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Coronavirus Updates For Western New England: Wednesday, March 18

Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Mass.
Kevin Gutting
Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com
Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

Reported cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts increased on Wednesday to 256, up from 218 a day earlier, and now include a patient from Franklin County.

The single Franklin County case was reported as Hampden County's total nudged up to two. Berkshire County now has 17 reported cases of the coronavirus, up from 14 on Tuesday. Worcester County went up by two, to 10 cases.

No patients residing in Hampshire County are included in the report, although a hospital in the county, Cooley Dickinson in Northampton, said Wednesday it had treated two patients who tested positive for the virus. Doctors there suspect there would be more if they had additional testing capacity.

Although the state has relaxed the criteria for testing, the hospital said Wednesday it has a frustrating shortage of testing materials, including the liquid that holds specimens.

Chief Medical Officer Estevan Garcia said they're trying to test people with obvious symptoms, recent travel, or jobs in health care — about 15 to 20 a day — but there are many more suspected cases.

Garcia's own teenage son has shown symptoms of the coronavirus, but for now, he's just staying in their basement.

“It would be really nice to know if he had this, and if he didn't, that would be even better so we could get him out of the basement and he could come back as part of the family,” Garcia said.

Garcia said he would also like to test health care workers who have no symptoms but were exposed to someone with the virus. Currently, those employees have to stay home for 14 days, but if they were tested and came out negative, they could rejoin the workforce.

Of the two positive cases at Cooley Dickinson, Garcia said, one is resting at home and the other is still in treatment. He said eight to 10 more suspected cases are waiting for test results.

Garcia said the hospital is trying to get more testing supplies from its umbrella organization, Partners HealthCare, and is asking legislators for help.

Cooley Dickinson has set up a separate location in a trailer to do most of the testing, so as not to infect others. And they've opened another clinic in a trailer near the hospital, just to treat respiratory ailments. For now, that clinic only serves patients who see hospital-affiliated doctors, but Garcia said they're considering expanding to other medical groups.

Numbers keep rising around New England

In Connecticut, the number of positive cases increased to 96, a jump of 28 from Tuesday. There are 11 cases in Hartford County and five in Litchfield County.

In Vermont, the number of cases nearly doubled, to 19. In New Hampshire, there are now 39 cases. Rhode Island’s are at 33. Maine now has 42 cases, up from 32 Tuesday.

Employee of Massachusetts House tests positive for COVID-19

An employee of the Massachusetts House of Representatives has tested positive for the coronavirus-caused COVID-19 illness. House Speaker Robert DeLeo's office confirmed to the News Service that he wrote to all 160 representatives, their office staffs, and other House employees Wednesday morning informing them that someone who works in the branch received a presumptive positive result.

Citing federal and state restrictions on confidential health information, DeLeo did not identify the employee, their office or job title, whether they are an elected official or a staff member, or when the test result came back. DeLeo said any representative or employee who had close contact with the person who tested positive would be contacted by the state Department of Public Health or their local Board of Health with instructions on what to do.

Asked if any other staff were self-quarantining, a DeLeo spokesperson said his office would not comment beyond a letter the speaker wrote.

Baker orders day cares to close

Governor Charlie Baker has ordered all early education and child care centers in Massachusetts to close by March 23. The state will instead open emergency child care programs. 

"This will provide priority access for families of emergency personnel, medical staff and others critical to fighting the COVID-19 outbreak," Baker said at a press conference. "Volunteers, teachers and staff from some child care programs have already reached out to the department to say that they are ready and willing to continue providing care, which will be a relief to many of the parents who are working day and night to combat COVID-19."

Existing providers impacted by the mandatory shutdowns will continue to receive their regular state subsidies.

The governor had excluded day cares and preschools from an earlier order that took effect Tuesday requiring public and private K-12 schools to close for three weeks. But those services now have five more days to keep running.

Medical reserves seek volunteers in Massachusetts

Public health officials are recruiting volunteers for the Massachusetts Medical Reserve Corps to help with the coronavirus response. Western Massachusetts coordinator Carmela Lanza-Weil said volunteers will only take on tasks that allow for social distance.

“They are helping manage traffic at the drive through testing sites at hospitals,” she said. “They're manning phone centers where the public can call in and ask questions... and they provide them with the correct answers.”

Volunteers may also deliver medical supplies to first responders, she said, and could soon help set up a new quarantine center for people without a place to go. Lanza-Weil said medical skills are not necessary, but volunteers do need to take a few online trainings and get a criminal background check. 

Connecticut epidemiologist estimates thousands of possible undiagnosed cases of COVID-19

Connecticut state epidemiologist Dr. Matthew Cartter said the state likely has thousands of cases of COVID-19.

“If we have 68 positives, you should assume that there are 100 people out there who have COVID-19 for every single positive. Which puts us around 6000 or so. And that might be a low estimate.,” Cartter said Tuesday at a press briefing.

Cartter said the lack of testing hampers the ability of officials to accurately gage the impact of the virus. 

New England states move to help those who lose their jobs

Massachusetts lawmakers have approved legislation that would waive the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits. The measure was filed by Governor Charlie Baker to aid those out of work because of steps taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Those steps include closing all bars and restaurants in the state except for take-out and delivery which sent unemployment claims.

In New Hampshire, the governor and lawmakers are working to make sure that people who lose their jobs have some sort of health insurance.

Connecticut's health insurance marketplace announced Wednesday that uninsured residents will be able to sign up for coverage under a special enrollment period.

UMass Amherst postpones May 8 graduation

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy informed the UMass community in an email that the May 8 commencement and related activities are postponed indefinitely.

"This decision was made with a heavy heart, knowing what a seminal moment this day is in the lives of our students, their families, and the entire UMass community," he wrote. "Unfortunately, at this point, with so much uncertainty about when life will return to normal, I cannot give you a definitive answer for how and when we will honor our graduates, but I can assure you that we will."

Subbaswamy wrote that he's working with his commencement team to develop alternative plans and invited input from students, asking them to send ideas to commencement@umass.edu. He said faculty are "taking extraordinary measures to prepare for remote learning; our staff are working hard to ensure continuity of campus operations; and our students are proving their resilience by accepting this difficult transition with grace and patience."

Federal lawmakers push for eviction moratorium

A group of representatives and senators in Congress are pushing the Trump administration to halt evictions during the coronavirus outbreak. Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Katie Porter of California and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont penned a letter Tuesday to the Department of Housing and Urban Development urging a moratorium on evicting anyone in HUD-assisted rental housing, public housing or those who receive Housing Choice Vouchers. Pressley and the senators also asked landlord trade associations to halt evicting their tenants. 

"Evicting families puts their health at risk, imposes trauma on and disrupts the education of their children, and exacerbates the risk of outbreak in their communities," they wrote to landlords. State lawmakers last week filed legislation that would pause evictions and foreclosures until Gov. Baker rescinds the state of emergency.

NEPR’s Heather Brandon, Karen Brown and Sam Hudzik contributed to this report, which includes information from State House News Service, WSHU and The Associated Press.

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