Baker cautious about flat COVID-19 numbers; 221 more deaths reported

Coronavirus

BOSTON (WPRI) — While the past few days have seen fewer new cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday it is far too soon to conclude that the “curve” is starting to flatten.

“A few days does not represent a trend,” he said. “We’ve seen this data bounce around.”

In his daily coronavirus briefing at the State House, Baker urged residents to keep adhering to social distancing guidelines.

“If we move too quickly, we risk losing the progress we’ve made so far, and our health care workers who’ve been pushing back hard against the virus — they need us to push back too,” Baker said.

Wednesday evening, the Mass. Department of Public Health reported an additional 221 COVID-19-related deaths, bringing the total to 2,182, along with 1,745 new cases for a total of 42,944.

Roughly 9% of those cases are currently hospitalized, according to the DPH.

Full breakdown of COVID-19 data (Mass.gov) »

The state has about 18,000 hospital beds in total statewide, and 56 percent of those are still unoccupied at this point, according to Baker.

Baker said the state will be expanding testing at community health centers. Health testing lab company Quest Diagnostics is now shipping thousands of tests to centers in Boston, Quincy, Brockton, Lowell, Fall River, New Bedford, Worcester, and Provincetown.

Testing will be prioritized for front-line workers including health care workers, first responders, and grocery store employees.

Massachusetts is the first state to start doing contact tracing statewide; organizations are now making telephone calls to do the tracking. The caller ID should read “MA COVID TEAM,” and everyone is being asked to answer those calls and take part in the tracing.

Adding wifi for telehealth, distance learning

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said the increase in children needing to learn over the internet as well as the boom in the use of telehealth — video-calling healthcare providers on smartphones and tablets — spotlighted a need for better internet service in some underserved communities.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech) has been enlisted to expand high-speed internet for cities and towns that don’t yet have broadband networks, in partnership with local internet service providers.

They’ll install complimentary wifi hotspots and post signs on how to use them. The program will be free until September 1.

On Tuesday, Baker said school buildings will stay closed through the rest of this academic year.

Relief for student loans, new food benefits

The Massachusetts Division of Banks is launching options for payment relief for student loans, including 90-day grace periods, waiving late payment fees, and holding off on debt collections proceedings. The Division of Banks’ website has more information.

Marylou Sudders, the secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said new food benefits will become available, known as Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfers (PEBT). Families with children that may not have normally been eligible for benefits from programs like SNAP will be enrolled automatically and receive benefits debit cards.

When can I get my hair cut?

Upwards of 7,000 people have signed an online petition addressed to Baker asking for hair salons and barbershops to commence a ‘soft opening’ — allowing only one client in a salon per stylist at a time – next week.

Baker said the return of such personal services will depend on how “the rules of the road” are being followed. Close-contact operations will have to be reviewed somehow, he said; the question is, can a particular location adequately distance and provide safe conditions for both employees and customers?

The governor stressed multiple times that social distancing has got to continue — and it’s not designed to be a ‘punishment,’ it’s protecting everyone.

“I think it’s really important for people to recognize and understand here that one of the major reasons why distancing, staying home, dealing with the consequences is so important, is this is not like the flu,” Baker said. “When you get the flu, you know it, and everybody else knows it. But when it comes to this particular virus, there are a number of people who get it, who don’t know it.”

For more information on COVID-19 in Massachusetts, visit Mass.gov, call 211 or text COVIDMA or COVIDMAESP (Spanish) to 888-777 to receive text notifications.

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