Charlie Baker responds to report that feds initially downplayed coronavirus to Massachusetts officials

"I hesitate to point too many fingers."

Charlie Baker at a recent press conference.
Gov. Charlie Baker speaks Wednesday. –Nicolaus Czarnecki / Pool

Gov. Charlie Baker has vented about some of his office’s “difficult” interactions with President Donald Trump’s administration during the early weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak.

But in the wake of a new report Wednesday that showed federal officials privately downplayed the threat of the coronavirus to Massachusetts, the governor said he was hesitant to assign blame, amid swirling uncertainty about the nature of the virus.

“There was a lot of mixed signals coming from a lot of places all the way through the early part of this,” Baker said during a press conference Wednesday, noting that officials were still trying to learn about COVID-19 and how the virus spread.

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“I hesitate to point too many fingers because we have continued to learn about this as we’ve gone along,” he added.

According to the WBUR report Wednesday, federal officials repeatedly downplayed the risk of the coronavirus in emails to state officials between January and mid-March, when cases began to rise dramatically in Massachusetts.

According to the more than 115 emails obtained and reviewed by WBUR, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stressed in February that the coronavirus was “not spreading in the community in the United States at this time” and that the “greater risk is for people who have recently traveled to China or their close contacts.”

In a Feb. 27 email — weeks after Baker’s administration outlined the potential need for protective equipment, like N95 masks, gloves, and gowns, in an email to federal health officials — the Food and Drug Administration “assured” states that they would “use all available tools to react swiftly to mitigate the impact” of any potential shortage of such supplies.

Those assurances did not ultimately reflect reality.

Subsequent studies by the CDC and Northeastern University concluded that the coronavirus was already quietly spreading as early as January. And acquiring the requisite amount of protective gear for the healthcare system and other frontline workers became a major frustration for Massachusetts and other states, which were forced to compete with each other amid a shortage of supplies and a dwindling national stockpile.

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Yet, the emails — which came amid Trump’s public and private resistance to aggressive action to stop the spread — continued to state the risk of the disease was “low” for most Americans.

Massachusetts has reported a total 108,882 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 8,054 deaths due to the disease. However, the initially hard-hit state has since seen the rate of positive test and deaths drop roughly 90 percent since April.

Massachusetts has also reported the lowest COVID-19 transmission rate in the country, which Baker credited Wednesday to “incredibly good” compliance among Bay Staters with social distancing and face coverings, among other public health guidances.

Still, commenting on the WBUR report, he noted that some of the top public health experts “have changed their tune” about best practices.

For example, Baker noted how even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, initially said Americans shouldn’t wear masks due to the shortage in the healthcare industry and before officials understood the level of symptomatic spread. Federal officials have since increasingly implored Americans to wear masks in public, in order to allow the country to reopen more quickly.

“Back in February and March, Dr. Fauci didn’t think you needed to wear a mask,” Baker said.

“I view him as probably one of the most credible people on this issue you’re gonna find anywhere in the country,” the governor continued. “He changed his mind when people started to realize how big the asymptomatic element that could spread the virus was associated with COVID.”

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More importantly, Baker said the state now has important tools in place to respond to the disease, from testing to contract tracing to PPE.

“There are a lot of things, when this thing got started, I felt like we were playing catch up on every single day and I think, as I said several times, I hope we all learn the lessons — not just here in Massachusetts, not just in Boston, but across the country and hopefully around the globe — about what you need in place as your key elements to battle this as we go forward,” he said.

Baker also suggested that when it comes to public health advice, state officials were more likely to rely on the depth of health expertise in Massachusetts.

“We’ve developed a lot of relationships with many of the infectious disease and epidemiological folks who are here in Massachusetts and they are, in many respects, the first people we call when we’re looking for guidance and advice on a lot of these issues,” Baker said.


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