BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday urged all residents to cooperate with the commonwealth's COVID-19 contact tracing initiative and characterized it as a key step toward getting back to normal in Massachusetts.
"If you happen to receive a phone call from the contact tracing collaborative, we urge residents to take this call and provide the relevant information," Baker said at his daily press briefing. "A couple of minutes of your time and cooperation is key in many cases to stopping the spread of coronavirus and saving more lives.
"It's also key to helping our state build a strategy for how we can get back to something like a new normal. And it's also part of an important effort to protect your loved ones and neighbors.
Baker announced the creation of the contact tracing program and the commonwealth's collaboration with the non-profit Partners in Health on April 3.
It was a first-in-the-nation program to trace individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 and their immediate contacts. So far, there are 176 employees making calls, and hundreds more are being trained to start making calls in the coming weeks, Baker said.
After his prepared remarks, Baker was asked if he was going to be on a conference call later Thursday between the president and the nation's governors. Reportedly, that call was set to include discussion about "opening up the economy," an apparent strong priority for Trump and his administration.
Baker said he was going to be on the call but was not aware that reopening the economy was on the agenda.
He then pivoted to talking about the "ambitious and aggressive testing program" that needs to be in place before the state of emergencies instituted by governors like himself can be ended.
"And as I said in my remarks today, one of the reasons we put together this tracing initiative is because we really do believe that to give people comfort and confidence that we're doing all we can to contain the virus, we need to have a very significant contact tracing program in place that can ensure we identify people who test positive and that we can do all we can to identify the people they've had close contact with," Baker said.
"And then we can create strategies and supports for those folks. From our point of view, that's a must-do with respect to anything that looks like a reopening of the commonwealth or a move toward reopening the economy."
Baker's daily briefing along with Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders focused mainly on the commonwealth's efforts to address the public health crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus.
But Baker also addressed the virus' economic impact.
While emphasizing that sheer numbers do not tell the true story of the personal pain brought on by each resident facing sudden unemployment, Baker recognized the scale of the problem.
On Thursday morning, new federal data indicated that more than 570,000 Massachusetts residents have applied for unemployment since March 15 -- 100,000 in the last week.
"I think everybody knows that the number of claims here is eye-popping," Baker said. "Given that for months, we typically saw somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 new applications a week."
At the moment, Massachusetts is paying unemployment claims to more than 315,000 residents of the Bay State, about triple the number who were receiving benefits when March began, Baker said.
Baker boasted that Massachusetts' online system for making unemployment claims is "one of the few in the country that didn't crash" and reported that there now are 850 workers in a remote call center helping applicants resolve issues with their online applications -- up from 50 when the COVID-19 crisis began. To date, those remote call center employees have made more than 115,000 calls, working nights and weekends to reach applicants.
The Department of Unemployment Assistance also has held 25 virtual town halls -- in both English and Spanish -- that have been attended by more than 175,000 residents.
And Baker said the state is close to being able to open up unemployment benefits to a new class of workers.
"We're also making progress in our work to build a new technological infrastructure that will allow us to process unemployment claims from workers not traditionally covered by the unemployment system, like the self-employed or gig economy workers," he said. "That system is being refined and tested, so that we can launch it as soon as possible and get those workers the benefits they need.
"We look forward to sharing more information about that system in the coming days."
In other COVID-19 related updates on Thursday:
• Sudders said the commonwealth's mobile testing program has visited 279 health-care facilities and performed 5,883 tests. The state also has sent 10,995 test kits to 103 facilities.
• The state's average hospital occupancy rate has dropped from 75 to 80 percent to somewhere in the 50s because of the commonwealth's direction to end elective procedures at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, Baker said. That has freed up capacity to deal with the expected surge of COVID-19 cases and has resulted in cutbacks at the hospitals.
That is why the state has been freeing up money to provide financial support to hospitals, Baker said. But it also has led to 982 healthcare workers being furloughed as of last Friday, Sudders reported.
The furloughed workers are still employed by their hospitals, who are paying their benefits, Sudders said, but the commonwealth is looking for ways to redeploy the manpower.
"We're trying to figure out in the various laws and regulations and the like: Is there a way that we could match a furloughed person from Hospital A to perhaps work at Healthcare Entity B, in a way that does not affect their benefits," she said. "Some ideas always sound easier than they are to actually implement.
"As you know, we've created a long-term care portal to match individuals who possibly want to work in a long-term care facility. And we announced that the commonwealth would pay them a $1,000 hiring bonus if they actually went to work at a long-term care facility and stayed there for a certain period of time."
• Baker was asked to react to Thursday's news that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is extending that state's shutdown through May 15 and whether it changed his thinking on the current May 4 end date for Massachusetts' state of emergency.
"We continue to look at the data, continue to talk to folks in the public health community about that," Baker said. "Obviously, we know it's something that's on people's minds, and it's on ours, too. We're going to what we can to give people guidance that they have enough time to plan.
"We'll make a decision on the schools sometime soon," Baker added later in the question and answer period.
• When asked whether he was thinking about a timetable for pro sports in the sports-crazy Boston market, Baker was dismissive.
"Honestly, I'm not really thinking about pro sports at the moment," he said. "I'm thinking about the surge and hospital capacity and field hospitals and COVID-19 specialized facilities and making sure our healthcare community is viable.
"I'm sure at some point there will be a discussion on some of that other stuff, but that's not what we're focused on right now."
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