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State Waits for Results in College Opening COVID-19 Rates

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BOSTON — Massachusetts is making strides in reducing transmission rates of COVID-19, Gov. Charlie Baker said on Wednesday, but he's holding off on further loosening of the economy for the moment. 
"One of the things we talked about is trying to get through the school reopening and the college return," he said to a question about indoor dining and activities during his update Wednesday afternoon. "These are both really big and really important deals here in Massachusetts. They're hugely important for kids and for families and for educators and the college return is particularly important as well for many people who work at colleges and universities, and I really think for the next couple of weeks, our focus really ought to be there. And we'll talk about other stuff when we get past that."
Colleges and universities began opening over the past week with many hosting reduced numbers of students on campus; local schools will be opening over the next weeks, many to a form of hybrid learning that will have children in the school buildings at least part of the week. 
The governor said health data from universities will be added to the public reports that now cover hospitals, nursing homes, and state-operated facilities and correctional institutions. 
The return of students has not so far resulted in a spike in COVID-19 cases. On Wednesday, Williams College reported 6,774 tests completed with only one positive so far. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has not updated its dashboard since last week, but informed iBerkshires there has been one case that is no longer active. North Adams' daily rate case has now moved up into green with five new cases over two weeks. 
"I'm as frustrated as anybody about the fact that there are still elements of our economy that for one reason or another, aren't open," he said. "But, I mean, anybody who watched what happened in the South and in the Midwest with respect to bars and nightclubs should understand why.
"As much as those organizations are distressed and suffering under this current period of time it was pretty clear they played a significant role in significant outbreaks and new cases in many states where they were permitted to open."
He pointed out that in contrast to those states where reopening led to a dramatic increase in total cases, positive test rates and hospitalizations, Massachusetts significantly reduced its positive test rates and cases at the same nearly a half-million people returned to work. And ramped up its testing capacity.
"There's been plenty of folks in the infectious disease community who have said if people would just comply with the rules around face coverings and social distancing on a sustained basis at an 80 percent to 90 percent level, over a month we could kill COVID in the U.S.," he said. "That hasn't happened and I can't emphasize how much I think that plays a role here."
The state is focusing right now on the "dangerously high levels of transmission" in the communities Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, Lawrence and Revere. Field teams of volunteers have been working in those communities distributing more than 4,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, 500 signs and 17,000 flyers with information on how to stop the spread. Framingham will be added to this group as well. 
Also in those municipalities, the Division of Professional Licensure made 92 inspections last week at businesses ranging from funeral homes to nail salons and found 47 COVID-19 violations. The state police have been assisting local police in these communities on COVID-related enforcement as well. 
Statewide, the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission made enforcement operations at 1,200 establishments, finding two-thirds in compliance and fining or warning another 300 for violations. Baker said a listing of where these operations occurred would be made available. 
"We're pleased that a vast majority of restaurants and their customers are enjoying their experience — outdoor dining, indoor dining — safely and appropriately to prevent the spread of COVID," he said. 
Overall, the majority of communities have done well in following the guidance, according to Baker: 190, or 54 percent, have recorded five cases or fewer since mid-August and 46, or 13 percent, have reported fewer than four cases per 100,000 residents. Forty-seven communities have improved their standings on the per-capita assessment by reducing their percentage over the past several weeks, including Springfield, which moved from high to moderate risk. 
"We spend a lot of time focusing on the communities that are seeing higher rates of COVID to raise awareness and help those communities drive down cases," the governor said. "But it's also important to note that the vast majority of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, have done a great job following the guidance to reduce COVID-19. And this data shows that their efforts have been paying off. ... this progress has allowed us to significantly reopen much of our economy here in Massachusetts."
In other news, the governor reported that the state will begin distributing federal unemployment benefits that were created under a special Federal Emergency Management Agency program — the Lost Wages Assistance Program — that was implemented by a federal executive order in August. This program succeeds an expired federal pandemic unemployment compensation program and provides an extra $300 in weekly unemployment benefits.
Anyone who was approved for this new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program will receive payments retroactive to Aug. 1. So far $200 million has been distributed and 235,000 claimants will be receiving this benefit that is geared to those who do not receive traditional unemployment (freelancers, gig workers, etc.). Those receiving benefits through the Department of Unemployment Assistance will also be getting payments retroactive to Aug. 1 and do not have to reapply.
Updated at 9:20 p.m. with information from MCLA.

Tags: reopening,   school reopening,   

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