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Reporter debrief: Massachusetts governor issues mask advisory, calls on National Guard as COVID surges

A map of Massachusetts.
COVID cases are surging across the Northeast and hospitalizations in New England are on the rise.

COVID cases are surging across the Northeast and hospitalizations in New England are on the rise.

In Massachusetts on Tuesday, Republican Gov. Charlie Bakerissued a mask advisory and activated up to 500 National Guard members to help alleviate pressure for health care facilities in the state.

VPR’s Liam Elder-Connors spoke with New England Public Media reporter Adam Frenier to talk about what’s being going on in Massachusetts.

Liam Elder-Connors: First, could you give us a rundown of the COVID cases in your region?

Adam Frenier: Well, Liam, the numbers certainly have been going up, and the positivity rates across Massachusetts have been going up.

On Nov. 1, it was at about 1.75%. And as of yesterday, it was at 6.45%. So, there's certainly more cases out there.

Check out more of New England Public Media's coverage here.

You know, we've seen climbs in some of our biggest cities in western Massachusetts, where I cover such as Springfield, and Holyoke and Westfield and Pittsfield. And it's been very interesting that all of this has really happened in the last six or so weeks.

There's a bit of a gradual climb at the beginning of November, but it certainly is taken off in the last few weeks.

Now, Gov. Baker has resisted calls to institute a statewide mask mandate. But on Tuesday he issued a mask advisory. Could you walk us through exactly what that is and why Baker instituted this measure?

Well, Baker, a Republican, has really resisted telling cities and towns what to do. He's left the decision up to local leaders really since Massachusetts kind of came out of the first wave of the pandemic a little while ago. And he really does not want to tell cities and towns, you know, how to run the show.

And so, he stopped short yesterday of issuing the mask mandate. He's encouraging people to wear them; he wants people to wear them. But he doesn't want to cross that line, for whatever reason, to say that you must wear them and he's leaving it up to local towns.

And some around here have started to reinstitute mask mandates. Greenfield, which is about 10 or 15 miles to the south of Brattleboro, did it last week. In Springfield, though, which has more than 150,000 people, the mayor is only threatening to do it. He hasn't taken the plunge yet to issue that mandate.

More from VPR News: Reporter debrief: In New York's North Country, vaccination lags and COVID's been surging for months

And Baker's taking a lot of heat from this from a lot of legislative leaders who are all Democrats in Massachusetts, but he's not going to face any political fallout from this because he's not running for another term.

So, he's remained very consistent about, you know, leaving this decision in the hands of mayors and boards of health all across Massachusetts.

Well, aside from this mask advisory that Baker issued on Tuesday, did he announce any other public health measures to mitigate the surge in Massachusetts?

He did. He's asking hospitals to limit elective surgeries for the time being to try to hold on to hospital capacity, which is becoming a problem in Massachusetts.

For instance, at our region's largest hospital, Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, they're over capacity. And last week, their leadership discussed the possibility of having to ration care if things did not improve. So that was one step that Baker took.

Another one was he called up to 500 National Guard people into service to help out with hospital functions. A lot of these hospitals are understaffed. That was a problem that the leadership at Baystate talked about, which is causing some of the capacity issues.

Well, with this rise in cases and sort of threat of hospitals being overrun, public health officials at all levels are urging people to get vaccinated and get their booster shot. What is the vaccination rate in your region? And are there any efforts to boost it?

Well, overall, the number for Massachusetts right now is 74%. In the four western counties of Massachusetts, where we cover, that number is considerably lower.

And there have been, you know, mayors who have gone before their cities begging, pleading people to get shots. It's been a problem, you know, particularly the further south you go in Hampden County. As I mentioned, Springfield's our region's largest city, their vaccination rates just over 55%. It's been a problem there.

And interestingly enough, Liam, the population of Springfield is about two-thirds either Latino or Black. And those two demographics are the lowest vaccinated demographics in the city. So, you know, maybe some hesitancy, maybe some difficulty with outreach, but it's been a problem there, and also in Holyoke too, where more than half the population is Latino.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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