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Massachusetts Ramps Up Testing To 'Get Ahead' Of COVID-19 At Care Facilities

Cheryl Bento salutes as a hearse carrying Mary Foley's body passes by Sunrise Senior Living in Arlington, Massachusetts, where Foley used to live.
Jesse Costa
Cheryl Bento salutes as a hearse carrying Mary Foley's body passes by Sunrise Senior Living in Arlington, Massachusetts, where Foley used to live.

As the COVID-19 death toll climbs in Massachusetts, nursing homes and long-term care facilities are bearing a big impact — nearly half of the deaths are at nursing homes.

A nursing home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, run by JGS LifeCare, said Friday it had more than 20 deaths from the new coronavirus. About 45% of coronavirus deaths in the state are at long-term care facilities. 

Reporter Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to talk about what state officials are doing about it.

Matt Murphy: State House News Service: So far, the state has reported cases of COVID-19 in 199 long-term care and nursing facilities. Three hundred forty people in these facilities have died and about 3,000 or more have become infected.

What the state has done is to ramp up testing to try, as best they can, to get ahead of this.

It was always a fear that in these congregate care settings, where people are living in close quarters, that a virus — once it got inside — could spread quickly.

They've deployed National Guard teams with expertise in testing to as many facilities as they can to test all residents. That way, they know who is infected, who is not, and they can segregate, and make plans from there.

But it is certainly something that they are struggling to get ahead of, because we keep seeing the number of these cases rise.

Carrie Healy, New England Public Radio: Federal prosecutors are now looking into what happened at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home. This comes on top of two other investigations. And the sidelined superintendent, Bennett Walsh, says he kept state officials constantly updated as the crisis unfolded. At last count, 32 veterans there died who tested positive for COVID-19. Are top state officials worried what the feds might find there?

Yeah, this whole situation is getting a little bit messy since this first started. And you've heard Governor Baker say that he was caught off guard by the depth of the problem at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home. They removed Bennett Walsh from his leadership position, and sent in a new team to try and get things under control there.

But we now have a special prosecutor who was brought in by the Baker administration to investigate what went wrong. Attorney General Maura Healey is investigating. And now U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling is also investigating.

And you have the timeline laid out by top senior Baker administration officials, like the governor himself, as to when he says he found out. But then you have the administration at Holyoke saying that they had been notifying the state all along, and raising red flags, and asking for help, and that some of those pleas went unanswered.

The governor says he welcomes the investigation. To the best of his knowledge, his story — that he only found out at the tail end, right before he removed Walsh from his role — stands. But certainly, I think there's definitely more information that's going to come to light on this, as we understand how quickly the virus spread there, and what was done wrong.

The state last week started releasing race and ethnicity data for people testing positive and dying from COVID-19. But that information's not available in about two-thirds of cases. The Health and Human Services Secretary, MaryLou Sudders, says the data is crucial, and the state is now requiring labs to get it. But why did it take so long?

That's a great question. It did take for a number of high-profile people to start calling on the state to collect and release this data. Secretary Sudders says that this is crucial to understanding where and who this virus is impacting the hardest.

But I think what you're seeing in the numbers they are reporting is part of the problem they were experiencing as they were trying to put together this reporting system: not all of this demographic data is immediately available.

The numbers we're seeing now, reported out on a daily basis, are very incomplete. You still have well over 60%, close to 70% of cases, where race and ethnic data is unknown, which makes the data we have not very useful. So I think they're trying to improve that, and that's part of why you saw them take their time in rolling out this reporting system.

U.S. Representative Joe Kennedy III, who's running for U.S. Senate in the September Democratic primary, has asked state lawmakers to pass vote-by-mail legislation. It's hard to say where the coronavirus pandemic will be in September, but what's the likelihood of something like this becoming law?

I think it depends on what happens with the virus. I think the legislature in Massachusetts has the advantage of the fact they're still in session, and you're likely to see them take their time, and watch and see what's going to be necessary, before they move to a vote-by-mail system.

It's far more likely you'll see something done with the signatures on a more short-term basis.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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