BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker is urging colleges and high schools to cancel their scheduled international trips, and the MBTA is now working on a plan to disinfect each of its vehicles daily, as Massachusetts officials continue to respond to the spread of the new coronavirus in the U.S.
Baker joined public health, transportation and higher education officials on Wednesday to provide an update on the state's response to COVID-19. They stressed that the risk to Massachusetts residents remains low.
"I know that for many residents, all the talk about this public health threat can be stressful," Baker said. "I want everyone to know that we're doing everything we can to protect the people here in the commonwealth, and I also want people to know that they can help protect against the spread themselves, as has been discussed many times before -- use common sense, practice good personal hygiene, and if you are sick, stay home."
New numbers the Department of Public Health released Wednesday do not indicate a major shift inhttps://www.mass.gov/info-details/covid-19-quarantine-and-monitoring in potential COVID-19 activity in the state. There is one confirmed case of the respiratory illness, which was announced Feb. 1, and one presumptive positive case on which state officials are waiting for results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A total of 719 people have been subject to quarantine in Massachusetts, and 470 of those individuals have completed the monitoring and are no longer in quarantine. The department said 259 people are in quarantine and working with local boards of health to monitor themselves for potential symptoms.
During an oversight hearing on the state's COVID-19 response, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel told lawmakers Wednesday that the state has seen "remarkable" cooperation from people who are in quarantine, and said their cooperation and compliance has helped keep the risk level low here.
Twenty people in the state have been tested for the virus, including the Boston man who is the state's one confirmed COVID-19 case and the Norfolk County woman who was identified Monday night as a presumptive positive case. That woman is "recovering well" and remains isolated at home, Bharel said.
Bharel said the state is waiting for the results from "a handful" of those 20 tests and the rest have come back negative. The state has an "adequate supply" of test kits and expect to receive additional kits either Wednesday or Thursday.
Responding to a question from Public Health Committee Co-Chair Sen. Jo Comerford about the number of people who have been tested, the medical director of the DPH's bureau of infectious diseases, Dr. Larry Madoff, said the administration of tests is governed by a federal emergency use authorization that has the state "confined to testing symptomatic individuals."
The CDC on Wednesday expanded its criteria for designating someone a person under investigation, which could open up testing to a wider group of patients.
Madoff said state officials are expanding testing "as quickly as we can" to try to include more people.
Baker on Wednesday signed a supplemental budget that included $95,000 for staff costs at the state public health laboratory associated with coronavirus testing. Bharel told the Public Health Committee that her department currently has "enough funding to do what we need to do."
In Washington, D.C., a group of House and Senate negotiators on Wednesday agreed on a $7.8 billion emergency spending bill to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. Action on the bill is expected this week, first in the House of Representatives.
According to a Senate Appropriations Committee summary, the legislation represents an "aggressive surge" in funding to combat spread of the virus at the local, state, national and international levels, with 85 percent of the money to be spent domestically. It proposes $2.2 billion for the CDC, including money that will go to state and local preparedness and response efforts, with each state set to receive at least $4 million.
The governor said the CDC is issuing a new travel alert that instructs travelers returning from China, South Korea, Iran and Italy to stay home and monitor their health for 14 days after arriving in the U.S. Travelers returning from Japan are advised to monitor their health and limit interactions with others for 14 days.
For Massachusetts residents planning travel domestically or to countries not on a CDC list, Baker said they should "make whatever decision they think is the most appropriate for them and for their families."
"But I think they ought to make an informed decision, and that informed decision ought to be based on the information that's currently being made available either through the feds on the CDC or the Homeland Security site or through the Department of Public Health," he said.
Baker called the virus an "evolving situation." He urged colleges, universities and high schools to cancel upcoming organized trips abroad, noting the "immense amount of planning and investment" such trips require of students and their families.
"Taking this precaution will help protect these students and the commonwealth as we are home to such a large number of colleges and universities," Baker said.
University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said his school has canceled its programs in China, South Korea, Italy and Iran, and recalled the students who were participating.
UMass Amherst, which has more than 3,400 international students, informed students and parents this week that students will be allowed to remain in their dorms over spring break, a change instituted to assist people who need to cancel or revise travel plans due to coronavirus.
The university will also be able to keep its residences and dining halls open over the summer if needed, Subbaswamy said, and has identified campus locations that can be used for isolation if a student does contract the virus.
Baker said a call has not yet been made around what will happen with the Boston Marathon, an event that draws participants and spectators from around the globe, or the upcoming Boston Saint Patrick's Day parade.
"The decisions with respect to both of those are going to be based on guidance from the feds and decisions that are made in conjunction with public health folks and the people who are in charge of those events," he said.
The MBTA is ramping up its disinfecting efforts for vehicles and stations, with the goal of disinfecting each train, subway car, bus and paratransit vehicle daily, general manager Steve Poftak said.
"Right now, we have enough equipment on hand to be doing that on the commuter rail," he said. "We expect, by the end of this week, to be able to do it across the system."
Poftak said the transit agency is "putting a protocol in place" Wednesday to disinfect frequently touched station equipment like fare boxes, guard rails and handrails every four hours "subject to getting enough disinfectant in place."
There have been "some supply chain issues" around disinfectant that the MBTA expects to be able to overcome "shortly," Poftak said.
Kerin Milesky, director of the DPH's office of preparedness and emergency management, said the department has been hearing from some health care providers "that they are having issues accessing supplies." She said there is a resource-requesting process in place to help those providers meet their needs.
Hospitals that have a supply need are first asked to contact their local mutual aid partners, and bump that request up to the regional level if it can't be met, Milesky said. She said 43 regional resource-sharing requests have been made and "everything has been able to be resolved at the regional level" so far.
Should a regional coalition not be able to meet the request, it would then move up to the Department of Public Health. State officials would also be able to make a formal request to access a "strategic national stockpile" of equipment if it became necessary," Milesky said.
The Department of Public health continues to regularly update a website with information about the outbreak.