The state’s struggle to fight the coronavirus reflects how tough it really is. Even for a place that has a lot to offer, the toll has been severe – and it is increasing day by day.
As of Friday, Massachusetts had more than 64,000 cases – behind only New York and New Jersey, its largest neighbors in the northeast. The new cases totaled 2,106 cases, continuing a grim series of more than two weeks of at least 1,500 additional cases per day. The deaths reached 3,716, behind only New York, New Jersey and Michigan.
Even though many states started opening their economies on Friday – allowing restaurants, malls, and hair salons to do business – that was still a distant prospect in Massachusetts. Instead, Governor Charlie Baker (R) announced new restrictions on Friday, including a requirement that people wear masks in public.
“It’s going to be a way of life,” said Baker. “No if, no ands, no but, no doubts. “
The persistence with which people continue to get sick in Massachusetts has been matched in other hard-hit states. Rather than a precipitous decline, the number of new cases in places like Illinois, California, and the D.C. metropolitan area has stabilized rather slowly.
Experts say this is to be expected, even if it means a long way to go.
“If social distancing is done well – and Massachusetts has done it fairly well – the effect is going to be to smooth the curve and spread it over more time,” said David Hamer, professor of global health at Boston University and infectious. disease specialist at Boston Medical Center. “Instead of a peak, it’s an extended plateau. It will be a gradual decline. ”
Like other states, Massachusetts has avoided some of the most disastrous projections of the number of people who would fall ill. His social distancing measures also kept hospitals from being overwhelmed.
But in fact, it will be difficult to lower the rate – rather than walking on the water – due to the nature of the person who becomes ill.
More than half of the deaths in the state are people living in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes. Seniors represent a slightly higher share of the Massachusetts population than the national average.
Critical workers – who have to go to work every day and are often in close collaboration with others – have also been badly affected.
“Some people have been able to shelter completely at home. Their risk of getting anything is indeed very low, “said Jeffrey K. Griffiths, who teaches public health at Tufts University. “But there are other groups of people who run gas stations, grocery stores, hospitals. They are police and firefighters. They still have to go to work. “
Then there are the poor, for whom social estrangement at home is particularly difficult.
Geralde Gabeau, a lawyer for the state’s Haitian community, said she knew immigrant families who live in a two-bedroom apartment and share a bathroom.
“If someone is infected, the probability that everyone will be infected is very high,” she said. “There is no place for people to isolate themselves.”
Gabeau said that the immigrant-serving group she leads, Immigrants Family Services Institute-USA, has grown from 60 families to over 300. “Our phone never stops,” she said.
And she hesitates before opening Facebook: “All you see is RIP,” she said. “Every day people lose their grandparents. Yesterday we lost a 34-year-old young man. A Boston family lost four people. The Haitian community is crying like crazy. “
Immigrant groups say Massachusetts needs to do a better job of getting coronavirus information out in multiple languages. Although much of the literature is translated into Spanish, this represents only around 40% of the state’s population who do not speak English. Gabeau said she had decided to produce Creole videos to help spread the truth about the virus to the Haitian community, which represents a significant portion of the 1 million foreign-born residents of the state.
Massachusetts was one of the first states to report a coronavirus outbreak, recording its first case on February 1. But Hamer said the virus was probably there much earlier and that it was much more widespread than anyone knew when Baker declared a state of emergency on March 10. With everyone locked up inside for New England winter, but without an official social distance warrant, the virus has had ample opportunity to spread.
Many of the cases that occurred in early March were traced to a conference in late February organized by a biotechnology company, Biogen.
Experts say that overall, the state has done well with its response. Baker is Republican, while Democrats dominate the legislature. The two sides worked cooperatively, with little partisan grudge.
“I would say that as a state we are doing the right thing,” said Maryanne Bombaugh, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. “This is a very positive example of how you can work together and make a difference for your people. “
Bombaugh specifically cited the prevalence of tests in Massachusetts, including asymptomatic tests, which she says at least partly explains the state’s relatively high infection levels. The state is also tracking those who come into close contact with people who test positive, a vital step in containing future epidemics.
Unlike states that have been besieged by protests, there has been relatively little pressure in Massachusetts to reopen before public health experts clear up. The state is part of a coalition, led by New York, that is trying to coordinate reopenings in the Northeast rather than act individually, as many states have done.
The closure of non-core government business continues until at least May 18, with an advisory group to report back to Baker on how best to re-open gradually.
The governor said on Friday he was encouraged by a slight decrease in the percentage of positive coronavirus patients requiring hospitalization. “Overall, this is a very good sign,” he said.
However, the tests are still below what epidemiologists would like to see before lifting restrictions at home. A further decline in positive results is another prerequisite. And although experts say it probably does, it will take time to get there.
“The set tells us we’re getting there,” said Griffiths. “But if we were to reopen while we were on this plateau, we would just see another important peak. “