BOSTON (State House News Service) — As the state's economic reopening gets underway in earnest this week, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday that COVID-19 public health data indicates "that we are trending in the right direction," and the head of the state's COVID-19 Command Center said plans are in the works to allow people to once again visit their loved ones in long-term care settings.
Opening his first press conference since many consumer-facing businesses were allowed to reopen Monday, the governor highlighted two of the metrics that he has said will be key considerations when deciding when to launch subsequent phases of the reopening plan.
Baker said the average positive test rate is down to about 9 percent and has "been pretty much in that general vicinity now for about a week." And the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has shown "a significant decrease over the course of the past two or three weeks," he said.
"With phase one of the reopening now underway and more sectors of the economy slowly reopening, this data indicates that we are trending in the right direction. The progress that we've made has only been made possible by everyone's willingness to do their part to practice social distancing, wear face coverings, wash their hands and play with purpose on this one," the governor said. "We all have a responsibility to continue doing these things. The science on this is pretty clear -- these things, done together, are highly effective and this is how we will continue to fight the virus, and at the same time, reopen responsibly."
In another sign that Massachusetts is emerging from the worst of the pandemic, Baker referred Tuesday to the surge in COVID-19 patients that the state spent weeks preparing the health care system for as "something that, thanks to a lot of work by a lot of people, is behind us." He then announced that the 1,000-bed field hospital set up last month at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center "is no longer necessary" and will stop accepting new patients.
The BCEC field hospital, known as Boston Hope, was opened April 10 as the state was bracing for the possibility that the region's hospitals would become overwhelmed by infected patients. The site also treated homeless patients and served as a respite site run by Health Care for the Homeless.
"The enduring legacy of Boston Hope will be one of partnership and collaboration to meet the needs of our region during this crisis. The work of the men and women at Boston Hope these past six weeks was heroic. We were fortunate to have the people and the commitment available to stand up this 1,000-bed facility, which served so many from throughout the city and across the region," Dr. Anne Klibanski, president and CEO of Mass General Brigham, said. "But, we were even more fortunate that we were never confronted with the need to use all of those beds."
Baker said Tuesday that the half of the Boston Hope run by Partners HealthCare treated about 700 COVID-19 patients and will remain operational until each of its current patients is discharged. The governor said the 1,000 beds that made up the makeshift hospital will remain at the BCEC through the summer "if we need it."
A field hospital established on Cape Cod closed earlier this month before treating a patient, and field hospitals in Worcester and Lowell have also been phased out.
Despite the positive signs Baker highlighted Tuesday, it will still be another 13 days under the best case scenario until the second of four reopening phases could be allowed to proceed. The governor reiterated Tuesday that "moving from phase one to phase two or from phase two to phase three is ... going to be based on, you know, the scoreboard, the data that we look at each day."
But as some businesses get back to more normal operations and hospitals start to resume some non-emergency services, the governor said a medical advisory board he relies on has been discussing the possibility of lifting restrictions on visitors to hospitals and long-term care facilities like nursing homes.
"It's a complicated issue, OK? Lot of psychological benefit in it, but big concerns about some of the issues associated with the virus," Baker said. The governor, whose father is in his 90s and lives in a long-term care setting, said the issue is personal to him.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who is helming the state's COVID-19 Command Center, said that she wanted hospital visitations to resume sooner, but that she and the governor's Medical Advisory Board want to wait and see how the first few weeks of increased activities go.
"We feel like we want to see how this first phase goes ... how the hospitals will respond as we opened up other procedures and immunizations and pediatric care, to see how that works and then look at reopening visitation in both hospitals and we're actively looking at opening up outdoor visitation for long-term care residents," the secretary said. "Give us a couple of weeks to see how increasing services in our hospitals and in pediatric practices, let's see how that goes."
As of Monday, there were 19,742 long-term care facility workers and residents who had been infected with COVID-19 and 3,924 long-term care facility residents had died of the virus. Almost half of the long-term care facilities in Massachusetts have reported at least one case of COVID-19.
On March 15, the governor banned all visitors to assisted living facilities including nursing homes in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. Massachusetts was one of the first states to do so and Baker has previously said he was happy with his decision.
"When we put that no visitation policy in place, most people weren't talking about the fact that significant portions of the population that actually get infected and are in fact contagious associated with COVID-19 are asymptomatic," he said last month. "You could have had family members walking in and out of facilities, hugging mom and dad, engaging in the traditional moments of joy that come with that, and all that time being carriers, which would have made this situation dramatically worse than it has been so far."
By Colin A. Young, State House News Service