Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday the state is continuing to ramp up its $44 million COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Already, he said 176 employees have been hired to do contact tracing by phone, and hundreds more are being trained and on-boarded. The governor urged anyone who receives a call from the contact tracing collaborative to take the phone call and respond to the questions.
Baker called the first-in-the-nation tracing effort "the key to stopping the spread of coronavirus and saving more lives. It will also be key to helping our state build a strategy for how we can get back to something like a new normal."
Baker also expressed wariness Thursday about rushing to loosen social distancing restrictions before Massachusetts gets through the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak.
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When and to what degree to revive economic activity has emerged as a point of tension between President Donald Trump and state leaders like Baker, who argue that the public health risks outweigh the benefits of lifting non-essential business closures.
Baker told reporters Thursday that governors are "interested in hearing" a proposal the Trump administration may unveil, but also stressed the importance of maintaining shutdowns with Massachusetts now in the surge and cases and deaths rising higher.
"We've talked now for a couple of weeks about the fact that somewhere around the middle of April, we were going to enter the worst part of the pandemic. That part of the pandemic is here," the governor said. "I know it's difficult for everybody to hear this, particularly given how significantly their lives have been upended over the course of the past five weeks, but this virus obviously doesn't work on a schedule."
The administration's data indicates that most Massachusetts residents have abided stay-at-home and social-distancing recommendations, and Baker said the virus's threat "can be killed when we all do our jobs to slow the spread."
"I know it's been a long time, but letting up now would only result in greater harm," he said.
Baker said it's too early to say if students will be kept out of class for the rest of the year but hopes to have more to say on that subject going forward. Schools are currently closed until May 4. Neighboring New Hampshire on Thursday announced that schools will remain closed through the end of the school year.
Another 151 coronavirus deaths were reported Wednesday in Massachusetts, bringing the statewide total to 1,108. The total number of people who have tested positive rose by 1,755 to 29,918, according to the Department of Public Health.
The Bay State had the fifth-most coronavirus-related deaths as of Wednesday afternoon, behind New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Louisiana, according to NBC News' count.
Baker had said all along that the surge would start between April 7 and April 10, and he said those projections appear to have been accurate. The surge is expected to last until approximately April 20, with as many as 172,000 cases statewide.
The severe measures the governor has ordered for Massachusetts, like the stay-at-home advisory and closing schools and non-essential businesses, are aimed at keeping many more people from getting the virus and overwhelming the health care system.
State House News Service contributed to this report.