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McGovern talks public health, economy and government’s response


Staff Writer
Published: 3/23/2020 7:46:07 PM

Governmental support is expected in handling both the immediate public health crisis of the coronavirus, and the economic fallout that is expected as containment measures force businesses to scale down.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, working remotely Sunday afternoon, took questions in a town hall-style conference call on the outlook for Massachusetts’ economy and health care facilities, and the state and federal governments’ possible responses. The conversation covered personal hygiene in the pandemic, the possibility of a “lockdown” in Massachusetts and the federal government’s emergency economic relief package.

Also with McGovern were Eric Dickson, a doctor from the University of Massachusetts Memorial Healthcare, and Bob Nelson, director of the federal Small Business Administration’s Massachusetts Office.

Congress last week began talks on an enormous economic support bill, the scope of which is still being debated. A proposal that is currently estimated to cost nearly $2 trillion is being discussed in the Senate, but failed its first vote Sunday.

McGovern did not want to discuss specific numbers, explaining that the particulars of the House’s proposal are not yet determined. But he said it would likely be the largest relief package ever in American history, and that it would likely include direct payments to all Americans.

“I want to do it as soon as humanly possible,” he said.

Depending on how long the now-inevitable economic recession lasts, he added, federal support may end up taking the form of structural changes.

The Small Business Administration, Nelson said, is giving loans at fixed interest rates, intended to support all typical capital needs of a traditional business.

Nelson and McGovern encouraged residents to find ways to support local businesses and to indicate present and future support, such as buying gift cards.

“Anything we can do to support the small business community, that’s what we need to do,” Nelson said.

“We don’t want to lose these businesses during this crisis,” McGovern said.

For the sake of public health, some states have imposed strict “lockdown” rules — including nearby Connecticut, New York and New Jersey — that are intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus by preventing social interaction, thus reducing the strain on hospitals.

Massachusetts has not been comparably locked down, but Gov. Charlie Baker has taken some emergency measures, including closures of schools and strict restrictions on restaurants.

Baker has considered a lockdown, said Dickson, the UMass Memorial doctor, but the efficacy of such policies is debatable.

Theoretically, he said, a lockdown could limit the virus from spreading, but would also cause a spike in cases when people resume their regular routines.

Better to do what we can now to slow the spread to a level that health care facilities can manage, he said. The worst-case scenario is a single massive outbreak, like what happened in Italy, that would totally overwhelm hospitals. By slowing the spread, hospitals can provide better care, and the survival rate will improve, Dickson said. Social distancing is the best way to do this.

“We just have to keep the burden of the disease below the capacity for us to care for patients,” he said.

Hospitals are “easily keeping up,” he said, and could still manage if things got 10 to 20 times worse.

“And we know things are going to get worse. The only thing we don’t know is how bad they’re going to get,” Dickson said.

Symptoms of COVID-19 commonly include a runny nose, a dry cough and a fever. More severe cases, Dickson said, can include multi-organ dysfunction, and can be fatal.

But because the supply of test kits is limited for now, and because current tests take 16 hours for a result, doctors and nurses are being advised not to test patients who are only mildly symptomatic, Dickson said.

Broader testing is expected in about a month, when a 45-minute test is expected to become available, he said.

For now, people with milder symptoms are being instructed to stay at home, limit social contact as fully as possible and treat their symptoms.

“It’s possible you have the coronavirus. It’s 19 times more likely you have something else now,” Dickson said.

Even among confirmed cases, hospitals are only admitting those that are urgently symptomatic, in an effort to ensure that they are not overwhelmed, Dickson said.

People with milder cases — runny nose, cough, fever — generally don’t need to be in a hospital, and their symptoms can easily be handled at home, Dickson said.

People who do not have symptoms may still be carrying the virus, Dickson said, which is why social distancing is important. Younger people, and especially young children, are likely to not show symptoms at all.

“You really need to treat everyone like they’re a potential carrier,” Dickson said.

The most likely way to pick up the coronavirus is by touching a surface with the virus on it, and then touching your face, Dickson said. He added that it is “extraordinarily unlikely” that the virus could be transmitted through the mail.

For better or worse, Dickson said, “Stress and worry do not help the immune system.”

Reach Max Marcus at or 413-930-4231.

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