Lawmakers Demand More Action From Baker on COVID-19 Front


Photo: Suzanne Sausville/WBZ NewsRadio

BOSTON (State House News Service) — After hosting an oversight hearing that top state health officials skipped, high-ranking lawmakers are now calling on Gov. Charlie Baker to consider a menu of pandemic management options, including quarantine and isolation shelters and a pause on school mask mandate exemptions.

Baker on Tuesday introduced an advisory recommending masking in indoor public places, outlined plans to have the National Guard assist the health care sector, and put a pause on non-essential, elective procedures at many hospitals. But the governor also said people should move ahead with holiday plans, citing gains made in the virus fight and encouraging anyone who is eligible to join the millions who have received COVID-19 vaccinations.

In a Tuesday letter to Baker, Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness Co-chairs Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton and Rep. William Driscoll of Milton expressed support for the National Guard call-up but expressed concerns about numerous issues based on testimony they received last week.

"We have found ourselves in the mid-holiday season with increasingly high COVID transmission rates, along with at or near capacity hospitals throughout the state. We are still learning about the Delta variant and navigating its surge, and now the emerging Omicron variant could have monumental impacts given its potential increased transmissibility," they wrote.

They said that Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, founding director of Boston University's Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Policy & Research, "reminded us that even if those who have been vaccinated generally become less ill with the virus, with exponential growth driven by Omicron, we could see real system destabilization due to surging numbers of critical patients, among them the unvaccinated and others in the minority of vaccinated patients who have comorbidities."

Comerford and Driscoll also referenced COVID-19 spread in congregate care settings.

"Given the spike in COVID cases within congregate care settings, it is imperative that the administration open quarantine and isolation shelters across the Commonwealth," they wrote. "It is our understanding that there are critical, emergent capacity issues which threaten public health."

The lawmakers expressed alarm about the "potential for the situation to further deteriorate in the coming weeks, despite having a highly vaccinated population" and asked Baker to "urgently and more clearly define the details of a surge-related plan with specific goals regarding tests, vaccinations, boosters, and hospital capacity thresholds."

Citing the feedback they received at their Dec. 16 hearing, they recommended adoption of "temporary and durable steps," including:

-- Reinstating a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces, an idea they said has "broad support among public health, hospitals, and medical experts."

-- Closing the race/ethnicity gap in pediatric vaccinations, an effort the lawmakers said should include coordination with local public health officials and "improved translation and explicit outreach efforts, as well as work to decrease the spread of misinformation."

-- Setting public targets and timelines for booster shots. "Greater clarity is needed regarding how many booster shots or tests the state hopes to achieve daily or by other parameters," they wrote.

-- Expanding in-school testing. "We ask that you strengthen the 'test and stay' program by including vaccinated students and also allowing those who have been exposed to COVID outside of a school context to qualify and participate," Comerford and Driscoll wrote.

-- Pausing mask mandate exemptions for schools that have reached the vaccination goal until after January "or a period when transmission and trends are dropping precipitously week-over-week and greater hospital capacity exists."

On Wednesday morning, Comerford and Sen. Cindy Friedman, the vice-chair of the committee, issued a statement saying they were in concert with the calls from Senate President Karen Spilka for the Baker administration to take a more aggressive approach to omicron.

"We have listened to the experts and it is clear that the administration must do more now. This includes supporting our hospitals by significantly reducing the time it takes to license doctors, nurses and hospital personnel coming from other states to increase our workforce. It includes significantly increasing outreach efforts in all communities with low vaccination rates," they wrote. The senators added, "It is also essential that there be a consistent, thorough, and evidence-based process for all school systems to follow that keeps our children, teachers, and staff safe and in school. We also encourage the administration to make rapid testing easily available and affordable throughout the Commonwealth. And finally, we must join together to ensure residents have stable and safe housing, which we know is a critical component in stopping the spread of COVID-19."

Democrats wield veto-proof majorities in both branches, and over the years have consistently been able to control the policy agenda when differences with Baker have emerged. But lawmakers are in the midst of a seven-week break from formal sessions and even with the urgency they are attaching to the current situation, have not signaled any intent to try to hold formal sessions and take action.

For now, they appear poised to let Baker continue to make the major decisions about pandemic management.

Asked why the Legislature isn't stepping in to act, Comerford and Friedman said in a statement to the News Service, "It is the Governor's responsibility, through his executive powers, to put temporary measures in place to protect public health in an emergency, which in this case means mitigating the current impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in real-time as the situation continues to evolve. That's why the Senate is advocating for the Governor to do more immediately."

The Legislature is expected to meet in light sessions until early January, when under their joint rules they can call the type of formal sessions where major business is usually conducted.

Last Thursday, the joint committee held an oversight hearing to gather feedback on the surge in infections and state government's preparedness and plans. On the morning of the hearing, news broke that invited Baker administration officials would be "unable to participate" in the hearing.

Baker last week attributed his team's absence from the hearing to unspecified "calendar conflicts," but acknowledged the chairs' request for his team to appear before the committee in early January. "We'll just make sure that fits," he said.

Among the officials who had been invited to testify the week before: Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, Department of Public Health Acting Commissioner Margret Cooke, and Office of Preparedness and Emergency Management Director Kerin Milesky.

Written by Michael P. Norton/SHNS

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