Beacon Hill’s public health priorities

Comerford, Decker say inequity is their chief concern

THE COCHAIRS of the Legislature’s Public Health Committee say inequity is their top concern in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“The COVID epidemic ripped through the Commonwealth and exposed inequities that we’ve all known have been long present in our midst,” said Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton, the Senate chair of the committee. “These inequities drove a greater percentage of people of color to get the virus, a greater percentage of people of color to become more ill with the virus, and a greater percentage of people of color to die from COVID.”

Comerford said her goal during the coming legislative session is to craft budget and policy measures to address the inequities. “What do we do now as we come out of this one-year arc to address these inequities and write a new chapter for the Commonwealth?” she asked.

 Rep. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge, the House chair of the committee, said she felt similarly, and had concerns about Gov. Charlie Baker’s handling of the crisis, specifically his decision to leave many key decisions to local communities and the whiplash-inducing changes in state policies.

 “I thought, oh my God, are you kidding,” she said. “School districts can’t decide if they want a charter school but they should decide whether or not they should close in response to an infectious disease that we’re still learning about. For me that kind of has set the tone,” she said. “Communities have really been left to themselves with very, very broad-stroke guidelines from the governor. That has played out in the rollback of what we shut down. So it’s your choice to go sit in a restaurant right now, but should you? What I want from the governor is more transparency about what is informing his decisions. It’s OK that we might disagree, but what I want him to do is be more transparent about is science informing this decision to open up? Are the doctors on your COVID-19 advisory committee, are they telling you to do that? Or are you responding to a constituency within the business community?”

 Comerford and Decker joined John McDonough of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Paul Hattis, retired from the Tufts University School of Medicine, on CommonWealth’s Health or Consequences podcast. In a wide-ranging interview, both lawmakers touched on a series of issues that will likely come before their committee this legislation session as well as a meeting this week of the oversight committee on COVID.

 Both said they would listen to the science in deciding whether to support legislation removing the religious exemption for getting vaccinated. They also indicated they would explore the best way to support local boards of health, follow closely the findings of a commission on maternal mortality, and bolster funding for opioid addiction.

Meet the Author

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.

 On maternal health, Comerford said the facts are stark. “Black women are twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women. Black women are twice as likely to suffer from severe maternal morbidities. The CDC suggests that 60 percent of maternal deaths are preventable. That’s the context in which we begin this work,” she said.

The senator also pointed out that opioid deaths have remained high during the pandemic, even as state funding to address the problem was cut. Decker said the state needed to do more to stem opioid addictions prior to the pandemic, which has exacerbated the problem. “All of these needs have continued to rise and to grow,” she said.