JAN. 5 -- Public health officials reported another 4,178 cases of the coronavirus Tuesday and announced the recent deaths of 63 people from COVID-19 as Gov. Baker said he is working under the assumption that a more contagious variant of the virus is already among us.

The COVID-19 data released by the Department of Public Health on Tuesday brought the state's cumulative case count to 379,633 and raised the death toll here to 12,734 people with confirmed or likely cases of COVID-19. The first case was confirmed here almost one year ago, on Feb. 1, 2020, and the first death was announced March 20.

The seven-day average positive test rate in Massachusetts continued its climb Tuesday and now stands at 8.57 percent, compared with 7.58 percent one week ago. Tuesday's new cases came from just less than 60,000 tests, which is about half of what the state had been processing daily a few weeks ago. Baker said Tuesday that testing has fallen off slightly and his administration attributes it to the holidays.

There were 89 more COVID-19 patients being treated in Massachusetts hospitals as of Monday than there were 24 hours prior, and the state's hospitals are now treating 2,428 people for COVID-19. Intensive care units are treating 425 patients, including 264 people who need a ventilator to help them continue to breathe.

During a press conference in Springfield on Tuesday, Baker said his administration is assuming that the mutated strain of the coronavirus that appears to be more contagious is already in Massachusetts, even if federal officials have not yet identified it here.

He said people need to "take seriously this idea that we were already dealing with a very contagious virus in the first place which we now have a new variant that's even more contagious than the original one" and be especially vigilant about mitigation efforts. -- Colin A. Young

Testing This Weekend in East Bridgewater: East Bridgewater is hosting a drive-up COVID-19 testing site this weekend, with no-cost tests available to anyone, including people without symptoms of the coronavirus and those from outside of East Bridgewater. Town officials are encouraging anyone who attended holiday gatherings to get tested, and people are asked to complete a registration form before arriving at the East Bridgewater Junior-Senior High School test site. Along with the completed registration form, test recipients are asked to bring their driver's license and insurance card, if they have health insurance. The tests will be administered in a partnership with ACCU Reference Medical Lab, and are available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday. - Katie Lannan 5:16 PM Tue

Slots Owner Gives $1M to Barstool Relief Fund: The fund that Barstool Sports started to help restaurants, bars and small businesses that are facing financial ruin as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic restrictions got a big boost Tuesday from Penn National Gaming, the company that owns and operates Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville. Penn, which one year ago bought a 36 percent equity stake in Barstool to be its exclusive sports gaming partner, contributed $1 million to The Barstool Fund and pushed the fund's total to about $18.5 million. So far, the fund has provided help to 77 small businesses around the country. In Massachusetts, it has helped Casa Mia in Marblehead, Diggity Dogs Service Dogs in Shelburne Falls, Jalapeno’s Mexican Grill in Walpole, Atlas Pub & Kitchen in Chicopee, Special Occasion Limousine & Coach in Plymouth, and more. -- Colin A. Young 4:26 PM Tue

Walsh: "Table-Hopping" Needs to Stop: Indoor dining has remained available even as local and state officials reinstated restrictions on a range of other businesses, but in Boston, residents might be taking excessive risks at restaurants. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said Tuesday that contact tracers have detected significant numbers of people who expose themselves and others to possible COVID transmission by dining out with friends or family from outside their usual interactions, causing potential spread. "Our contact tracing efforts have made it clear: even though indoor dining itself isn't a high risk factor, too many people are going out to dinner with people outside of their household, outside of their bubble," Walsh said. "People have a few drinks and they kind of wander around. Sometimes, they see other people and they table-hop. We need this to stop. We can't have you table-hopping in a restaurant." Restaurants are still allowed to host indoor dining under the latest state and Boston city restrictions -- the latter of which Walsh extended another three weeks on Tuesday -- but capacities are limited. - Chris Lisinski 4:08 PM Tue

Pandemic Exposes Major Parole Issues, Groups Say: Warning that the COVID-19 pandemic poses mortal risks to incarcerated individuals, dozens of advocacy groups demanded the Baker administration and lawmakers step in to reform parole in Massachusetts. The groups wrote in a letter to Beacon Hill leaders on Tuesday that a 2017 request they made for changes went largely unheeded, arguing that "no meaningful parole reform has occurred during the past six years," and that the structural issues are now exacerbated by public health threats. More than one in five incarcerated people in Massachusetts have tested positive for COVID-19, the groups wrote, alleging that the Parole Board has not meaningfully increased its paroling rate above 2019 levels despite the Supreme Judicial Court's suggestion to expedite the process. "Parole is too important a public safety tool to not be functioning effectively," authors wrote. "In this time of public awakening, change is necessary and overdue at the Parole Board. We hope this letter will be an impetus to bringing about meaningful change expeditiously." The groups, which include the Coalition for Effective Public Safety, Prisoners' Legal Service and Lawyers for Civil Rights, outlined several recommended actions ranging from adoption of presumptive parole legislation to expanding membership on the Parole Board. - Chris Lisinski 12:44 PM Tue

Baker: Assume More Contagious Strain is Here: Gov. Charlie Baker is assuming that the more contagious variant of COVID-19 first identified in the United Kingdom late last year is already circulating in Massachusetts, even if the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has not officially identified it here. The CDC said the mutated strain of the coronavirus "emerged with an unusually large number of mutations" and "seems to spread more easily and quickly than other variants." It has been identified in Colorado, California, Florida and upstate New York. "I think most of us are working on the assumption that it's here. I mean, there'd be no reason not to given the contagious nature of this new variant," Baker said Tuesday during a visit to Baystate Medical Center. He said people need to "take seriously this idea that we were already dealing with a very contagious virus in the first place which we now have a new variant that's even more contagious than the original one" and be especially vigilant about mitigation efforts. -- Colin A. Young 12:25 PM Tue

A New Positive Case in Senate: A Senate employee who was last in the State House on Dec. 30 has tested positive for COVID-19, according the Senate President's office. Senate President Karen Spilka's chief of staff sent an email to members and staff Monday evening informing them of the COVID-positive employee, and said all impacted rooms had been cleaned. In addition, any individuals known to have been in contact with the positive employee were notified. The House and Senate were both in session last Wednesday. The Senate met briefly for 17 minutes before breaking for the New Year's holiday. Despite the end-of-session rush to pass time sensitive legislation and scaled-back ceremonies planned for Wednesday when the new Legislature will be sworn in, Senate leaders reminded staff that they should be working remotely unless its necessary for them to be in the State House and senators are "strongly encouraged" to participate in voting and debate remotely. - Matt Murphy 9:50 AM Tue

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