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Gov. Charlie Baker and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders speak to press about COVID-19 related issues including the crisis at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke where 13 people have died.

Baker: State Stay-in-Place Guidelines Extended to May 4

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Updated with more information at 4:47 p.m.
BOSTON, Mass. — Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday that he is extending the order closing non-essential businesses and his stay-at-home advisory for residents of the commonwealth through May 4.
"I know this is difficult to hear, but we need everyone to continue to go without being around many of your family and most of your friends for your own health and safety and the health and safety of your family, your friends and others," Baker said.
"As most of you know, my weekly visits with my 91-year-old father are phone calls. And as I said previously, neither one of us are very good at that.
"I miss him. But that's just the way it is, and it's the way it should be. And it's the way all of us need to be as purposeful as we can be in dealing with the contagious nature of this virus."
Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders used much of Baker's daily COVID-19 press briefing to talk about the developing situation at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, where 13 recent deaths have been reported, including six attributed to the novel coronavirus and another five that still have tests pending.
Both Baker and Sudders emphasized that they first heard about the situation in Holyoke late Sunday night and used Sunday night and Monday to put a new administrative team in place.
Both declined to speculate on what caused the crisis that led to the removal of the superintendent of the nearly 300-bed facility.
"We will deal with that," Baker said. "But, as the secretary said, our goal in the short term was to put as many qualified resources at Holyoke Soldiers' Home as we possibly could and to start doing the work of dealing with the health and safety issues of the residents and staff."
Sudders outlined the credentials of a half dozen or so administrators who have been pressed into service to help run the Holyoke facility, led by Val Liptak, a registered nurse and CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital in Westfield, who is serving as the new chief administrator at the site.
"She's been a supervisor of long-term care facilities, a hospice nurse and an RN in an ICU," Sudders said.
Baker spoke passionately about the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, which he has visited a number of times.
"I can't tell you how different this story is than the reality of what that place has been like day after day after day, literally for decades," he said. "It's a happy, joyous, fun, graceful and kind place filled with those kinds of people.
"When you go there and you spend time with the residents and their family members who are visiting, the thing you hear over and over again from family members is: I wouldn't want my family member anyplace other than here. This is the best place."
To help assist the current residents of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, the commonwealth Tuesday made it the first facility to receive a visit from its mobile testing team for nursing homes.
Sudders said the state government plans seven such mobile teams that will be staffed by National Guard personnel, who will draw samples on site and ship them to state labs for expedited tests.
"The program tests symptomatic nursing and rest home residents in their rest homes or wherever they're living with quick turnarounds," Sudders said. "We recognize that our older populations, especially living in high-density environments such as these facilities, are some of the most vulnerable.
"Prior to the launch, the only way for nursing home residents to actually be tested was to go to a hospital or a physician's office."
As for the extension of the stay-in-place guidelines and non-essential business closure, the new date is in line with a previously announced decision by the governor to close Massachusetts' schools through May 4.

"We've taken some of the earliest and most aggressive steps in the country to slow the spread of this virus," Baker said. "We must continue to be aggressive in our pursuits."

The extension of the non-essential business closure comes with an updated list of the businesses and organizations that are defined as "essential." That includes clarification around the supply chain operations that support essential services and the addition of optometrists and chiropractors as essential health care workers.

Baker said he and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito have had numerous conversations with "non-essential" business owners who have been forced to shutter under the order that went into effect last Tuesday. While he understands the economic pain the order brings, he said many of the business people who have contacted the state understand the reasons for the closures.

Baker Tuesday also used his platform to once again thank all Massachusetts residents who have made personal sacrifices to stop the spread of COVID-19 -- both those who are struggling under the stay-at-home guidelines and those who are leaving their homes each day to help provide the essential services the commonwealth needs.

"We're extremely grateful for the many grocery store workers and gas station attendants, farmers, wholesalers, local, state and federal employees and many others who have continued to go to work and provide these necessary and essential services to the rest of the residents of the commonwealth," Baker said.

"I want to say thank you to the nurses and doctors and frontline medical workers and first responders for all the work they do. I want to say thank you to our National Guard for getting out there every single day and providing support to our men and women in public safety and fire and EMS."

On other fronts in the COVID-19 battle Tuesday:

• Baker announced that the Department of Public Health is issuing an order with more specifics regarding the operation of hotels, motels and short-term rentals, like Airbnb.

"They're to be used for limited purposes only, which include direct efforts related to the fight against COVID-19," Baker said. "For example, as housing for frontline health care workers or for Massachusetts residents who have been otherwise displaced from their homes, or to house workers who are part of the essential business community."

Baker noted that the order will particularly impact Berkshire County and Cape Cod.

"People should really be using common sense on this one and should not be going on vacation right now," he said. "As we've said in our advisory and as many other public officials at the state, federal and local levels have said, people should be staying at home."

During the question and answer period, Baker said that enforcement of the order, particularly on short-term rentals, will fall to the local level.

"Local officials have the ability to shut these down if they find them," he said.

•  The commonwealth on Wednesday will begin setting up a 250-bed facility at the DCU Center in Worcester to take patients who are "stable but need medical care," relieving the pressure on hospitals.

The commonwealth is looking at sites to set up two more of the "field medical stations," Baker said.

•  Baker noted that one of the most common reasons for an initial claim for unemployment benefits being rejected in the commonwealth's online portal is a mismatch between the name of the employer and the name entered by an applicant on the state's website. He emphasized that applicants need to enter their most recent employer's business name exactly as it appears on their W2.

And the commonwealth has in the last two weeks scaled up its unemployment insurance call center from a 50-person staff at one site to a 500-person "remote call center" model to help those who have problems with the online portal, Baker said.

• The commonwealth is not following in Maine's footsteps and closing state parks, but that step has not been ruled out.

"We believe based on the conversations we have that most people are taking issues with respect to social distancing and staying at home … pretty seriously," Baker said. "But when we see things that trouble us, we will do something about it.

"A good example is the decision we made to close the bars and restaurants. That came after a lot of the behavior we saw the weekend before St. Patrick's Day. It was clear at that point that a lot of people weren't paying attention to the guidance that we put out at that point in time."

• While medical marijuana dispensaries are essential per the state guidelines, the idea of classifying recreational pot vendors as essential is a "non-starter" with the administration.

Given the fact that Massachusetts is alone in the region in allowing recreational pot sales, the state believes "that if we make recreational marijuana available as an essential business, we are going to have to deal with the fact that people will come here from all over the place, from across the Northeast."

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Trail Conservancy Cautions Pandemic Care When Hiking

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Although most of the Appalachian Trail is still open, hikers are asked to practice common sense during the pandemic while on the trail or to just stay home.
COVID-19 has challenged people to find new ways to stay active while practicing social distancing and local trail volunteer Cosmo Catalano, Jr said although folks are encouraged to stay home, common sense needs to be used to maintain social distancing. 
"The AT, along with other trails on public lands provides an important resource for people to get outdoors in a healthy way," he said. "With care and common sense, it's relatively easy for people to maintain appropriate social distance and enjoy the outdoors."
Catalano said the trail organization structure is complicated and is organized by a number of entities. In Massachusetts about half the trail is on state forest lands managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The other half is on lands managed by the National Park Service.
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