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Coronavirus Updates For Western New England: Mass. Officials Estimate Up To 172,000 Cases

In a matter of "weeks and months," as many as 172,000 Massachusetts residents could become infected with the coronavirus and the surge of COVID-19 patients hospitals have been preparing for is now expected to hit sometime between April 10 and April 20, Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday afternoon.

The new projections are the result of a model put together over the last several weeks by public health experts, health care providers, academics and others. The governor detailed the information gleaned from the model in-depth for the first time Thursday.

"We estimate at this point in time that the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts will range somewhere between 47,000 and 172,000 cases during the course of the pandemic. That's about 0.7 percent to two-and-a-half percent of the total population in Massachusetts, and at this time the modeling indicates that hospitalizations would potentially peak between April 10 and April 20," Baker said. "The current fatality rate in Massachusetts is lower than in many other parts of the country in the world, currently running at approximately one-and-a-half percent of those infected."

If the current fatality rate were to hold, the range of infections Baker gave Thursday could be expected to lead to between 705 and 2,580 COVID-19 deaths in the Bay State.

The model is based on data and experiences in Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, Baker said. He noted that there are several important differences between Wuhan and Massachusetts — including a lower population density here, a lower smoking rate and strict social distancing measures enacted sooner — and said "we do anticipate Massachusetts trajectory could differ for" those reasons and others.

"We know all models are not perfect, but obviously you need to plan for the worst and at the end of the day hope you do not need to go that far," the governor said.

As of Thursday afternoon, Massachusetts has reported 8,966 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 154 deaths, while more than 5,000 people are officially under quarantine while they're monitored for symptoms.

Public health officials reported 32 new deaths in Massachusetts, a figure similar to recent days. The update from the state also reported that there are 1,228 new laboratory-confirmed cases of the disease, the largest daily increase so far. That comes as Massachusetts continues to ramp up testing.

More deaths at Soldiers' Home in Holyoke

Massachusetts officials now say as many as 16 residents of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke have died because of COVID-19. Twelve of those cases have been confirmed by testing. The others are pending or unknown. In addition, at least 23 living veterans at the facility have tested positive for the disease.

That number could rise as more results come back from the lab. A state spokesperson said they are setting up isolation and quarantine zones at the Soldiers' Home to help contain the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, two veterans at the sister facility in Chelsea have also died from the disease.

Elsewhere in New England

Connecticut on Thursday announced 27 additional deaths tied to COVID-19, bringing its total to 112 so far. The state also announced 267 new laboratory-confirmed cases of the disease. Overall, the state has recorded 3,824 positive tests.

Vermont reported one new death related to the virus. The state, so far, has disclosed 17 fatalities and 338 confirmed cases, an increase of 17 from Wednesday. That represented Vermont's smallest single-day increase in cases since March 21.

Rhode Island officials announced two new deaths in their update Thursday, bringing the state's total to 12, with 657 people testing positive.

Maine's death toll held steady at seven. The state has announced 376 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19.

And in New Hampshire, an additional death was announced, bringing the total to five. To date, 479 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in New Hampshire.

Connecticut to limit customers in all retail stores

Retail stores around Connecticut will be required to limit the number of customers allowed inside stores effective Friday. The new rules from Gov. Ned Lamont, similar to an earlier agreement by Connecticut grocers this week, will apply to all retailers in the state, not just grocery stores. 

Store occupancy will be capped at 50% of a store’s local fire code capacity, and staff will maintain a count of the number of customers entering and exiting the building. A spokesperson for Lamont said local and state police “have the authority to respond” if the rules are ignored.

"People are taking this thing seriously," Lamont said Wednesday. "We’ve had the municipal police, we've had the state police — we've gone and we checked. We looked at places where there are apparently going to be crowds. We worried about that. And we found that, in almost all cases, people are taking these social dictates pretty seriously. And, frankly, the customers are taking it seriously, as well."

Nurses union knocks owner of Mercy, Providence

The Massachusetts Nurses Association says the operators of health care facilities in the western part of the state are putting workers at risk by not providing enough personal protective equipment to guard against COVID-19. The union on Thursday said nurses at Mercy Hospital in Springfield and Providence Behavioral Health in Holyoke are being limited to one N95 respirator mask a day, and that gowns are in short supply.

Alex Wright, a nurse at Mercy, said there's also been confusion over if staff can wear protective gear they bring with them to work. "I'm going to get myself sick. I'm going to bring the sickness home to my family. I'm going to get other patients sick."

The nurses also said the hospital will no longer make N95 masks available to employees in one unit, despite it having positive and suspected coronavirus patients.

Trinity Health, the hospitals' parent company, said it's following CDC guidelines for conserving protective gear, given a nationwide shortage. "Additionally, because colleague safety is our top priority, plans are underway for universal masking for patient-facing colleagues, beginning [Friday]."

Patriots plane ferries critical masks from China to US

The New England Patriots team plane is returning to Boston from China carrying more than 1 million masks critical to health care providers fighting to control the spread of the coronavirus. The Wall Street Journal reports that Gov. Baker secured the N95 masks but had no way of getting them to the U.S. Team owner Robert Kraft offered to help. The plane, a Boeing 767 painted in the team's colors and logo, is usually used to carry the team to and from NFL games. 

Some 'essential' New England convenience stores give employee raises, bonuses

With their employees functioning in essential roles while many others are working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, some convenience stores around the state are giving their workers raises or bonuses. VERC Enterprises, a Duxbury-based company that runs 33 convenience stores and gas stations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, raised the hourly wage for its employees by $2 an hour, gave full-time workers a $500 bonus each, and part-time workers got $200 bonuses, the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association said.

Nouria Energy, which operates 137 convenience stores, gas stations and car washes in New England, raised the wages of its workers by $1 an hour, and Global Partners, which operates more than 300 gas stations and convenience stores in New England, is giving all employees $50 in food gift certificates each month.

At convenience stores around Massachusetts, employees have stepped up cleaning of "high-touch" surfaces and many stores have installed plexiglass dividers at the register counter to protect employees and customers.

Massachusetts managing access to public open spaces to encourage social distancing

Baker's office announced that the state is closing the parking lots at beaches managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation "to reduce large concentrations of people at beaches during the COVID-19 outbreak." The beaches themselves will remain open "to pedestrians for transitory use only (walking, jogging, biking, solitary fishing, etc.)" under the emergency order (PDF).

Baker's office also announced that DCR on Friday will open some seasonal state parks (PDF) early and expand access at others "to provide additional open space opportunities for residents to enjoy and alternatives to popular state parks."

Baker has repeatedly said people should be able to get outside and enjoy the fresh air during the pandemic, but some popular outdoor recreation areas have seen large crowds. At some high-visitation state parks, DCR plans to reduce the number of parking spaces available.

The administration recommended that people stay in very small groups, do not participate in activities that include contact with another person, and consider making a trip outside at a less busy time.

"The state parks system has over 450,000 acres of property, and every region of the state contains multiple parks to explore that may be less busy than others in the area," the administration said in its announcement.

New Hampshire targets child, domestic abuse during pandemic

New Hampshire is spending $2.6 million to target crimes committed behind closed doors during the coronavirus pandemic. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu on Wednesday announced $2 million to help the state respond to and prevent child abuse, and $600,000 for programs serving victims of domestic violence.

Moira O'Neill, director of the Office of the Child Advocate, said home confinement and disrupted routines could be contributing to child abuse, but calls to a state hotline have dropped because children are "out of school and out of sight." She and the governor urged neighbors, delivery people and others to watch for possible abuse.

COVID-19 in Massachusetts jails, prisons

Massachusetts now has coronavirus cases in three prisons and six jails across the state. Cases so far include: A health care worker at the Bristol County jail, announced Thursday, and the sheriff's office said she has not been in the facility since March 25; three staffers at the Hampden County jail; two prisoners at the Middlesex County jail; a worker at the Norfolk County sheriff's office; an employee at the Plymouth County House of Correction; and a staffer at the Essex County jail.

Vermont prison worker tests positive, no inmate cases found

The Vermont Department of Corrections says a staff member at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton has tested positive for COVID-19. In a news release sent late Wednesday, the department said the employee had "limited interactions" with the inmate population, but the worker had no such interaction in the 48 hours before showing symptoms. No Vermont prison inmates at the Swanton facility or elsewhere have tested positive for COVID-19.

NEPR’s Heather Brandon, Adam Frenier and Sam Hudzik contributed to this report, which includes information from State House News Service, WNPR, WBUR and The Associated Press.

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