Coronavirus tracker: Statewide update for Saturday

A sign about preventing the spread of the new coronavirus and other diseases is posted at the entrance to the Aquarium transit station in Boston on Saturday.

Massachusetts reported more than 100 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday as testing for the highly-contagious coronavirus, like its impacts on the region's health and economy, continues to expand.

The 112 new positive cases reported by the Department of Public Health on Saturday brings the total number of cases in Massachusetts to 525. The state's first, and so far only, COVID-19 death was announced Friday. The first confirmed case was reported here Feb. 1.

DPH's Saturday update was the first to report a case of the coronavirus on either Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket. It's unclear which island now has a case, since DPH reported Dukes and Nantucket counties together have a single case. Middlesex County continues to have the largest number of cases, 177, followed by Suffolk County with 108 cases and Norfolk County with 69 cases.

Earlier Saturday, during his daily coronavirus press conference, Gov. Charlie Baker said that the state had made good progress in the last week to up its testing capacity. Between Wednesday and Friday, the governor said, capacity at all labs increased roughly 65 percent, from just under 700 tests on Wednesday to 1,144 on Friday, Baker said. The number of tests actually conducted nearly doubled from 520 tests conducted Wednesday to 962 tests performed Friday, he said.

New testing numbers released Saturday afternoon by DPH showed that 5,277 COVID-19 tests have been performed in Massachusetts — 3,031 by the state public health lab and 2,246 by commercial and other labs — since Feb. 28.

Baker said Massachusetts can mirror what's been done shown to be effective in other countries "by testing enough fast enough to be able to catch up to the growth in new cases, and then doing the tracing work and isolating everybody. And that's where we got to get."

By the beginning of the coming week, Baker has said, the state's public health lab and commercial labs must get a to a point at which they can conduct a minimum of 3,500 tests each day.

The governor also said Saturday that he and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh have had productive conversations with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about retrofitting college dorms or other facilities into extra hospital space.

He said the state's Coronavirus Command Center has been talking to hospitals to "scenario plan" for an influx of COVID-19 patients, and will now work to pick some sites in Massachusetts that the Army Corps might be able to convert over the next few weeks.

The MBTA announced Saturday morning that buses and street-level trolley stops will begin to use rear-door boarding in an attempt to limit contact between drivers and passengers during the coronavirus outbreak. Passengers with accessibility needs, including seniors, can still use the front doors, but all others will be asked only to use the back doors to enter buses, Green Line above-ground trains and the Mattapan Line trolleys.

Airlines press for congressional action

Airline industry executives wrote to Congressional leaders Sunday imploring them to take immediate action to protect workers and help the industry survive damage from the COVID-19 crisis.In the Airlines for America letter, the leaders of companies like American, Delta, FedEx Express, Southwest and JetBlue said carriers would not furlough employees or make workforce reductions through Aug. 31 if worker payroll protection grants worth $29 billion are enacted.

If loans and/or loan guarantees worth $29 billion are approved, the carriers committed to placing limits on executive compensation, and eliminating stock buybacks and stock dividends over the life of the loans. At his daily COVID-19 press conference Saturday, Gov. Charlie Baker described the problem facing airlines.

"There's been an incredible drop in flights period, which is just driven by the fact that nobody's flying," Baker said. "And that's just put tremendous pressure on the airlines' ability to actually stay in the air, which I think is probably going to continue."

Emergency child care provider list

State early education officials have published a directory of emergency providers who will provide back-up, drop-in child care, with priority given to groups including health care workers, essential state and human service workers, COVID-19 health workers, grocery store employees, emergency response personnel, law enforcement, transportation and infrastructure workers, sanitation workers, DCF-involved families and families living in shelters.

These emergency providers are exempt from an order Gov. Baker issued that will temporarily close all early childhood education programs in the state from Monday, April 23, through at least April 6.

The state is advising residents not to "contact an emergency child care program unless you require emergency, back-up, drop-in care," and officials say the emergency programs "are for when all other non-group-care settings have been exhausted and families have no other options."

UMB unions call for continued pay

Unions at the University of Massachusetts Boston are calling on campus and system leadership to continue paying all workers — including part-time and full-time staff, faculty and student workers — while the school continues the rest of its semester through online learning.

"We should seek savings where we can — through cancelled travel and events, and even through saved office supplies — but we should guarantee that every worker who depends on us for their livelihood will continue to be paid," the unions wrote in a message to UMass President Marty Meehan and interim UMass Boston Chancellor Katherine Newman.

"To do less would irresponsibly shift the burden onto other public funds which are needed for workers in businesses and industries that are failing." The note was signed by representatives of UMass Boston's Professional Staff Union, Department Chairs Union, Graduate Employee Organization, Classified Staff Union and Faculty Staff Union.

Virtual town halls scheduled to aid unemployed

Unemployment assistance officials will host five virtual town halls this week to help people whose jobs have been affected by the coronavirus crisis. The town hall organizers say the events will take people "through a step by step process of achieving a successful unemployment claim" offer an opportunity for claimants to ask questions and get answers.

COVID-19 enters the prisons

Visitation rights have been suspended at all state prisons as an advocacy group fighting for the rights of inmates said Saturday that the first case of coronavirus in a lockup facility had been detected in Bridgewater. Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts said that an inmate at the Massachusetts Treatment Center had tested positive of COVID-19, and executive director Elizabeth Matos expressed concern that the Department of Correction was not prepared for a potential outbreak in the prison system.

"We are behind the eight ball on prevention and need to act aggressively to prevent the number of infections from reaching tragic numbers. The Department Correction and Sheriffs, working with proper health authorities, must quickly and transparently create, release, and execute a comprehensive plan for COVID-19 in the state's prisons and jails, and it must include releases," Matos said.

The facility in Bridgewater is a medium security prison housing male inmates identified as sex offenders and those who have been civilly committed as sexually dangerous persons. A notice posted on the DOC's website states that inmate visits by family and friends have been suspended at the state's 16 correctional facilities.

"Reinstatement of visits will continue to be evaluated on an on-going basis. Attorney visits will not be impacted and will be permitted during this time," the notice states. Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said Saturday that the Bridgewater inmate had been isolated, and "contact tracing" was being done to test anyone, including staff, who he may have come in contact with.

Drugmaker touts ifenprodil clinical study

Algernon Pharmaceuticals has named Novotech as the research organization for a planned study of NP-120 (Ifenprodil) for patients infected with COVID-19 in South Korea. After a clinical trial is approved Algernon plans to provide full details on the study protocol and timelines.

Algernon also announced Friday that Novotech has been retained to conduct a feasibility study in Australia for a phase 2 sponsor-initiated Ifenprodil COVID-19 trial. NP-120 was developed by Sanofi in the 1970s in the French and Japanese markets for the treatment of circulatory disorders, according to Algernon, and the drug is "genericized and sold in Japan and South Korea and is used to treat certain neurological conditions."

MBTA switching to rear-door boarding

All MBTA buses and street-level trolley stops will use rear-door boarding starting Saturday in an attempt to limit contact between drivers and passengers during the coronavirus outbreak. Passengers with accessibility needs, including seniors, can still use the front doors, but all others will be asked only to use the back doors to enter buses, Green Line above-ground trains and the Mattapan Line trolleys. MBTA and employee union officials say the practice will help enforce the social distancing that public health experts say is key to limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Medical marijuana telehealth

State marijuana regulators announced late Friday that providers are now allowed to certify prospective patients for the state's medical marijuana program through the use of a telehealth waiver in accordance with an order issued by Gov. Baker relative to the coronavirus pandemic. Executive Director Shawn Collins on Friday sent a bulletin outlining the process of waiving the requirement for the duration of the state of emergency.

"The requirement that a potential patient ('Patient') be physically present for a clinical visit ... would cause undue hardship to Providers and Patients by increasing the risk of their exposure to COVID-19," Collins wrote. The CCC already allows telehealth services to be used for program renewals.