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As Deaths From COVID-19 Rise, 'Still A Lot Of Uncertainty' For Mass. Officials

A week ago, Massachusetts officials reported five deaths attributable to the coronavirus. As of Monday morning, there were 48.

The state confirmed nearly 5,000 cases of COVID-19 as of Monday morning — and no one believes the end is in sight.

State House News Service reporter Matt Murphy joins us to talk about whether there seems to be more confusion or confidence among state officials.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: Certainly, the increase in testing, which was always the goal, has led to the rapid rise in the number of cases. I think what you're seeing is especially on Beacon Hill, where they're trying to wrap their heads around what this is going to mean for state government.

There's still a lot of uncertainty. They're trying to figure out financially what this is going to mean. And as you know, they can't predict when the economy will reopen. So that creates big-picture budget problems for the state as they try to grapple with delivering services right now in the current fiscal year, as well as planning for next fiscal year, which begins in July.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker's press briefings have become a daily event at the State House.
Credit Sam Doran / State House News Service
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State House News Service
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker's press briefings have become a daily event at the State House.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker used emergency powers last week and proposed some things that require the legislature to act. The Senate is expected to give final passage Monday to a bill to extend the tax filing deadline to July, something the federal government has already done. And it gives a little nudge to some restaurants doing takeout and delivery. Can you talk about that?

Yes, part of this bill Governor Baker proposed — what you've seen a number of other states do — is expand liquor licenses to allow these restaurants that have been able to stay open, as long as they're doing takeout-only business, to include alcohol — leave beer and wine in those takeout orders.

The House took its time. They reviewed this bill last week. They took input from members, and ultimately they passed this measure with some additional restrictions. The House, for instance, put in some severe age verification requirements in there, which you would expect restaurants to be doing. But they also required that all orders of alcohol be made before midnight.

This bill now moves to the Senate where we do expect it to pass this week, and restaurants should be able to expand their businesses a little bit.

Massachusetts is announcing a program this week to help trace contacts of people with COVID-19, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Lou Sudders. Is there any additional information about that plan? With 5,000 cases already, is this just too late?

Yes, [Sudders] teased that they would be rolling out a bigger expanded tracing program last week. This was something they were doing very early on, and continue to do. But as the number of cases have risen, this has become all that much more difficult.

Sudders did say she was working with some of the public health schools across the state, as well as medical schools, to bring in a lot of those students who are maybe taking classes online, but may have extra time on their hands, to supplement the state workforce, and to really help boost a more robust tracing program.

So I think you can expect to see her talk about the number of students that they've brought into this program that will allow them to trace more and more people.

Is it too late? I guess that is something we'll have to see. But as the number of cases rises, people are observing stay-at-home orders, and they can track down contacts. That would only serve to help.

You reported last week that the Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel tested positive for COVID-19. The governor's been at a lot of meetings with her. I understand he's not been tested?

That's right. He has not been tested. And he said, actually, that he had not been in the same building as her for at least a week. The governor says he remains asymptomatic, and like other people who don't have symptoms and can't get tested, he is not being tested.

He was actually at the American Red Cross on Saturday with the first lady of Massachusetts to donate blood and to urge others to do the same. And they took his temperature before that happened. And he said he was a cool 97.7 degrees.

So the people who do need to be tested, apparently, have been notified. The governor was not one of them.

And I did even go back — the public health commissioner was supposed to be with Governor Baker at one of his press conferences last week, on Tuesday. She did not end up appearing there. And perhaps their ability to stay away from one another has negated his exposure for now.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.

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