Sudders finally feeling hopeful

Calls Biden empathic, says he understands grief

MARYLOU SUDDERS, the Baker administration’s point person on COVID-19, says she is finally feeling hopeful.

 Vaccines are being rolled out, Joe Biden is preparing to move into the White House, and after nine months of fighting COVID-19 she has learned a lot of lessons that make her job easier.

 “I have hope, truly, for the first time since the beginning,” said the governor’s secretary of health and human services. “I actually have some hope.”

 That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have any worries. On CommonWealth’s Health or Consequences Codcast with John McDonough of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Dr. Paul Hattis, recently retired from Tufts University Medical School, Sudders said the new variant of COVID-19 that has emerged in the United Kingdom represents just one of many challenges facing the Commonwealth during the second surge.

 She said Moderna and Pfizer believe their vaccines are effective against the mutant virus, but she doesn’t take that assurance for granted. “We don’t know. We don’t have certainty. But that’s one thing about a pandemic that I think we’ve all learned — that a pandemic continues to evolve,” she said. 

 As far as the vaccine rollout itself, Sudders said the state is still in early days. “I’m a worrier, so I always worry,” she said. “It’s just my personality type.”

 She said her job has been tough. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s demanding, but I sort of knew that when you step into the role you become the lightning rod for hopes and dreams and frustrations,” she said. “Every issue, you are the lightning rod for it. Honestly, I feel every death. I feel every tragedy that has happened.”

 For a high-ranking member of a Republican administration, Sudders said the soon-to-come Biden presidency is also welcome news. She praised Biden’s appointment of Rochelle Walensky, the chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, as head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 She also praised Biden himself, describing the president-elect as someone “who is empathic, who embraces everyone in our country and builds upon the strength of our democracy and acknowledges the diversity of our people and is someone who is a uniter, someone who will unite. The one thing about Joe Biden is he understands grief, but he’s taken that grief into a belief about what government should do for people. I think it’s going to be hard because, clearly, things are very divisive in our country. But I think for me he believes in science. We will have a federal government where we can trust the policies.”

 The many COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts nursing homes – 65 percent of the state’s 12,110 deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities — weigh on Sudders. She said the coronavirus hit hard and fast and in many cases the homes were not equipped to respond. 

 She said the “aha” moment for state officials came when Advinia Care in Wilmington in early April prepared to relocate 98 residents as part of an effort to transform the nursing facility into a COVID-19 recovery building. As part of the relocation effort, all the residents were tested for the coronavirus and half of them were positive even though they were asymptomatic.

 “That was truly one of those moments. When I say, ‘aha’ it was a shock,” she said. “Looking back, one of the great mistakes or regrets is that you only tested symptomatic individuals and only residents in nursing homes.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

 The state and long-term care facilities revamped their testing protocols and invested in stronger infection controls and accountability mechanisms. Much progress has been made in nursing homes, but Sudders said she continues to worry every time a cluster of cases occurs at a facility.

 “It’s fragile, in all honesty. It’s one of the things I worry about most, clusters happening in long-term care,” she said. “I’m pretty relentless about it.”