Baker Keeps Residents Informed as State Enters Surge

As Massachusetts begins to enter a surge in coronavirus cases, Gov. Charlie Baker continues to provide updates and make new announcements to keep the people of the Commonwealth safe and informed.

“We are in the surge,” Baker said on April 15. As of April 14, Massachusetts had 28,163 confirmed cases of COVID-19—up from nearly 1300 the day before—and 957 people have died statewide, up 113 from the day before.

“We think testing is a big part of dealing with people who have COVID-19,” Baker said on April 14. “Testing and tracing are a big part of how we actually push back over time.” He said that Massachusetts is “either the third or fourth largest tester in the country,” and is now conducting testing at 28 sites statewide. The state also offers testing through mobile units at places like nursing homes.

Gov. Baker on April 9 spoke about executive orders that would make it easier for foreign educated doctors to become licensed in Massachusetts, as well as expedited licensure of nursing students and graduates.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito also discussed resources available for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, including the expansion of the state’s 24/7 toll-free confidential domestic violence hotline, SafeLink, which is now available through 211. The SafeLink number is (877) 785-2020, and the TTY number is (877) 421-2601.

Baker also talked about the first implementation of federal unemployment benefits as part of the CARES Act. Last week, Baker said that nearly 140,000 new individuals filed for unemployment in the state, and nearly 470,000 have filed over the past three weeks.

“These numbers are obviously staggering,” Baker said. “We know several people have had trouble getting through the website. The administration is working hard on this one.” He said the online system that the state utilizes “has been able to withstand the volume without crashing,” which he said has not been the cases for many states.

“The Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) has been working nonstop,” he said. More than 600 people are working remotely at the unemployment call center making over 6000 calls per day, “and that number will continue to trend up as we go forward,” he said.

New federal unemployment benefits include an additional $600 a week for regular unemployment compensation, which is happening now. This applies to “all eligible claimants,” both those who currently receive unemployment and those who are applying now. It is retroactive to March 29 and will run until the end of July, the governor said.

Additionally, the DUA is currently working on a way to implement expanded support for people who are not typically eligible for unemployment benefits, such as gig workers or those who are self-employed. The governor said that those interested in applying for this program should check the DUA website.

The third program includes a “13 week extension of benefits for people who have exhausted their previous unemployment benefits,” Baker said. “We are still waiting on guidance from the federal government for how to do this.”

A Spanish-language unemployment application is also now available online. “The Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) will make language applications available in Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Vietnamese and additional languages in the coming days,” according to a release from the state. “The new Spanish language UI form is the latest effort from the Commonwealth to deliver crucial COVID-19 information to non-English speakers…” Additionally, the COVID-19 text message system is also now available in Spanish, all of is available in 13 different language, 211 is available in over 150 languages, and several agencies have fact sheets in multiple languages to help keep the Commonwealth informed.

On April 10, the Baker-Polito Administration announced that the Department of Public Health will issue a Public Health Advisory that recommends people wear a face covering in public “when they cannot safely socially distance” in order to protect themselves and others from the virus. 

He also announced that the state has around 15,900 usable beds available as it heads towards the surge. “Projections have indicated that we need more beds and more staff to beds,” he said last week. He said that right now, half of the state’s beds are available for “varying levels of care.”

The field hospital at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center opened on April 10 with a total of 1000 beds, 500 for hospital capacity and 500 for homeless COVID-19 patients. Field hospitals are also open at the DCU Center in Worcester and the Newton Pavilion. Other locations to come include Cape Cod, Springfield, and Lowell to provide beds for patients who do not need care at the ICU level.

On April 13, Baker also announced that mobile testing has been expanded, and in places like Chelsea where the per capita cases are extremely high, there are “several state agencies ready to provide resources,” including increasing testing capacity fourfold in the Chelsea area. Additionally, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) is implementing a food plan to increase production of meal kits. He said by the end of tis week, there will be 750 kits produced with about 35 meals in each kit, totally 26,000 meals.

Baker also announced that he was funding a program for local businesses to make personal protection equipment (PPE) even if it isn’t what they normally manufacture. Called the Manufacturing Emergency Response Team (MERT), the program launched on April 2 and will pivot operations of some businesses to PPE like gowns, face shields, swabs, and hand sanitizers.

The governor emphasized that the next few weeks will be difficult, but “we continue to make progress” in testing capacity and availability of beds.

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