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State officials provide updates on the coronavirus on Friday from Boston.

Baker: No 'Shelter-in-Place' Planned in Massachusetts

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker said on Friday that it was "heartbreaking" that the commonwealth has seen its first fatality because of COVID-19 and continued to maintain he has no plans to issue the kind of shutdown of nonessential businesses New York's governor ordered earlier in the day.
A man in his 80s from Suffolk County with pre-existing medical conditions became the first resident of the commonwealth to die from the pandemic disease, state officials confirmed on Friday.
"Obviously, it's heartbreaking to say, but this is certainly a day I think we all knew would come," Baker said during a livestreamed 40-minute Boston news conference with other state officials. "We read and hear about the accounts from elsewhere in the world or across this country about the loss of life that this disease is responsible for.
"But when it happens here in the commonwealth, it's obviously different."
Baker spoke just hours after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered 100 percent of non-essential businesses to keep their employees home starting Sunday.
"We're all in quarantine now," said Cuomo, who stopped short of using the term "shelter-in-place" because he said that term is currently used "for an active shooter or a school shooter," according to published reports.
Baker in his prepared remarks reiterated his comments earlier in the week: No such order is imminent in the Bay State.
"I'd also like to dispel, once again, recent rumors about a shelter-in-place order," Baker said. "Massachusetts is not planning any forced shelter-in-place order. Everyone needs to get their news from legitimate sources."
Baker was later asked specifically about moves made in New York and Northern California, where San Francisco Bay area officials did use the term "shelter-in-place."
"I'm going to take the steps that we take based on the guidance and advice I get from the medical professionals and the public health professionals and the advisory board that the [Massachusetts COVID-19 Response] Command Center has established," Baker said. "I'm not going to do it just because somebody else did it.
"And the other thing I would say to you is I've been on numerous conversations with governors over the course of the past 10 days. And the facts on the ground from one state to another vary dramatically. And depending on where the facts are on the ground and how different states and different governors are choosing to act is driven in many cases by the particulars and the specifics of their particular state."
Baker was joined at Friday's news conference by  Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel, Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Robert Coughlin, the president and CEO of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

Coughlin's organization is coordinating a statewide effort to collect resources that can be used by front-line medical personnel to combat the novel coronavirus.

"Massachusetts is home to the highest concentration density of biotech companies, pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies and diagnostic companies," Coughlin said. "We're currently asking every one of those life sciences companies in the state to donate lab testing and diagnostic supplies, general [personal] protective equipment, known as PPE and medical and scientific expertise that is needed by folks on the front line to combat COVID-19. To do this, you simply need to visit, and you can fill out a survey that will download that information and that inventory into what we're calling the supply hub.

"The response so far has been amazing, and we can't thank all of the companies enough. In just the first 24 hours, nearly 200 companies have responded with supplies that they have that they were willing to donate to fight this fight. But we need more."

Coughlin said the state government's Command Center will be the one to distribute the resources where they are needed.

Baker and the other officials outlined a number of steps the commonwealth is taking to address the COVID-19 crisis both from a public health and economic standpoint:

Baker elaborated on the role that the National Guard could play in the government's response. On Thursday, he activated of up to 2,000 members of the Guard.
"One of the things the government has is many 24/7 operations, and the Guard can be a big support to many of those activities," Baker said. "We've talked to a lot of folks in local government who have told us that a number of their first-responders haven't presented with symptoms but were engaged with somebody who was found to be a carrier of COVID-19 and they need to be isolated and off the job for a certain amount of time and tested to determine if, in fact, they got sick.

"There's an opportunity there to support local communities. We're also going to start looking for space to put goods and other assorted things that hopefully Bob [Coughlin] and many others will bring to support our efforts around PPE and equipment. The Guard is terrifically good at those sorts of things as well."

•  Sudders announced $200 million in state aid to MassHealth and Health Safety Net providers.

"They are accelerated payments from FY20 and FY21 or are cash advances," Sudders said. "I'm clear, this is not a permanent solution but a stopgap measure to keep our front-line health care system, particularly our Safety Net providers able to provide necessary care."

She encouraged all Massachusetts residents to call their doctor rather than show up at the doctor's office if they are feeling symptoms and to take advantage of telehealth options.

She also said the state on Friday night will ask the federal government to approve regulatory waivers to help Massachusetts better respond to the crisis.

"If allowed, Massachusetts will be able to fast track MassHealth enrollment, streamline administrative requirements for providers and deliver critically needed health care services easier during the COVID-19 outbreak," Sudders said. "Through this waiver … we seek, on a statewide basis, we will allow for non-traditional sites of care to expand surge capacity, such as the use of testing tents and overflow hospital sites, if we need them. It will allow new providers, including out-of-state providers, a streamlined pathway to practice in the state, including caring for MassHealth members. It will allow physician assistants to practice independently and will provide flexibility to hospitals and skilled nursing facilities to meet increasing demand.

"We will expand the MassHealth hospital-determined presumptive eligibility to all individuals, which MassHealth already expanded through a public health order last week, including children, older adults and individuals who have received MassHealth benefits in the last 12 months."

•  Baker touted Thursday's opening of the commonwealth's first large-scale drive-through testing site at a CVS in Shrewsbury, which will be used to test emergency personnel and first-responders.

 Polito talked about new steps the commonwealth is taking to provide tax and regulatory relief during the inevitable economic slowdown that is resulting from the pandemic.

"Earlier in the week, we made announcements relative to meals tax and room occupancy excise obligations," Polito said. "In addition to deferring those payments, particularly for small businesses in that industry, we are adding that the department will waive any late file or late pay penalties for returns and payments due during the period March 20 through May 31 for taxpayers with meals tax and room occupancy obligations."

Polito said the Registry of Motor Vehicles is taking additional steps so people will not have to go to the RMV service centers in person. A new order allows the registrar to extend vehicle registrations and modify the conditions of registrations, plates and titles and "allows the registrar and the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection the authority to waive certain inspection requirements," Polito said.

•  Baker sought to allay fears of Massachusetts residents who lose their source of income during the crisis that they also might lose their homes.

"We'll have more to say on this in the coming days, but for now, I want renters to know the current standing order in the Massachusetts Trial Court means there will be no pending eviction cases that can proceed until at least April 21," Baker said. "And for homeowners who are worried about making a mortgage payment, our state law does provide 90 days to cure any payment default on a mortgage.

"To be clear, this administration will be taking action in the coming days to ensure that homeowners and renters are protected."

•  Baker also addressed steps the administration is taking to address the increased demand on the commonwealth's Office of Labor and Workforce Development from a spike in unemployment claims.

"We are … moving as much as we possibly could to help people work remotely if it was possible for them to work remotely," Baker said. "One of the things we've been setting up is a remote call center. A call center, as a general rule is usually configured and organized in a way that makes it really hard to live up to the 6-foot distancing issue.

"In the context of setting up that call center, it's ramping, but it's not ramped up to the point where it can get to every call it's gotten. The one thing we did do was tell people to leave messages, and starting at the beginning of [next] week, the call center -- working remotely -- is going to be working in both directions. We're going to be calling people who left messages and taking calls from people who are calling to follow up.

"I would say the application process and the online process has worked very well so far."

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