BOSTON — State officials Friday continued to praise Massachusetts for taking the steps that have lowered the rate of positive tests for COVID-19 and introduced new vehicles to advance the commonwealth's testing program.
"As you know, we continue to ramp up our testing capacity in the commonwealth and access to testing," Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said. "At this point, testing for COVID-19 is widely available. Today we have launched a revamped testing website called [www.mass.gov/covid-19-testing] as a more convenient resource to the public.
"The website has details on who should get the test and connects with our COVID-19 test site locator."
Those test sites across the commonwealth did a booming business the last couple of days, after the state encouraged anyone who has been part of a large-scale gathering to get tested for the novel coronavirus.
The call was a response to residents' participation in protests that swept the nation after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Baker reported that nearly 16,000 tests were conducted over the last two days, and at least one site, which could not satisfy all its requests for appointments, was continuing tests from the program today.
Although data from that testing surge will not be known for a couple of days, Baker on Friday said all the state's numbers continue to trend in the right direction.
"To date, around 737,000 people have been tested, and almost 930,000 tests have been conducted across the commonwealth," Baker said. "The average positive test rate in Massachusetts is now about 2.3 percent. Since mid-April, the average positive test rate has fallen by 92 percent. Right now, fewer than 1,000 people in the commonwealth are hospitalized. … This includes 227 people who are currently in the ICU for COVID-19. Hospitalizations are down by about 72 percent since the middle of April."
Baker said there are a number of reasons why the commonwealth has not seen a spike in positive tests in the wake of protests that drew thousands of people from Boston to Springfield and drew at least 100 in 300 different marches and demonstrations since Floyd's death on Memorial Day.
"There were a lot of communities whose public health departments went out and handed out masks to people as they gathered in places where these marches took place," Baker said. "Many people took those masks and put them on, which was great.
"I would argue that in the vast majority of those cases, people did wear masks. They were moving, and they were outside. Those are all really good things, but any time a lot of people get together in any kind of large gathering like that, especially when they're not wearing masks, it's worrisome."
That is part of the reason the commonwealth designated 50 test sites this week for people who did participate in demonstrations, Baker said. He said he was "excited" that nearly 16,000 people took advantage of the tests.
"Big gatherings, close quarters, are a risk, period," Baker said. "That's been demonstrated by almost everybody who has looked at the literature and studied this virus. Outdoors is way better with respect to managing the spread than indoors. That's also been proven by both experience and the literature."
On Friday, Sudders announced that in addition to its newest test-oriented website, the state will roll out a social media campaign and electronic billboards to encourage Bay Staters to get tested if it is appropriate. During a Q&A with reporters, Baker was pressed about the cost of the commonwealth's testing and contact tracing programs in light of the relatively low rate of positive tests.
Baker responded that testing and tracing have been an effective way to get people to isolate if need be in order to slow the spread of the virus and will continue to be part of his administration's strategy going forward.
"No one really knows what is going to happen in the fall," he said. "But there are plenty of people in the infectious disease world and the epidemiology community who say that pandemics like this have an echo, and the echo typically shows up in the fall.
"I absolutely believe that one way you reduce the size of the problem you have in the fall is to do everything you can to squeeze as much of the heat out of the virus as you possibly can between now and then."
Baker also said now is not the time for government at the state or federal level to go back to return to a pre-March mentality on public health spending.
"The one thing I know about this is that when this happened in February and March, there was scarcity on everything," Baker said. "There was scarcity on testing, there was scarcity on PPE, there was scarcity on data, there was scarcity on healthcare capacity, there was scarcity on infection control protocols and capabilities.
"And we paid an enormous price as a state and as a country and a globe for not being prepared. We're not going to be caught by surprise in the fall."
On a day when Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito took time to recognize the commemoration of the Juneteenth holiday, Sudders discussed the work of the state's COVID Health Equity Advisory Group, which has been meeting since may to address the fact that the virus has disproportionately impacted people of color.
"When the crisis standards of care were first proposed, these inequities were further exposed and heightened," Sudders said. "The standards were revised based on additional input."
In April, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Boston, sent Baker a letter criticizing those standards of care, saying in part that they, " exacerbate existing health disparities and disproportionately impact communities of color and individuals with disabilities."
"Given that these guidelines invoke the use of co-morbidities as a measure to determine which patients would receive critical care resources in the event that a hospital is at capacity, a number of medical providers, elected officials, and public health experts have voiced their concern about the devastating impact these protocols would have on communities of color and the disability community," Pressley wrote.
The advisory group has made key recommendations, Sudders said, including "continuing to focus on data and to disaggregate data across populations and sectors, including usage of mass transit, advocating for the equitable distribution of personal protective equipment for essential workers and residents in professions that are most at risk and implementing policies that increase housing stability for populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19."
Sudders said the commonwealth Friday would release new data on the disease broken out by race.
"These recommendations are starting points and build upon the long history of the Department of Public Health for actionable next steps," she said. "The department will report on its progress as we move ahead.
"The first such action is a public health order authorizing that the crisis standards of care are rescinded as of today."
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