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The current surge in COVID-19 cases was the focus of a conversation among Gov. Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and 200 municipal CEOs from across the state this afternoon, in the 24th conference call convened by the MMA since the beginning of the pandemic.
The average daily case count is up about 300% since Labor Day, and the hospitalization rate is up about 150%, according to Department of Public Health data. The state’s response focuses on limiting gatherings, requiring face coverings in public, and closing businesses late at night and urging residents to stay home, all of which takes effect early tomorrow.
Gov. Baker said the response targets the primary driver of the current surge: informal, larger gatherings where people are not wearing face coverings or keeping sufficient distance from each other. He added that people become less disciplined as it gets later, which is why the advisory limits late-night business activities and urges residents to stay home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
The average age of those infected with COVID has dropped significantly since spring – it’s now the 30-39 age group – which means that more carriers are only mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic and may not realize they’re contagious, creating a public health challenge. Gov. Baker said youth hockey has been identified as a source of COVID clusters because many parents, coaches and players have been ignoring COVID protocols.
“You really need to wear your mask whenever you’re with people who aren’t part of your network,” he said. “It is the single greatest weapon … we have in slowing and stopping the transmission of COVID.”
The governor pointed out, however, that the state is much better prepared to manage a surge now than it was when COVID first arrived in the spring, in large part because more is known about the disease and systems are in place to deal with it. The current surge has happened over the course of three months, he added, whereas a similar increase in the spring could have happened in just three days.
He said the state has a stockpile of personal protective equipment sufficient to last through the end of 2021, and its nation-leading testing program enables public health officials to locate and respond quickly to outbreaks.
Recognizing that it only takes a small number of new cases in some communities to earn the state’s red designation as a higher-risk community, which can lead to a reversion to Step 1 of Phase 3 under the state reopening plan, Gov. Baker said the administration is talking with the DPH and the COVID Command Center about ways to present case data so that it doesn’t discourage testing.
“You don’t need a lot of cases in some communities to go yellow or red,” he said. “We’re really not providing communities with the right incentive to test and to test aggressively.”
Despite the current surge, the governor is continuing his campaign to get as many students into classrooms as is safely possible, pointing to numerous studies – and experience – showing that schools are not a source of spread if protocols are followed. He added that a large body of evidence shows that those under age 12 get infected with the coronavirus at a far lower rate than those over age 12. He said many students with special needs stayed in programs throughout the spring and summer and “there was very little COVID transmission that was ever tied to those engagements.”
Gov. Baker pointed to a number of countries in Europe that are currently experiencing higher COVID caseloads per capita than the U.S. and are keeping their schools open. He said roughly 500,000 students and staff are involved in some form of in-person or hybrid learning model in Massachusetts, but only about 250 to 300 COVID cases have been reported, “almost all of which didn’t come from schools.”
The governor also pointed out the developmental and social losses for children when they are not in school, and credited the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for the guidance it issued this summer to help districts reopen. He said the administration and DESE would be happy to amend the guidance if it doesn’t answer specific questions that local or school officials now have.
Lt. Gov. Polito went deeper into the updated executive order on face coverings, the new Stay at Home Advisory, a new executive order (COVID Order No. 53) requiring the closure of certain businesses and activities each night by 9:30, and the updated gatherings order, which generally limits gatherings in public settings to 25 indoors and 100 outdoors in lower-risk communities and 10 indoors and 25 outdoors in private settings. Hosts of public events are required to notify the local board of health and comply with contact tracing guidance.
Polito said the administration was looking to balance public health objectives and economic needs, and wanted to avoid rolling back to an earlier phase of the state reopening plan, as some other states have done.
Asked whether the new, stricter COVID rules require employees in city and town halls to wear masks all day, Polito referred local officials to the sector-specific guidance for offices, which requires workers to wear face coverings whenever social distancing of six feet is not possible, except where doing so is unsafe due to medical condition or disability.
Polito also highlighted changes made this week to the DPH’s COVID-19 Daily Dashboard intended to help the public more easily access the growing amount of information for Massachusetts. A key new data point is “case growth by age group,” and the dashboard now includes the average turnaround time for COVID-19 test results to be reported to the DPH, so contact tracing can begin. The dashboard also now reports the impact of college and university testing, to clarify how this testing impacts the Commonwealth’s overall positivity rate and case numbers.
Asked if he could provide any updates on a hoped-for federal COVID aid package with funding for state and local governments, Gov. Baker said federal aid would be the subject of a National Governors Association call on Friday, and that he would also check in with Congressman Richard Neal, who is chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. The governor repeated that he is disappointed that Congress has been unable to pass a bill given that there is wide agreement on many of the objectives and the general range of dollar figures.
Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy discussed the $774 million Partnerships for Recovery plan that the administration announced on Oct. 23 to stabilize and grow the Massachusetts economy.
Kennealy said the plan primarily uses existing funding sources – which can be used in the current fiscal year – to support recovery efforts in five key areas: creating jobs for the unemployed and underemployed; supporting small businesses; revitalizing downtowns; supporting housing equity and stability; and fostering innovation.
Partnerships for Recovery includes $50 million in small business grants, for which applications are now being accepted. The plan also doubles funding, with an additional $10 million, for the popular Shared Streets and Spaces grant program.
Kennealy said RFPs will be released later this month for local recovery planning grants.
He said the state’s investment in manufacturing comes at a time when the pandemic has many businesses reconsidering their supply chains and may be looking for more local sources. He added that the “innovation economy” will be a key component of the state’s economic recovery.
Kennealy also discussed the administration’s updated economic development bond bill, which totals $275 million over five years and is currently in a legislative conference committee. The bill includes the governor’s Housing Choices Initiative, which would bolster the housing components of Partnerships for Recovery.
“We were using the term ‘housing crisis’ long before we knew what COVID-19 was,” he said.
• Audio of Nov. 5 call with administration (41M MP3)