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Baker urges residents to cooperate with contact tracing program

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 4/30/2020 Travis Andersen
Charlie Baker wearing a suit and tie: Governor Charlie Baker. © Matt Stone/Pool Governor Charlie Baker.

Governor Charlie Baker implored residents Thursday to cooperate if they’re reached by a state team that is tracking down people infected with the coronavirus and those who have been in contact with them.

Speaking during his daily briefing, Baker said the team of roughly 1,000 callers has made contact with some 5,000 residents over the past month, adding that “now, obviously the really tough stuff begins” as the tracers work to reach more people by phone.

“If you see ‘MA COVID TEAM’ come up on your phone, please pick it up,” he said. “Please take the call and provide the relevant information to the caller.”

Baker said answering the callers’ questions is “frankly your chance to be part of the fight to both contain and push back against the spread and the virus."

Baker’s comments came as the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in Massachusetts rose by 157, to 3,562 deaths. The number of confirmed cases climbed by 1,940 to 62,205. The Department of Public Health also reported 10,029 new tests had been conducted, marking a total of 275,647 in the state.

In another indication of the pandemic’s toll on the state, the Baker administration said that more than 242,000 people filed for unemployment pay in Massachusetts last week. In the six weeks since COVID-19 restrictions closed thousands of businesses and forced people to stay at home, the state has received more than 893,600 claims for jobless benefits, or almost 24 percent of the labor force before the pandemic.

Baker said the tracing program is providing people with information about how to get through isolation and self-quarantine and also helping state officials determine where the virus is, as well as where and how it may spread.

The contact tracers, who are tracking where the virus may have spread, have found that the infected residents they speak with are sending them to fewer people than expected, on average two rather than around 10 as originally anticipated, Baker said. He suggested it was an indication that people are practicing social distancing.

The contact tracers are also finding the telephone conversations are taking longer than expected because people have “lot on their minds” and “concerns and questions,” Baker said.

The state is working with Boston-based nonprofit, Partners in Health, on the first-in-the nation program. “They have proven, time and time again, that their model can work,” he said, noting Partners in Health’s work fighting outbreaks overseas of diseases such as Ebola and Zika.

Baker announced the project in early April, flanked by, among others Dr. Paul Farmer, the well-known co-founder of Partners in Health. The Globe reported Saturday that 4,500 people had been contacted so far through a “soft launch” of the ambitious $44 million program, but activity was expected to increase soon. Some experts worried early on that the effort was coming too late in the pandemic.

Baker said at the news conference he was also considering using smartphone apps for contact tracing. “We’ve talked to a lot of folks who have the apps. And we’ve also talked to Google and Apple,” he said.

He said he didn’t see it as an “either/or” choice, and he’d welcome it if the apps could work together with the state’s program.

If the state incorporated some kind of technological tool into the process, Baker said, “We’re going to have to do it in a way that makes people comfortable that they’re not giving up some of their privacy and confidentiality.”

He said the number of people hospitalized due to the coronavirus remains plateaued, relatively flat for the past 15 days. Officials are still watching for a downward trend that must precede a reopening of the state.

On the “flip side,” he said, “for the better part of the last two weeks, we haven’t seen an increase which is also a good thing.”

He said the state’s reopening advisory board continues to speak with employers, unions, municipalities, and other stakeholders in an effort to develop guidelines for a phased reopening of the economy once the data shows it’s safe to do so.

Among the sectors the board spoke with Wednesday were retailers and biotech and technology workers, Baker said, calling brick and mortar stores that have been shuttered amid the pandemic the anchors of “Main Street activity” in Massachusetts communities.

“We have, in fact, bent the curve,” Baker said. “We did, in fact, reduce the spread. We are now living with a plateau that I’m sure all of us would like to see dip a little bit.” He reiterated that when the state does reopen, officials “want to do it in a way that is safe and will be successful” while avoiding “a scenario where the virus comes back.”

The contagion has sickened more than 3.2 million people and killed more than 228,000 worldwide. In the United States, more than 1.04 million people have been sickened and more than 60,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The state’s tally of deaths is likely an undercount, since the disease arrived stealthily, before officials realized it, experts have said.

The governor noted Thursday that the prior day’s death toll of 252 people was the state’s largest tally for a 24-hour period.

“The lives lost every day is one of those numbers that none of us are ever going to get particularly comfortable with,” he said, while offering condolences to the families whose “lives are forever changed by the lethal grip of COVID-19.”

Massachusetts has the third-highest number of overall deaths among states, after New York and New Jersey.

In other developments Thursday:

— Baker said the state as of Wednesday had distributed more than 7 million pieces of personal protective equipment including masks, gowns and ventilators, to health care facilities and front-line workers.

— A number of the Baker administration’s legislative priorities including a health care bill and a housing choice initiative for seniors have been “sidetracked” as officials remain focused on battling the pandemic, Baker said. He said those issues have been put off “appropriately" as the state deals with the coronavirus scourge.

— Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, urged people who have been cooped up because of the social distancing restrictions to take care of their mental health. She said it was reasonable to feel anxiety and stress during these times. She urged people who feel overwhelmed to seek out resources, including using the Call2Talk service, which is available on the state’s 211 line.

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