BOSTON — The state is boosting its supply of personal protective equipment as it braces for a surge in COVID-19 cases expected over the next few weeks.
On Thursday, a New England Patriots plane was expected to arrive at Logan Airport carrying more than 1 million N95 masks critically needed by health care providers fighting to control the spread of the coronavirus. The gear, purchased from Chinese manufacturers, was to be taken by the National Guard to a state storage facility in Marlborough.
Gov. Charlie Baker said the masks will be distributed to hospitals and health care centers where protective gear has been in short supply as the outbreak worsens.
Baker said he expects the outbreak to peak somewhere between April 10 and April 20, and he urged residents to prepare for a difficult few weeks ahead.
Estimates by a state health advisory group predict 47,000 to 172,000 COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts during the pandemic.
"That's about 0.7% to 2.5% of the total population of Massachusetts," Baker told reporters at a briefing Thursday. "But it's important to remember, as we've said many times, that roughly 80% of those who do become infected have flu-like symptoms and that many have no symptoms at all."
As of Thursday, state health officials reported 8,966 cases of COVID-19 and 154 deaths. Nearly 700 people have been hospitalized.
Baker said the projections, based on data from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, could be different in Massachusetts because of the state's lower population density, early and aggressive steps to prevent the spread of the virus, and the fact that there are few smokers, all of which were major factors in China.
Massachusetts has faced a shortage of personal protective equipment such as respirators, ventilators and masks, and the Baker administration has struggled to acquire it. The administration said last week only 17% of its requests for equipment from the national stockpile have been fulfilled.
The state previously arranged an order for 3 million masks through BJ's Wholesale Club, but Baker said it was confiscated in the port of New York.
The state was able to secure a shipment of 1,000 ventilators, another critical piece of equipment in short supply in the fight against the respiratory illness.
Baker said Thursday that the state will "continue to chase (equipment) through a whole variety of alternative supply chains."
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Rich Neal, D-Mass., fired off a letter to the Trump administration asking for details about how the Federal Emergency Management Agency reviews and distributes requests for personal protective equipment.
In the letter addressed to Vice President Mike Pence, Neal, who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Massachusetts is one of several states, including Maine, that has received "only a fraction" of the equipment it has requested from the federal government, while other states such as Florida have had orders completely filled.
"During a national crisis that threatens every community, no state should have an unfair advantage," he wrote.
Many companies have donated medical supplies and equipment to the state's hospitals and health care facilities. The state has set up an online portal — www.mass.gov/covid-19-ppe-procurement-and-donation-program — to collect supplies and register health care volunteers.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said Thursday the state will set up a location for a new system that can decontaminate used N95 masks. The system operated by Partners HealthCare, will allow for the decontamination of at least 80,000 masks a day. Masks can be disinfected five to 10 times.
Baker said the shipment of new masks will help reduce demand, and he praised Patriots owner Bob Kraft for facilitating the delivery.
"There is still, with respect to PPE, much more work to be done," Baker said. "But a momentary success like this along the way, and all the community generosity that came with it, is something that can help keep everybody healthy and safe, and for that we are all enormously grateful."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.