring.

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Coronavirus infections have grown seven-fold since Labor Day, with Massachusetts reporting 2,674 new infections on Friday alone. Officials in Maine said they plan on Monday to renew restrictions on Massachusetts residents traveling there, requiring a two-week quarantine or negative COVID-19 test. And several other states are turning to drastic restrictions to quell the virus.

The governor of New Mexico issued a “stay at home” order, starting Monday, while Oregon announced a two-week “freeze” during which gyms will close, restaurants can offer only takeout, and social gatherings will be capped to no more than six people. Vermont’s governor on Friday issued an order closing bars and clubs and banning multi-household gatherings.

In Massachusetts, the virus also reared its head in the State House, where cleaning crews were brought in to sanitize offices Friday night after two House members tested positive for the coronavirus, according to an e-mail sent to House staff and obtained by the Globe. The representatives, who were not identified, were last in the State House on Thursday when the House completed its budget debate.

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Baker indicated he wants to avoid the type of tight restrictions he imposed in the spring, namely closing schools or businesses. But he said residents need to take personal responsibility, cautioning that casual social interactions many take for granted are helping spread the virus.

The threat, he said, creates the potential for the holidays — and the cozy family gatherings that mark them — to turn into a super-spreader season.

“The numbers clearly have been trending in the wrong direction since the end of summer,” Baker said at a State House news conference Friday. “The trajectory now is sustained and troubling, and everybody needs to step up and help ensure that we get our arms around this."

The messaging has been part of Baker’s constant appeals for residents to embrace wearing masks both indoors and outdoors, including around friends and relatives outside a person’s immediate household — to the point that on Friday he acknowledged it may come off as lecturing.

Baker and his secretary of health and human services, Marylou Sudders, both cited how Canada saw its a surge in infections in the weeks after that country’s Thanksgiving holiday on Oct. 12. Baker drove the point home by pantomiming an explosion from the lectern, signifying the sudden spike in clusters there.

“We’re living in a pandemic. I know some people would prefer to think otherwise,” he said. “But it’s true and it’s real and it’s all over the country.”

Meanwhile, two House members tested positive for the virus, and cleaning crews were brought in to sanitize offices at the State House Friday night, according to an e-mail sent to House members obtained by the Globe.

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In the spring, only two of the five field hospitals set up in Massachusetts were used, and they didn’t fill up.

But Dr. Thomas Tsai, assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who studies hospital capacity, said Massachusetts may need the field sites even more this winter because hospitals largely are not planning to cancel other procedures to make room for COVID patients.

“There’s this growing burden of continuing to meet the demand of non-COVID medical care — pent-up demand,” he said. “We will likely see an increased use of field hospitals because the capacity is different now than earlier in the spring.”

“This is that second phase that we’ve been talking about for the last six months,” Tsai added. “That second phase is here."

UMass Memorial Health Care will work with state officials to open the DCU Center site, as it did in April, and will again lead all clinical, day-to-day, operations. That field hospital treated 161 patients in April and May, state officials said.

Speaking with the governor on Friday, UMass Memorial’s chief executive, Dr. Eric Dickson, said his Worcester hospital was beginning to crowd with patients, prompting it to turn down referrals from smaller hospitals and to begin canceling certain elective procedures.

Baker added bluntly: “They’re basically full.”

“In Massachusetts we have most people doing the right thing most of the time, but that’s not enough,” Dickson said, pleading with the public to wear masks and limit social activity to help slow the transmission of COVID. “We need everyone doing the right thing everyday.”

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How quickly, or where, the state could establish other field hospitals is unclear. Boston Hope, the $12 million, 1,000-bed facility created at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, treated hundreds of patients this spring, freeing up space in hospitals for sicker patients.

But a spokesman for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority said Friday the site is not currently under consideration to become a field hospital. Three other field hospitals created in the spring, in Dartmouth, Lowell, and Bourne, closed without seeing a single patient.

Months later, the state is also in a better position to respond, officials said, with a massive increase in testing capacity. Hospital resources are also not as taxed. In Central Massachusetts, for example, of the 100-plus patients now hospitalized with COVID-19, just nine are on ventilators, said Dickson. In the spring, when COVID-19 was ravaging older populations, Dickson said, the number was closer to 30 or 40.

Hospitals, which largely escaped the devastating spring surge without experiencing the worst-case scenarios, also have learned how to quickly add beds and make space for additional COVID patients, said Steve Walsh, president of the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure we have the increased capacity, should we need it,” he said.

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The comeback of the virus has prompted Baker to tighten restrictions, including limiting private indoor gatherings to 10 people and advising people to return home by 10 p.m.

Baker said Friday he wants to keep schools and businesses open, arguing they’re not driving the spread of COVID-19. And he said businesses, schools, and colleges have been largely following the rules and doing their part to curb the spread.

“We’ve done more than 10,000 inspections of operating businesses in Massachusetts that serve customers of one kind or another,” he said, “and the number that had been found in violation of our rules is very small.”

But the data is pointing to an increasingly troubling reality. Massachusetts surpassed 10,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths on Thursday, a grim milestone that has touched nearly every corner of the state, in nursing homes and hospitals, among the young to the old.

“This merciless virus has undoubtedly impacted practically everybody one way or another here in Massachusetts," Baker said Friday.

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.