Walsh Says More COVID-19 Testing and Tracing Needed for Return to Normalcy

Mayor Marty Walsh said during a virtual forum last week he expects a greater capacity for testing for and contact tracing COVID-19 would need to be in place and more data collected before Boston can return to “some sense of normalcy,” and that he expects the city’s stay-at-home advisory set to expire on May 4 would likely be extended by an additional five or six weeks.

“Going back will be a whole different situation than it was two months ago because the coronavirus could be very much alive and front and center,” Mayor Walsh said during the online discussion on Thursday, April 23, that also featured Dr. Peter Slavin, president of Mass General Hospital and was moderated by Janelle Nanos, The Boston Globe’s business reporter. “We need data to decide what to open and see what populations of people are vulnerable.”

The city quickly set up, and is now operating 10 centers to test for the coronavirus, which is now reaching its peak, he said.

“For the last two weeks, we’ve been seeing 200 new cases every single day and for the foreseeable suture, it’ll probably stay there or even go up a little,” the mayor said. “Last week was the larges increase in the city, and for the next week or two, we’re going to see the numbers bump up.”

Mayor Walsh added, “It’s about keeping not getting the virus, and keeping people alive. As of right now, we literally have to take it one day at a time.”

In response to whether antibody screening and temperature checks will become routine once “new normal” comes to pass, Mayor Walsh said, “The answers we have today could be very much different than the answers we have tomorrow.”

City Hall is now only open two days each week, and temperature checks are administered to everyone who enters the building.

The city is also providing support available for those suffering emotionally from social isolation and other effects of the coronavirus by calling 3-1-1, the mayor said.

Mayor Walsh said more-frequent MBTA service would be necessary as more return to work and when students resume classes, but more data needs to be collected before that happens.

 “How do we bring the workforce back in shifts, and will there still be opportunities to work from people for people over 65 or with preexisting health conditions?” the mayor asked. “Having that information is very important to how we get back to work,”

Unlike New York City, Boston has no plans to cancel its youth employment program this summer, Mayor Walsh said, but it likely won’t be as “comprehensive” as years past.

And Mayor Walsh was also optimistic regarding the likelihood of the city sponsoring a summer camp again this year.

 “By the summer, kids will have physically been out of school buildings for six months,” the mayor said. “It’s too early to tell, but we hope to have some sort of a summer camp this year.”

Mayor Walsh said minorities have accounted for 60 percent of the recorded cases of COVID-19 in Boston, which prompted the city to form the Health Inequities Task Force.

The coronavirus has put the “spotlight” on the inequity between the city’s haves and have-nots not just in regard to healthcare, but also housing, access to food and other essential needs, he said.

But even though inequity has been pervasive in the healthcare system for a long time, Mayor Walsh said when it comes to handling patients with COVID-19, “hospitals have treated everyone the same in this case.”

Dr. Slevin said lower-income areas like Chelsea and Revere, which MGH has relationships with, have been hit hard by COVID-19, adding that of 200 people tested for the antibody against the coronavirus in Chelsea’s Bellingham Square earlier this month, 32 percent tested positive.

As for the cause of these alarming findings, Dr. Slevin cited a recent study of cellphone activity that showed the wealthy generally stay at home and abide by social distancing while the poor, who often have essential jobs, go to work and put themselves at risk.

 “The good news is that it appears that we’re reaching the peak of the curve, but we don’t know whether it will be a shallow or a steep curve,” he said.

While it typically takes between 12 and 18 months to develop a vaccine, Dr. Slevin said other treatment options are now being explored.

“We have our fingers crossed that these drugs will be effective, and local hospitals are working on solutions,” he said. “We’re hopeful that a treatment is on the horizon.”

Dr. Slevin added, “There is a range of antibody testing out there now, and the FDA needs to identify which ones are the highest quality.”

In response to the threshold for nonessential businesses to reopen, Dr. Slevin said, “I don’t know at this point how long it will take to get there. We have to wait for the transmission rate to get close to 0.

“We need herd immunity where 60 or 70 percent of the population has been exposed to the virus or vaccinated,” he added. “We can’t fool around with this despite our wish to go summer camp or my desire to play golf.”

While Dr. Slevin said the White House has suggested it would make sense for young, healthy people to increase activities first before older people, he cautioned that reopening society too soon could have dire consequences.

“When will we have the volume of tests to do mass testing, that will determine what can and can’t be open this summer,” Dr. Slevin said. “We do need to reopen at some point, but we have to be careful as to nor precipitate a second wave that would dwarf the one now.”

Mayor Walsh also pointed to the very real possibility that Boston could experience a resurgence of COVID-19.

“We have to anticipate a second surge and can’t afford to shut down society like we have for the past couple of months,” the mayor said.

In looking at ways to mollify the economic impact of the coronavirus on the city, Mayor Walsh said a business person suggested to him that the economy should stop for three months and, during this time, “put things on pause like loans, mortgages and rent.”

“Short of doing that, it’s up to the federal government to keep businesses alive,” the mayor said, adding that the city can’t afford to bail out every one of its small businesses without help from the banking industry, as well as the White House.

“It’s time for us to come together as a country, and let’s leave partisan politics behind,” Mayor Walsh said. “And it’s time to be a leader because that’s what this country needs.”

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