House releases $55m bill for COVID testing, school masks
Baker says staffing, not money, is key testing problem
THE HOUSE WAYS AND MEANS Committee on Tuesday released a bill that would allocate another $55 million to expanding COVID testing sites, buying masks for schools, and doing vaccine outreach, even as Gov. Charlie Baker raised questions about what additional money could accomplish beyond what the administration is already doing.
“I think the Legislature in doing this is really saying money can’t be a barrier at all, ever, to getting constituents access to testing and to masks,” said Sen. Jo Comerford, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management.
The bill, which the full House plans to vote on Wednesday, includes $25 million to expand COVID-19 testing sites, $5 million for efforts to increase vaccination rates among children age 5 to 11, and $25 million to buy and distribute high-quality masks to students and faculty in public schools. The Senate plans to take the bill up early next week.
Almost all of these expenses would likely be reimbursed by the federal government. If any are not, House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz said the state has enough surplus money available to pay for them.
All of these issues are topics that lawmakers pressed Baker on at a hearing last week of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management.
Asked about the bill at a press conference Tuesday, Baker said he had not seen it, but he suggested that some of these expenditures were for things the administration was already doing.
Although residents are experiencing long waits at testing sites throughout the state, Baker said money is not the problem. “The biggest challenge we have with respect to testing is much more about staff than it is about supplies or dollars,” Baker said.
Michlewitz said the money could help address the staffing issue by giving organizations money to pay overtime to testing site staff.
Comerford said she has heard from testing vendor CIC Health that the problem is people, not resources. But she said the Legislature is making clear that it will remove any financial barriers and “now we have to join together with the administration to work through the personnel and staffing challenges.”
The money for high-quality masks comes after a controversy in which the Baker administration distributed masks to schools which officials said had been tested – but it turned out some were not tested and may have been of a type that was less effective than state officials had claimed.
The bill says the high-quality masks that will be distributed in schools “shall include, but not be limited to, N95s and KN95s.” The administration would be required to report on the distribution of the masks and the distribution of rapid tests that the administration recently obtained.
Baker said the state has been “very aggressive” about distributing masks to teachers, health care workers, first responders, and others throughout the pandemic. Baker said at the hearing that after supply shortages of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, the state has built up a stockpile and has around 7 million medical N95 masks and 18 million KN95 masks. He said the state seeks to maintain a six-month supply.
Tuesday, Baker said the state has between $6 million and $8 million worth of masks in its warehouse, or about a six-month supply. “If this would be funding to make it possible to extend and expand our supply with respect to masks, then obviously we would put it to work that way,” Baker said.
The bill would require the masks to be distributed by February 28.
Comerford said the state stockpile is intended for a wide range of needs, from early childcare facilities to health care providers. Given questions that arose around the quality of masks distributed to schools, she said this would earmark funds specifically for high-quality masks for schools. “This is offering a complete assurance on the part of the Legislature that the Baker administration has the funds needed to purchase the highest quality masks for our schools,” Comerford said. “Then it allows the existing stockpile to be free… for use in other sectors.”
Rep. William Driscoll, the House chair of the COVID-19 committee, said the recent distribution of masks was focused only on faculty and staff in school buildings. This bill would also provide masks to students. “This is good practice for when transmission is high, as well as for those that want to wear a high filtration mask or may be required to wear masks locally,” Driscoll said in an email. “They’ll have high quality options available for free in elementary and secondary educational settings.”
The money for pediatric vaccine outreach reflects the fact that while Massachusetts adults are overwhelmingly vaccinated, only 46 percent of children ages 5 to 11 have gotten one shot and only 27 percent are fully vaccinated.The bill would also set the state primary date for September 6, 2022. Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin has been pressing lawmakers to set a date. Without legislation, the primary would default to September 20, just four days before ballots must be mailed to miliary and overseas voters under federal law – leaving little time for recounts, challenges, or printing ballots.
The bill extends pandemic-era policies allowing notarizations to be done via videoconference and allowing remote public meetings. It also gives retired public employees flexibility to return to work during the pandemic as an independent contractor or consultant without jeopardizing their pension.