Some 500 municipal officials from across the state participated in a conference call briefing this afternoon with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to discuss the state and local response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) emergency.

The MMA had asked the DPH to conduct the briefing to provide updates on the pandemic and specific public health guidance regarding preparation and response.

DPH officials discussed the new statewide ban on most gatherings of 250 people or more, an emergency order announced by Gov. Charlie Baker just hours earlier, as well as the state’s online coronavirus resource center, and the Mass 2-1-1 service that residents can use for real-time COVID-19 information, resources and referrals in multiple languages. (Dial 2-1-1 or visit mass211.org.)

• Link to Governor Baker Issues Order Limiting Large Gatherings in the Commonwealth

With regards to COVID-19, the DPH stated that the Commonwealth is shifting its focus from containment – keeping the disease at bay – to mitigation, which involves measures designed to reduce the risk of transmission among residents. These measures include the ban on large gatherings as well as recommendations for personal hygiene and “social distancing.”

Officials acknowledged that there is evidence of “community spread,” meaning that the disease is being transmitted among residents, as opposed to solely being brought in from outside.

The DPH is urging state and local leaders to focus on social distancing and hygiene in order to minimize spread of the disease until there are effective treatments and vaccines, which are believed to be months off.

Public health officials are emphasizing hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes, for example, because these measures are proven to be effective. The objective, they said, is to avoid a spike in disease cases that could overwhelm the state’s health care system.

The DPH said tests indicate that there are now 123 known cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, but acknowledged that the number of actual cases is likely higher because some carriers are not yet experiencing symptoms and some with symptoms have not yet been tested or haven’t received test results. It takes a while, they said, for the lab capacity to ramp up.

Yesterday, two labs received federal approval to conduct testing for COVID-19 in Massachusetts.

At this time, the DPH and the Baker-Polito administration are not recommending the closure of schools unless there are known COVID-19 cases in the community. They are recommending careful monitoring of students and temporary closures if necessary to allow schools to clean before reopening.

DPH officials advised local leaders to follow the Guidance for Administrators of US K-12 Schools and Childcare Programs from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They added that, although children can get COVID-19, they don’t get symptomatic like adults do, so they are less likely to spread the virus.

Under new instructions and guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the DPH, all schools must cancel or reschedule large events or gatherings (including assemblies) of 250 people or more for the foreseeable future, and schools are strongly urged to postpone or cancel other events if participants cannot maintain the recommended minimum 6-foot distance.

In response to a question about the availability of “personal protective equipment” for first responders and health care professionals, the DPH officials said the department is working on revised guidance for EMS, and encouraged cities and towns to reach out to regional agencies if local supplies run short.

Yesterday, in response to a formal request to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the DPH received an initial shipment of personal protective equipment from the National Strategic Stockpile. The shipment included surgical gowns, gloves, eye protection and masks, which are being distributed to local public health practitioners.

DPH officials said operators at Massachusetts 2-1-1, a 24-hour state-supported hotline, are now empowered to provide the latest information about the status of COVID-19 response efforts in Massachusetts. Residents can learn more about COVID-19 prevention, symptoms, treatment, and testing, as well as guidance for people planning or returning from travel. At peak call times, DPH staff will augment the call team to ensure residents’ questions are answered without delay. Operators fluent in Spanish are available, and more than 150 other languages are supported through an interpreter services line available 24/7.

• Link to State Health Officials Announce Launch of 2-1-1 to Provide COVID-19 Information and Referrals 24/7

DPH officials on the MMA call were Catherine Brown, state epidemiologist with the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences, and Kerin Milesky, director of the DPH’s Office of Preparedness and Emergency Management. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito was also on the call.

At the beginning of the call, MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith pointed out that, in addition to health-related concerns, municipalities are struggling with urgent challenges related to continuity of operations – continuing to deliver services to residents and meet statutory responsibilities. Along these lines, he thanked the administration for its executive order, issued late yesterday, relaxing the requirements of the open meeting law for gatherings of public bodies, specifically to allow for more remote participation.

Beckwith said the MMA continues to work diligently to help its membership address the pressing municipal concerns and challenges related to COVID-19.

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