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Two very different tracks of the COVID-19 pandemic were apparent as state officials and about 150 municipal CEOs convened this afternoon for a regular call arranged by the MMA.
On a day when some health care workers began receiving the first vaccinations against the coronavirus – the beginning of a months-long plan that will see up to 5.8 million Massachusetts residents protected by this summer – several communities are reverting to an earlier phase of the reopening process, and government officials are redoubling their efforts to get residents to celebrate the coming holidays only within their own households due to a spike in cases.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said key public health data indicate that Thanksgiving gatherings were the cause of a troubling COVID surge seen over the past two weeks. The seven-day average of new daily cases has nearly doubled since the week before the holiday, as has the number of COVID patients in hospitals. As the state relaunches field hospitals in Worcester and Lowell to increase health system capacity, it has reverted to Step 1 of Phase 3 of the four-phase reopening plan, effective this past Sunday, while Boston and a half dozen nearby communities are rolling back to a modified version of Phase 2, Step 2.
Meanwhile, the state has boosted its COVID testing operations with five new Stop the Spread locations and the expansion of the three testing “megasites” in Framingham, Lynn and New Bedford, Polito said. The state is now conducting 110,000 free tests per week – compared to 28,000 in September – and there are roughly 350 sites statewide where residents can get tested.
“We’re one of the top players in the country around testing,” Polito said.
The state is also working to fully staff its contact tracing program, onboarding 250 to 300 new employees per week, according to Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health. The surge in cases has overwhelmed the tracing program, which reaches out to contacts of confirmed COVID patients to help reduce the spread of the disease. Ferguson said the program will be fully staffed by Dec. 26.
Ferguson described the Community Tracing Collaborative as the infrastructure that supports local efforts to control disease spread. She said 3,500 cases per day are being referred to the CTC, which is not currently able to meet its goal of reaching the close contacts of a COVID case within 24 hours of a positive test result, but expects to be there soon.
The DPH has launched a website, mass.gov/isol8, to provide guidance for those who need to isolate and quarantine due to close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID.
The guidelines that took effect Sunday strongly encourage mask-wearing whenever you leave home – including at a restaurant, except while eating – and reduce the allowable size of gatherings and capacity levels for most industries. These guidelines were last in place two months ago.
Meanwhile Boston announced that it is leading a coalition with Arlington, Brockton, Lynn, Melrose, Newton, Somerville and Winthrop to implement this week a stricter set of rules for at least three weeks, which will temporarily close a range of businesses such as movie theaters, indoor fitness centers and health clubs, museums, indoor historical settings, and arcades. Polito said the administration has always been supportive of communities setting standards that are stricter than the statewide rules if they choose, pointing to a number of local variations over the course of the emergency response.
“I think everyone is trying to look at the information and the data that they have to make decisions that are best for them, and we completely understand that and respect that,” she said.
Asked which data points a community should focus on when considering COVID decisions, Polito named the seven-day average positive test rate – currently at 5.9% statewide – as well as area hospital and intensive care unit capacity.
While the current surge in COVID cases is concerning, she said the state is in a much stronger position than it was early in the pandemic. Roughly 4,000 COVID patients were hospitalized at times this spring, compared to 1,700 now, and intensive care cases are about 300 now, compared to 1,000 this past spring.
As another holiday season approaches, Polito urged local officials to actively participate in the state’s #MaskUpMA and #GetBackMass public awareness campaigns, particularly through local social media channels, to encourage COVID-safe practices.
“Put an exclamation on all of that with us,” she said. “We really appreciate it.”
Vaccine program ramps up
On the more optimistic track, Polito outlined the state’s three-phase vaccine distribution program, which was recently approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She said Massachusetts is expecting 300,000 first doses of the vaccine to be delivered by the end of this month.
Polito said 32 hospitals spread throughout the state will serve as the backbone for the distribution plan, as they have the ability to maintain the vaccine at the required temperatures well below zero.
Front line medical workers are the first group to get the vaccine, followed by staff and residents of skilled nursing facilities, rest homes and assisted living residences. The remaining groups in Phase 1 will get the vaccine in the following order: police, fire and emergency medical services; congregate care settings (including shelters and corrections); home-based health care workers; and health care workers doing non-COVID facing care.
Phase 2, with additional prioritized groups, is scheduled to launch in February, with Phase 3 (the general public) set for April through June.
“We expect some bumpiness at the beginning,” Polito said. “It’s part of the process.”
The administration has launched a vaccine website and has posted answers to Frequently Asked Questions.
Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, discussed the outlines of the fiscal 2021 state budget signed by the governor on Dec. 11, and highlighted $1 million appropriations for the Community Compact Best Practices Program and the Efficiency and Regionalization program. He said the governor filed a supplemental budget bill that includes another $1 million for each of the grant programs. He said the pandemic may have shined a light on operational needs that the grants could help with, and he expects interest to be high in the programs.
Polito added that the budget also includes funding for public safety and public health grants. She said the small business grant program run by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation is prepared to distribute additional federal dollars, should they become available, without requiring another application process.
Guidance is expected this week from the Executive Office for Administration and Finance to help communities with the reconciliation round associated with the second round of federal CARES Act funding, Cronin said. With the expiration of the funding source just two weeks away, there was much discussion about the need for an extension of the program, though no one offered insights into what Congress might accomplish on this.
Cronin urged local leaders to make as much use of the program as possible in the limited remaining time.
“The key is to get the goods in by Dec. 30,” he said, adding that A&F has launched an online question intake form to help local leaders with eligibility and other CARES Act issues.
Cronin added that cities and towns could also explore reimbursements for pandemic-related expenses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which pays just 75% of eligible costs but continues until the end of the state of emergency.
• Audio of Dec. 15 call with administration (38M MP3)