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Charlie Baker declares state of emergency as COVID-19 cases rise in Mass.

The commonwealth is at a "critical point in this outbreak," officials said.

Gov. Charlie Baker held a press conference at the State House to give an update on the coronavirus Tuesday. John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

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As the number of coronavirus cases continued to soar Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts and officials rolled out new protocols and guidelines in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The declaration arrived amid 92 coronavirus cases in the commonwealth, up from the 41 reported Monday as a result of increased testing, health officials said. The vast majority of cases — 70 patients — have been traced back to a meeting held in Boston late last month by the Cambridge biotech firm Biogen, Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Services, told reporters at a State House press conference.

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Four cases are travel related, while 18 remained under investigation Tuesday afternoon, she said. Six people were hospitalized from the virus.

In Berkshire County, officials have reported cases “without identifiable risk factors” — instances where the virus could not be traced back through a chain of transmission between specific people, according to Commissioner of the Department of Public Health Monica Bharel.

She said the state is at a “critical point in this outbreak.”

“We are beginning to see this kind of community-level transmission,” Bharel said. “We’re working rapidly to facilitate the need they have for supplies and equipment.”

Baker said the declaration will give officials more flexibility in how it can respond to the evolving situation. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency has been activated and is currently working with health, human services, and public safety departments, among other agencies, he said.

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He also unveiled new protocols for the approximately 42,000 state workers employed by the executive branch that place restrictions on how departments conduct day-to-day business. But Baker vowed that the state government will continue to operate uninterrupted.

The changes take hold Wednesday.

Baker said he hopes other employers and large organizations follow suit, and stressed the importance of changing habits to help limit the reach of the virus, especially for people most at risk: older adults, those with chronic health conditions; and people who are in close contact with those most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Massachusetts has the capacity in its health care system to meet current demands, he said.

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According to Bharel, the state laboratory has received 2,000 additional testing kits from the federal government, with more anticipated to come. State officials have also received approval to use an automated system that will increase the state’s testing capacity fourfold, she said.

However, officials want the public to heed the new measures “before the numbers increase to a point where the virus spread is severely impacting the commonwealth,” Baker said.

“The highly contagious nature of this disease means if everyone plays their part in slowing the spread, the number of people who become infected and require medical attention doesn’t spike all at once, which would overwhelm many of our systems,” he said.

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Here’s what to know:

The workforce

Under the protocols, Baker said state employees are to:

  • Not travel for work-related trips “until further notice.” Employees are also encouraged to avoid personal, international travel.
  • Hold all meetings with external parties virtually, or cancel them.
  • Continue to hold board hearings and public meetings, with the use of conference calls and other alternatives encouraged.
  • Not attend any external work-related seminars or events, although remote-participation is allowed.
  • Stay home if they are experiencing flu symptoms or a fever.
  • Speak to their supervisors about alternative work options if they are considered as being at high risk for COVID-19.

Baker said the protocols will be revisited in 30 days or sooner.

Officials hope to set an example for employers to follow, as Baker urged them to restrict work-related travel, cancel or limit large events, and encourage tele-commuting whenever possible.

People at high risk of COVID-19, or who are often in close contact with vulnerable people, should not attend large gatherings, such as concerts, sporting events, and conferences, according to Sudders.

“We understand that asking people to change their habits, cancel some events, and cancel some travel is inconvenient, and we also understand it comes with a financial impact,” Baker said. “But waiting to act and allowing infections and the subsequent number of people who need medical attention to spike all at once would not only severely hamper our hospitals’ ability to care for patients, but will have a far greater economic impact as well.”

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The disruption, he said, will likely last “for the foreseeable future.”

K-12 schools

Regarding the state’s kindergarten through grade 12 school system, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is rolling out new guidance to educators, offering relief from regulations around attendance and school-year requirements.

Baker said the changes will give districts flexibility in making decisions for school closings related to COVID-19:

  • School districts will not be required to hold classes after the scheduled 185th day of the school year, officials said. No schools will be required to open after June 30.
  • DESE will calculate “chronic absenteeism” as of March 2 for the 2019-2020 school year “and disregard all attendance data for the remainder of the school year,” Baker said.
  • Schools are urged to cancel all out-of-state and international travel plans.
  • The state Department of Public Health will give guidance to superintendents “on how to address cases that arise at a school, including potential school closures,” officials said.

Long-term care and nursing homes

To protect staff and residents at long-term care facilities and nursing homes, the state will provide facility operators with updated guidelines Wednesday, Sudders said.

The new measures include screening visitors and banning those who show “signs or symptoms of a respiratory infection such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, or a sore throat,” according to Sudders.

Visitors will also be turned away if they have come into contact with someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19, who is under active investigation for having the virus, or who has a respiratory illness, within the last 14 days, she said.

“Visitors will be prohibited if they have travelled internationally in the last 14 days or are residing in a community where community-based spread of COVID-19 is occurring,” officials said in a press release. “Visitors will not be allowed to visit long-term care facilities if they currently feel sick or exhibit symptoms.”

Facilities will also have to confirm their staff members are not sick, have not traveled, and have not been in close proximity to sick people who have been sick with or who were under investigation for COVID-19 within the last two weeks, Sudders said. Exceptions will be made for patients in end-of-life care and hospice care.

Sudders reiterated the importance of good personal hygiene, and said people must wash their hands often, refrain from touching their faces, clean frequently-touched surfaces, cover coughs and sneezes, and stay home if they’re feeling sick.

“We all have a role to play,” she said.

Watch the full press conference:

WATCH LIVE: Gov. Charlie Baker, other state officials providing update on coronavirus.

Posted by 7News – WHDH Boston on Tuesday, March 10, 2020


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