Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday said his administration is working under the assumption the new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus has arrived in the state, urging residents to continue following health guidelines.
"I think most of us are working on the assumption that it's here," Baker said at a press conference at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. "There would be no reason not to."
At least four states have recently confirmed the presence of the new virus: New York, Colorado, California and Florida. The first U.S. case of the U.K. virus was detected by health officials in Colorado at the end of December in a man in his 20s who also had no recent travel history.
Massachusetts has yet to officially join those states. The governor said the Department of Public Health was sending COVID-19 case data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he said was ultimately responsible for determining where in the country the new variant has spread.
Still, Baker underscored the need for people to refrain from unnecessary social gatherings and follow guidelines set forth by the state.
"I'll go back to my little speech about how important it is for people to wear masks, maintain distance and recognize and appreciate that when you're not with the people you live with, you really ought to be very vigilant and careful and cautious about your physical engagement with other people," he said.
"Everything we can do to be vigilant is going to protect you and the members of your family from getting the virus or potentially giving it to someone else."
Meanwhile, Baker said the speed at which the state progresses through its phased vaccination plan will depend on guidance from federal authorities about the availability of vaccines.
Under the current structure, Baker said the state gets "a few days notice about how much and when" shipments arrive.
"We'd love to see it a longer than that, so we can plan a little farther down the road," he added.
According to health officials, 287,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been shipped to providers in the state as of the end of last weekend, over 116,000 of which have been administered and recorded. Over 70,000 COVID-facing health care workers have been vaccinated.
The remarks came after the governor on Monday announced that people age 75 or older had been moved higher up in the order of the state's vaccination plan; and that first responders will begin receiving vaccination shots next week.
The 75-plus age group is now part of Phase 2, Group 1 in the rollout, joining people with two co-morbid conditions as those considered at high risk for complications from COVID-19. They had previously been listed later in Phase 2. (See Massachusetts' full COVID vaccine timeline here.)
The change affects about 170,000 people and was recommended by the state's advisory board.
But the next set of people who will receive the vaccine are the state's roughly 45,000 first responders, the third of seven groups in Phase 1, who can begin to be vaccinated starting next Monday, Jan. 11.
"Police officers, firefighters EMTs and all first responders work in risky situations every day and this vaccine will protect them from COVID and the terrible illness that can come with it," Baker said during a press conference Monday.
There are three options for getting the vaccine, outlined on the state's first responder vaccination website:
- Departments that meet certain criteria, like being able to vaccinate at least 200 first responders and store the doses on-site, can administer the shots themselves. Some ambulance companies have already signed up, Sudders said.
- More than 60 sites have been stood up to give first responders the vaccine. (See the list here.)
- The state is working on developing four mass vaccination sites that can vaccinate up to 2,000 people per day, the details of which are still yet to be released. Baker said it's likely those sites would continue to be used after first responders are vaccinated.
The president of the Massachusetts firefighters union said the mass vaccination sites will likely include Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium and the Big E fairgrounds. Asked to confirm those locations, Baker and Sudders said they are still waiting for contracts to be signed before sharing more information later this week.
Firefighters have criticized the intended approach for first-responder vaccination, saying that local boards of health "are not structurally prepared" for it. Baker has said the state's approach will need to work from an administrative and data-reporting perspective, and take into account that communities structure their public safety programs in different ways.
Baker said while it remained too early to draw definitive conclusions, it appeared the state is seeing a uptick in coronavirus hospitalizations stemming from the December holidays.
Baker added the average age of people hospitalized has increased to 73 years old, up from 61 at the beginning of November.
"We're obviously going to pay a lot of attention to that data over the course of the next few days," Baker said.
The state on Monday confirmed 4,358 new cases of the virus, bringing the total to 375,455, and an additional 60 deaths brought the death toll to 12,401.
The percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive, on average, has ticked up to 8.5%, the department said.
The number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 has increased again, to 2,339. Of those hospitalized, 423 were listed as being in intensive care units and 258 are intubated, according to the health department.
Baker's new coronavirus restrictions took effect last month in Massachusetts. They include a crack down on gatherings and businesses and a requirement that hospitals halt most elective surgeries.
Starting Dec. 26 and running until at least noon on Jan. 10, restaurants, movie theaters, performance venues, casinos, offices, places of worship, retail businesses, fitness centers, health clubs, libraries, golf facilities, driving and flight schools, arcades, museums, and "sectors not otherwise addressed" must limit their customer capacity to a maximum of 25%.
All indoor gatherings and events will be limited to 10 people, while all outdoor gatherings and events will be limited to 25 people. Workers and staff are excluded from events' occupancy counts. The gatherings limit applies to private homes, event venues and public spaces.
Massachusetts hospitals must push back or cancel most elective inpatient invasive procedures that are nonessential as well, the state has announced.