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Keeping the faith in coronavirus era

WHILE HEROIC HEALTH CARE PROVIDERS are on the front lines, putting themselves at risk as they care for patients being ravaged by the novel coronavirus, faith leaders and their congregations are playing an indispensable role providing spiritual healing and comfort, while also helping to care for the physical needs of many.

The cruel irony of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the need to maintain community and hold each other close is colliding with the imperative that we stay apart from one another physically. Pastor Day McCallister of First Church Somerville and Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton offer vivid testimony on this week’s Codcast to all the ways that faith communities are overcoming that barrier.

Gardenswartz said the temple’s daily prayer service usually drew 15 to 20 people to the synagogue. “Now that we’re streaming it online, we get more than 200 people following it,” he says. “The ironic impact is that more people are connected spiritually in this age of physical distancing than were connected spiritually before because it fulfills human needs for meaning and purpose, especially at a hard time.”

Those on margins will bear brunt of virus toll

While the coronavirus pandemic seems certain to extend its reach to all corners of the globe, its impact will not be felt evenly. Those on society’s margins and lower economic rungs will bear a much greater burden of the toll taken by COVID-19. That’s the urgent message from Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, and guest on this week’s Codcast.

Galea, who trained as an emergency medicine physician, has focused his career on the social determinants of health — the ways health status is closely linked to economic status and other social factors — and the coronavirus crisis is casting that relationship into stark relief.

“We cannot have a conversation about coronavirus without talking about those who are bearing most of the brunt of its consequences,” he says.

“We have a country that is best described as having health haves and health have-nots, and the health have-nots, which are, depending on how you count, the poorest 50 percent or the poorest 80 percent of the population, are going to also suffer most of the consequences of this, of the coronavirus and the approaches to mitigate it,” says Galea.

A report from the frontlines at MGH

Dr. Jarone Lee, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, is very worried as predictions of infection rates run as high as 60 percent worldwide.

“I am a critical care doctor so I do see the sickest folks. We are very worried on the ICU side,” he said on the Codcast with Paul Hattis of Tufts University Medical School and John McDonough of Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health. (The interview was taped Friday afternoon.)

“At this point, we’re worried about the worst-case scenario, hoping for the best.,” Lee said.  “On the ICU side, if it gets to the point of Italy or some other places we’ve heard about in the world, we do not have the capacity to take care of that many patients. I believe that’s true probably for the US health system in general. We don’t have enough ventilators or ICU beds.”

Lee said government officials are urging the public to practice good personal hygiene and social distancing measures to slow the spread of the disease and reduce the number of cases per day so the health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed. Lee, however, cautions that the situation will get worse before it gets better.

‘A low point for Republicans in Mass.’

Two Republicans trying to straddle the deep ideological divide in the Massachusetts GOP say the bitter fight that culminated in last week’s state committee election was all about gaining control of the party’s resources.

On the CommonWealth Codcast, Amy Carnevale, who was reelected to the state committee last week, and Anthony Amore, the GOP nominee for secretary of state in 2018, tried to sort out an election that Carnevale described as “a low point for Republicans in Massachusetts.”

Carnevale said the fight for 80 state committee posts was mostly about money. “The Mass. Republican Party controls the party resources, which are really important for any candidate for governor or statewide office. So I think that’s why the stakes were so high,” she said.

The state committee election was negative and nasty, with direct mailings and robocalls that smeared the opposing sides. Many of the attacks were anonymous because party races are not covered by Massachusetts campaign finance regulations, which require disclosure of how much was spent and by whom. Officials results have not been announced yet, but it appears the more conservative elements of the party who rallied around GOP chairman Jim Lyons prevailed.

Straus lays out rationale for transpo revenues

With the House preparing to take up transportation funding legislation this week, Rep. William Straus explains the rationale behind many of the bill’s provisions.

Straus, the House chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, is one of the architects of the bill, which hikes the gas tax by 5 cents, raises fees on ride-hailing apps, increases the minimum corporate income tax, and eliminates a sales tax exemption on rental cars. All in all, it is expected to raise roughly $600 million a year.

Straus appeared on the CommonWealth Codcast and was interviewed by Shira Schoenberg and Bruce Mohl.

New center aims to shed light — through data — on state policy

The ways of Beacon Hill can be mysterious to those on the outside, with the public often left in the dark on all the factors that shaped a particular bill or policy.

But lawmakers themselves are frequently in the dark on all the implications of legislation they are asked to vote on. Often the only information they have to go on when deciding whether to approve a tax credit or change the way health care is regulated comes from interested parties on either side — or from legislative leaders eager to push through bill without a lot of debate.

A new research center at Tufts University is aiming to change the conversation on state policy by producing rigorous — and unbiased — analysis of important issues facing lawmakers and voters. The Center for State Policy Analysis will operate as a state-level version of the Congressional Budget Office, which carries out neutral, evidence-based evaluations of issues facing Congress.

Already on tap are analyses of Gov. Charlie Baker’s Transportation Climate Initiative, a look at the options and trade-offs of various approaches to reining in prescription drugs costs, and analyses of ballot questions voters will face in the fall — on car repair regulations, beer and wine sales, and ranked-choice voting.

One year in, Rollins takes stock

Reflecting on her first year in office, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins says one of the things she’s been most surprised at is how surprised some are about her determination to make major change and the blunt manner with which she sometimes approaches things.

“I was very honest and transparent about who I was going to be,” Rollins says on a new episode of The Codcast. “It’s been surprising, the reaction, because I told everyone what was going to happen when I won.”

Rolllins, the first black woman to be elected district attorney in Massachusetts, vowed during the 2018 race to join the national wave of rethinking the approach to the job of prosecutor. She promised to turn away from the tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s that saw incarceration rates soar and embrace policies that try to avoid having lower-level offenders get caught in the web of the criminal justice system in ways that make it hard to get onto a more productive path.

Her signature policy pronouncement has been a pledge not prosecute, in most cases, those arrested for 15 lower-level offenses. Perhaps it’s not surprising, therefore, that Rollins says the biggest controversies she was involved in during her first year came from issues arising in district or municipal court, where such lower-level cases are heard, not in superior court where the most serious criminal charges are tried.

Two lower-level cases ended up before the Supreme Judicial Court. Both involved district or municipal court judges trying to block or usurp Rollins’s exercise of prosecutorial discretion. In one case, involving counterdemonstrators at a “straight pride” parade in Boston, her office sought to drop charges against a protester only to have a district court judge essentially rule that she couldn’t. The other case involved a Somali immigrant who faced loss of his permanent resident status if larceny conviction remained on his record. Rollins’s office, citing his years of good behavior and steady employment, sought to dismiss the case after a judge granted the defendant a new trial.

Steve Walsh raises concerns about urgent care clinics

The president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health & Hospitals Association downplayed the recent outpatient expansion proposal of Partners HealthCare and said the real concern is the rapid growth of urgent care facilities across the state.

On a Health or Consequences episode of the CommonWealth Codcast, Steve Walsh said the Partners outpatient expansion will receive a rigorous regulatory review. But he said a bigger concern is the growth of unaffiliated urgent care providers like the CVS Minute Clinics.

“There has long been a question as to are the unaffiliated urgent care ambulatory surgery centers helping to fund CHIA, the Center for Health Information and Analysis; the Health Policy Commission; and community benefits? Do they accept Medicaid? Are they treating our poorest and most vulnerable residents? Are they doing the same kind of programs for the opioid epidemic as our traditional hospitals are? So the real problem isn’t necessarily the expansion by one member into other communities. It’s all of the other expansion that’s happened over the last decade and what that has done to not create a level playing field for our members and for the community residents they serve.”

Senator disappointed with missed commuter rail deadline

Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn says he is very disappointed that the MBTA failed to meet an initial deadline for the first phase of a commuter rail makeover last week, and said waiting until spring is unacceptable.

“I don’t feel the MBTA has the same sense of urgency that my constituents and commuters feel,” he said. “I wonder why they are dragging their feet.”

At a November 4 meeting, the Fiscal and Management Control Board passed five resolutions laying out a vision for a commuter rail system of the future that would rely primarily on electric trains providing service every 15 to 20 minutes on the busiest lines. One of the resolutions called for the new service to launch in phases, with the first phase focusing on the Providence/Stoughton line, the Fairmount line, and the section of the Rockport/Newburyport Line that runs between Boston and Lynn.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak was tasked with reporting back last week with a staffing plan for the “rail transformation office,” a budget to support the office, target completion dates for the first phase, and work plans for this year and next. Aside from a vague staffing plan for supervisors in the office, none of the other tasks was completed, with Poftak saying that the work got sidetracked as the T dealt with pressing safety issues.

Raising the alarm on housing

Tom O’Brien, one of the Boston-area’s leading developers, is raising the alarm about the region’s housing crisis.

“One of the most important statistics that I’ve focused on in the last six months is that over the last five years we’ve created 300,000 jobs inside Route 128,” he says. “During that same period of time, we only created 110,000 new units of housing.”

O’Brien said the imbalance between jobs and housing has been growing year after year for a long time. Now, he says, the situation is reaching dangerous levels.

“We’re building a building in downtown Boston right now and the cost of that is $675,000 per unit to build that tower,” he says of Bulfinch Crossing, the mixed-used project arising from the Government Center Garage. And O’Brien points out that the $675,000 price was locked in about two years ago, so the cost today would be even more.

“It’s a big issue for us in the city right now. I know that people are anxious because housing costs so much,” he said on the CommonWealth Codcast. ”If you’re a renter, you’re being asked to pay more and more of your income to pay rent. The problem right now is it’s very expensive to build these units. Right now, and this may be a little bit shocking to you guys, from our company’s perspective new high-rise rental housing in Boston does not pencil out. It does not underwrite because it’s so expensive. It’s really hard to see where the housing production process is going to go from here.”