Field hospital plans in works for the BCEC

Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston. SHNS image

Visiting the Worcester arena that's being turned into the state's first COVID-19 field hospital, Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday disclosed plans to set up a similar operation at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center to bolster the capacity of the health care system as the state prepares for a surge in coronavirus infections in the coming days.

Baker has projected a surge will arrive in Massachusetts between April 7 and April 17. He said during a Wednesday press conference at the DCU Center that testing for the virus is a "key part" of determining where resources will be needed.

In addition to the DCU Center and the BCEC, Baker said state officials are involved "basically in daily conversations" about other sites that could provide extra hospital beds and skilled nursing capacity. They're looking at capacity regionally, he said.

"There are going to be ultimately strategies for the Cape, for the South Coast, for Western Mass., for Merrimack Valley and for Boston, and each strategy is going to be based on the existing capacity that exists in each of those places, and what people's anticipated requirements in a surge are going to demand," Baker said.

Baker said the state will "do everything we can to make sure that we put in place the capacity that people believe they need" to treat both COVID-19 patients and those with other acute health needs.

The governor said he'd have more to say Thursday about efforts to acquire personal protective equipment, a major focus of those on the front lines, and that he's expecting dormitories and hotels in part of the state to be used for a variety of purposes relating to the coronavirus.

As Baker spoke and uniformed National Guard members moved behind him setting up cots and other equipment between full-length curtains, the Department of Public Health published new data showing that the total number of COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations linked to the virus all continued to climb.

For the second day in a row, 33 deaths were reported, and at least 682 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized. A total of 7,738 cases have been confirmed, and more than 50,000 people have now been tested. More than half of those tests were conducted through Quest Laboratories.

Baker said Massachusetts is now a leader among states in the number of tests it has conducted, behind New York and Washington. He said testing helps make clear "where a lot of the positives are landing so that we can make decisions around things like how we're going to organize our health care capacity to deal with the surge."

But, he said, somewhere between 20 percent to 25 percent of people infected with the virus are asymptomatic.

"The whole point behind all this work that we're doing, all the disruption we're creating for people, all the major changes in the way we live, is about keeping people far enough away from each other for a long enough period of time that people don't pass this on from one person to the next," he said. "And I can't express how important that is, not just for people who are symptomatic, but also for people who are asymptomatic."

Massachusetts has been in a state of emergency around the coronavirus for more than three weeks, and schools and most businesses are slated to remain closed throughout the entire month of April. Many people are working from home -- Baker said "everybody" is trying to upgrade telecommunications capacity to account for "about 50 times as much traffic running through it as they had running two or three weeks ago" -- while others have been laid off or furloughed.

"It's hard to believe that a few weeks ago, the governor declared a state of emergency, and it seems, I'm sure for all of you, that a few weeks ago, our lives were very different and seem so far away from where we are today," Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said. "Like you, I wake up and feel mixed emotions."

Polito, who lives in Shrewsbury, said she was proud to see Worcester host the state's first field hospital. The 250-bed facility will be managed by UMass Memorial Health Care.

Polito said UMass Memorial is recruiting volunteers "to step up and devote their time to help with this effort."

Baker said the Army Corps of Engineers presented him "almost like a cookbook" of options for adding medical capacity, and that large spaces with open floor plans like the Worcester arena and South Boston convention center provide a lot of flexibility for replicating models that have been used successfully elsewhere.

"And that's a much easier answer than trying to find a way to work within the confines and the framework of either dormitories or hotels," he said. "I will say this -- we expect and anticipate that in parts of Massachusetts dormitories and hotels are going to be used for a variety of purposes that have to do with supporting health care workers and, in some cases, probably used for isolation and quarantine opportunities."