City marks first deaths from virus; case-load rises

Gov. Baker and Mary Lou Sudders, Sec. of Health and Human Services huddle over the weekend. SHNS photo

Baker orders ‘non-essential’ businesses to shut their doors for the next two weeks

Amid mixed messages from Washington about the likely duration of the COVID-19 emergency – with the president himself suggesting an end to disruption within two weeks – Bostonians prepared for far worse this week as the number of positive cases of the pandemic disease ticked up steadily, along with two reported deaths in Boston.

As of Tuesday noon, state officials reported that 1,159 people in Massachusetts had tested positive for the illness, and 11 had died from the disease, with many more cases in the population likely still undetected. A total of 13,749 people had been tested across the state.

Gov. Baker ordered up the most aggressive phase yet in the fight against the highly contagious coronavirus. As of noon Tuesday, any business not deemed essential was ordered to shut down for two weeks. The governor’s latest order requires any workplace that does not conduct a service the state considers essential – a detailed list that includes grocery stores, pharmacies, media, and transportation – to close its physical operations while also cutting the maximum size for public social gatherings to 10, down from 25.

Residents of the state are advised — the administration stopped short of declaring a formal shelter-in-place order that Baker has repeatedly resisted — to stay home as much as possible and avoid “unnecessary travel and other unnecessary activities” for the next two weeks.

In Dorchester, testing for the disease began last Friday at Carney Hospital and several health centers, although the procedure was restricted to patients who had been given prescriptions for the tests by their physicians.

At Codman Square Health Center, a tent was set up outside its main building to screen visitors for COVID-19 symptoms. Yellow caution tape blocked the path to stairs that normally lead to the lobby. Signage in English, Spanish and Haitian Kreyol read: “For patient safety, all patients and visitors will need to have a brief screening before they enter the Health Center.”

Codman’s CEO Sandra Cotterell said the outside screening is one of several new measures put in place over the last week as the facility braces for what everyone expects will be a surge in virus cases.

“This is changing quickly,” she said last Wednesday. “This is no longer a day-to-day situation. It’s hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute.”

“We are telling people who don’t have an urgent care issue or immunizations not to come in,” said Cotterell, who said that many routine patient matters are now being done over the telephone— something she calls “telehealth.” The health center has modified its hours slightly. It is now open 9 a.m.- 7 p.m., Monday to Friday, 9 a.m.- 3 p.m. on Saturdays and 9 a.m.- 1 p.m. on Sundays.

“Even though we may have staff there, we want to use those ‘off’ hours to monitor our inventory,” she said.

Michelle Nadow, CEO of DotHouse Health, said similar protocols are now in place at the Dorchester Avenue facility. She noted that a combination of workforce stress, short supplies of critical protective gear, and financial strains on the health center were all challenges facing her and the 250 employees.

“As you can expect, many of our staff are affected by the necessary school closures that make it difficult for them to come to work,” Nadow said. “We’re also trying to keep up with demands for personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep our staff and patients safe. We have roughly 14 days’ worth of PPE on hand, and the average for health centers is about 6-18 days’ worth.” 

Nadow said many donors had stepped forward to connect DotHouse with supplies, “including Rep. Liz Miranda, Councillors Frank Baker and Annissa Essaibi-George, the Feeney Brothers, and a myriad of others.” 

She said that her facility had seen more than 1,100 patients in the last week, about 50 percent less volume that usual. Most people are conducting all but urgent care appointments over the phone.

“Of course, we’re having people come in if they really need to for whatever reason, Nadow said. “Our urgent care is still open. It feels really important to continue to offer that service, and help people stay out of emergency rooms— and now it’s more important than ever. We don’t want people possibly getting exposed to COVID-19.” 

Protecting the region’s front-line health workers and first responders and essential support staff has become an urgent priority. The MBTA has advised that commuters should only travel by train and bus for essential trips. The T said customers should “avoid any and all unnecessary service,” and that by doing so, the service that does remain will be available to health care workers, grocery store employees, and other travelers who rely on public transit to get to jobs at the front line of fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

As of Monday, Mayor Walsh said that one Boston police officer and one EMT have tested positive for COVID-19 and are recovering at home. Three more EMTs are under quarantine as a precaution, he said. Walsh reiterated the need for Bostonians and everyone in the state to stay physically isolated from other people.

“The best way to show gratitude to the people on the front lines of this is to stay home— because so many people can’t stay home,” said Walsh. “Physical distancing is the most effective way we have to slow the spread, to keep people healthy, and to preserve our medical capacity.”

The mayor announced Monday that he hired retired four-star Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal to coordinate city’s COVID-19 efforts, leading a team that Walsh called “the McChrystal Group.”

The city will not be deploying police or other personnel to enforce the governor’s order to “stay-at-home,” Walsh said.

“Right now, it’s a common-sense thing,” he said. “All you have to do is look to Italy and see the number of deaths happening in Italy. We want to prevent that from happening in the United States and Massachusetts and the city of Boston. So, we’re asking businesses to do the right thing here.