Beacon Hill’s public health priorities

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. 

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.

 BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

A new poll of K-12 parents in Massachusetts foreshadows potentially huge gaps in childhood vaccination rates once an FDA approved vaccine is available for children. These gaps are reminiscent of what we are already seeing with adult vaccinations, but could pose specific challenges to K-12 schools down the road, says MassINC Polling Group president Steve Koczela. Schools in Gateway Cities, those with higher poverty levels, and those who have been hit hardest during COVID will see their children vaccinated slowest. 

President Biden rescinds the “public charge” immigration rule, which required immigrants to prove they wouldn’t need public assistance. Advocates say the fear the rule spawned will be much harder to dispel.

Opinion:

Peter Enrich, an emeritus professor at Northeastern School of Law, and Kurt Wise of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center push back against the rush to forego taxation of PPP loans. They try to set the record straight and say the tax break is poorly targeted and expensive.

Henry Thomas III, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Springfield, says a pandemic is the wrong time to be dumping the MCAS exam. “Without this data, Massachusetts could easily return to the days where historically underserved students were pushed aside and forgotten,” he says.

How could a recent study of infant mortality inform efforts to combat bias in policing? Jim Jordan examines how “racialization” affects outcomes for doctors and police.

Paul DeBole of Lasell University says the last legislative oversight hearing was shameful. He says such hearings should be focused on fixing problems, not exploiting them. 

Paul Hattis says the Health Policy Commission’s cost benchmark is up in the air right now.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Attacks against Asian-Americans have increased since the pandemic started. Some advocates are looking to pass a bill that would expand the definition of hate crimes to include harassment. (Boston University Statehouse Program)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Residents gathered yesterday in Newton and Cambridge to show support for Asian Americans against a rising tide of hate crimes. (Boston Globe

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

A new study of Mass General Brigham employees who were vaccinated against COVID-19 finds that the rates of serious reported side effects from the vaccine are very low. (Gloucester Daily Times)

A flurry of behind-the-scenes activity, including a rush to find contractors who could make fast changes, ensued after the state’s vaccine website faltered. (Boston Globe)

The two-dose Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine emerges from a Phase III study with strong results, suggesting it will soon gain emergency authorization approval in the US. (NPR)

Should pregnant women get the vaccine? It’s complicated. (Boston Globe)

Independent investigator Mark Pearlstein testified Friday before the legislative oversight committee looking into the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home COVID outbreak and says Superintendent Bennett Walsh “genuinely did not know what he did not know.” (MassLive)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The former interim US attorney for Washington, DC, says he thinks sedition charges could be brought against some of those who stormed the Capitol in January. (Washington Post

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber declares a state of emergency. “Too many people are coming here right now,” he said. (NPR)

Former president Donald Trump is planning a return to social media, but this time it will be on a platform he is designing. (CNN)

ELECTIONS

First impressions will matter for Kim Janey, as she takes the reins as acting Boston mayor, says Joe Battenfeld. (Boston Herald) And though she’s been mum on the question, “Of course Janey is running, says Adrian Walker. (Boston Globe)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Massachusetts moves into Phase 4 of its reopening Monday. (MassLive)

A scammer posing as an Eversource representative calls the wrong person: Attorney General Maura Healey. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

MassLive finds that roughly 50 Massachusetts schools are already using guidance that allows for less than 6 feet of distancing, as the CDC says that 3 feet in schools is okay. 

TRANSPORTATION

The MBTA and Keolis promise to avoid job cuts and furloughs at the public transit agencies while increasing service, after receiving an angry letter from Congressman Stephen Lynch. (Patriot Ledger)

But if New York City’s experience is any kind of template for other transit systems, the long-term picture for the T may be considerably more uncertain. Despite billions in federal aid to rescue the system from its worst fiscal crisis in history, the survival of the country’s largest transit system is heavily dependent on the return of riders — and their fares. (New York Times

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The New Bedford police are investigating one of their officers for writing a Facebook post that used expletives and expressed frustration over criticism of the police. (Standard-Times)

The crime rate in New Bedford has dropped by 38 percent since 2011, indicating that the city is becoming a vastly safer place. (Standard-Times)

PASSINGS

Retired Methuen police officer William Rayno, 86, and his wife Matilda Rayno, 85, die in their Methuen home of a carbon monoxide poisoning accident. (Eagle-Tribune