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Seven takeaways from ‘The virus’s tale,’ an inside look at the spread of coronavirus in Massachusetts

Adrian Santiago tests a patient at a drive-through testing site at Beth Israel Deaconess HealthCare in Chelsea on April 29.
Adrian Santiago tests a patient at a drive-through testing site at Beth Israel Deaconess HealthCare in Chelsea on April 29.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

On Sunday, Globe reporters meticulously retraced the devastating path of the coronavirus through Massachusetts, which has lost more people to the virus than all but two states. “The Virus’s Tale” offers an inside look at how leaders faced perhaps the greatest health challenge in modern Massachusetts history, including delays and hesitations that likely added to the death toll.

Here are some key takeaways from the special report:

  • Massachusetts’ vaunted public health system delayed by a full week after evidence emerged the virus was spreading in two regions — Boston as well as western Massachusetts — before taking strong emergency actions. The delay from March 3 to March 10 may have increased the death toll from the pandemic significantly, based on research by Columbia University.
  • There was evidence that the coronavirus was spreading from person to person in Berkshire County by March 3, but state epidemiologists repeatedly declined to test the first suspected victim. Delays in recognizing that “community spread” had begun in Massachusetts allowed the coronavirus outbreak to spread unchecked for days.
  • By March 6, major institutions in Massachusetts were taking drastic steps in response to the pandemic: Massachusetts General Hospital began the extraordinary transfer of power to a special emergency management team. Harvard University’s president firmed up plans to shut down campus and move all instruction online. On the same day, Governor Charlie Baker left the state with his family for a ski vacation in Utah.
  • Gov. Baker, beset by calls about the mounting health crisis at home, cut short his vacation and returned to Beacon Hill on March 10, declaring a state of emergency and creating a COVID-19 command center. From there, Baker faced the biggest challenge of his career, fighting to make up lost ground even as two members of his leadership team contracted the virus. Baker Administration officials were perhaps most shocked by reports in April that dozens of elderly veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home had died from COVID-19. “Oh my God,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders when she heard the news. She immediately placed the home’s superintendent on administrative leave, though he insists he did nothing wrong.
  • The San Francisco Bay Area and Greater Boston are quite comparable, and both saw their first COVID-19 cases around the same time. But, as a percentage of overall population, Boston has suffered nearly 20 times as many COVID fatalities as San Francisco, while Massachusetts has lost 10 times more people than California. Public health officials attribute those stark differences at least in part to Massachusetts and Boston taking longer to ramp up social distancing and other measures to combat the virus.
  • Some of the hardest hit communities, such as Chelsea and Brockton, are home to low-income people who could not afford to stop working even if they felt sick. Brockton cab driver Jean Remy, for example, continued driving even when he had COVID-19 symptoms. He died on April 5, three days after picking up his last fare.
  • After the slow start, Massachusetts made progress. Harvard Medical School, with funding from a major Chinese donor, led an effort to pull together researchers from Greater Boston’s medical, university, and biotech worlds for a massive scientific blitz on the virus. The effort has already helped produce a number of promising developments, in such areas as vaccine development, diagnostics and therapies, and antibody research.

Read the full story here.


Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen. Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com. Neil Swidey is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail him at neil.swidey@globe.com or follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.