Gov. Charlie Baker announced new measures Monday to increase coronavirus testing and ease the strain on Massachusetts hospitals amid a rise in coronavirus cases after Thanksgiving.
"Effective Friday, hospitals will curtail elective procedures that can be safely postponed," Baker said at a news conference at the state house. He also said the state is expanding free testing, increasing the number of communities with free testing sites to 25, up 17 from July.
Baker's remarks come amid a spike in coronavirus cases that have prompted some experts to urge the Baker administration to consider further social distancing measures. He acknowledged those calls, saying without going into detail he'd have more to say on the matter soon.
Massachusetts smashed its single-day coronavirus cases record twice last week. Baker said the number of cases "took off like a rocket" about a week after people gathered for the Thanksgiving holiday despite public health officials' exhortations not to spend time indoors with people outside their bubbles.
"I talked to several mayors over the weekend who are frustrated with me, and frustrated generally [over] people engaging in risky activity that we have all been talking about as the sort of thing that you should seek to avoid," Baker said.
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As of Sunday, Massachusetts' number of total coronavirus cases was 247,559 cases and its death toll to 10,763 confirmed deaths and 247,559 cases.
There were a few glimmers of good news at the news conference, including the announcement that the time some people will need to stay in quarantine is being reduced, if they meet certain requirements.
Following changes to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, Massachusetts reduced how long asymptomatic people must stay in quarantine from 14 to eight days, provided they test negative on Day 5 or later and monitor for any symptoms within 14 days of being exposed, state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said.
And the state will distribute up to 150,000 new rapid-results tests called AbbotBinaxNOW to be used for vulnerable populations.
Inpatient Elective Surgeries Curtailed in Mass.
Baker and Sudders emphasized that the restrictions on some elective procedures going into place Friday aren't as stringent as the one put in place during the first coronavirus surge this spring.
They only puts off elective procedures that will take away beds, and does not apply to surgeries needed for sustaining someone's life or which, if missed, would hurt a person's wellbeing. Likewise, check-ups, pediatric care, mammograms and other outpatient procedures can continue.
The move is meant to preserve hospital capacity. COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen 44% between Thanksgiving and this weekend, Sudders said.
"Hospitals are feeling the strain on both ends: increased callouts in hospital staff due to COVID exposure and infections which has led to a decrease in the number of staffed beds hospitals have available," she said.
Coronavirus Testing Increase
The increase in coronavirus testing will bring the state up to a capacity of 110,000 tests per week, doubling the state's capacity, across 50 testing sites. The new push includes five new Stop the Spread testing locations and the expansion of sites in New Bedford, Framingham and Lynn so they can each test up to 1,000 people per day.
Baker said sites were being winterized as well, to help alleviate the cold conditions some people have been waiting in.
"Shifting to higher-volume, less expensive sites that serve an entire region will allow the Commonwealth to test more individuals on a weekly basis and reduce per-test costs, making the testing program more sustainable," the administration said in a statement.
Baker's Recent Actions on COVID
Baker had maintained his administration is not planning any additional restrictions or business closures.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University's School of Public Health, took to Twitter Saturday to voice his concerns, saying that despite defending Baker for months, he had gone from "uncomfortable to aghast at lack of action," in the past six weeks.
"It’s incomprehensible. They must see different data because no rational explanation for lack of action," Jha wrote on Twitter, referencing the Baker Administration.
With cases rising, the state this week reopened a field hospital at Worcester's DCU Center, which Baker said has "a lot more capacity" than it did when it was active in the spring.
Baker last week announced he will have more to say soon about plans to establish a field hospital in Lowell in conjunction with Lowell General Hospital. Sudders said discussions are also underway about whether to open another field hospital on the South Coast, but she said right now there are no plans to open a field hospital in Boston.
Baker reiterated Thursday that he will continue to monitor the data and make his decisions based on the available information. He said if any new restrictions were to be put into place, the public would be given ample warning.
With the possibility of a vaccine on the horizon, Baker again said that there is "some reason for optimism." But he urged residents to continue taking precautions to prevent the cases from continuing to rise.
"There is still much work ahead to stop the spread of COVID from infecting more people here in Massachusetts," he said. "People need to stay vigilant. We're not ready to flip the switch to normal."
State House News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this report.