Breakthrough cases bad for vaccine messaging

Regular communication and sharing of data have been a key part of the Baker administration’s approach to combating the COVID-19 pandemic. For months, Gov. Charlie Baker gave a COVID briefing almost every day, an event that was live-streamed and often featured a rundown by the governor or his chief health care aide, Marylou Sudders, on where the state stood in terms of new infections, hospitalizations, and other metrics.

Early on, the briefings came with Baker repeating a plea for residents to observe social distancing guidelines, wear a mask, and regularly wash their hands. In recent months, the focus has turned to an all-out effort to promote vaccinations as the key to returning life in the state to some semblance of the normal that existed before the pandemic.

But not every nugget of news is helpful to the administration’s public health messaging. That appears to be the backdrop to a report yesterday in the Boston Herald that there have been nearly 4,000 “breakthrough cases” of COVID in the state — infections among people who were fully vaccinated — and that 79 of those people have died. The paper said it received the data after filing a public records request with the state. 

Today, Herald columnist Joe Battenfeld whacks the Baker administration over the issue. He gives it the full Herald treatment, suggesting the handling of the paper’s request “smells like an attempted cover-up,” a charge evidently based on the administration waiting the full 10 days it was legally allowed before complying with the records request. 

“What is the DPH afraid of?” he asks, referring to the state Department of Public Health. “A bad news cycle?” 

Beyond just a bad news cycle, state officials were probably especially worried about how the news would be framed and what the public’s takeaway would be from the data. 

The Herald probably helped confirm those fears by blasting the news on its front-page yesterday, with the headline, “BLINDSIDED — Herald finds 71 fully vaxxed Mass. residents died from COVID.” 

Battenfeld says the state wound up releasing the data to all media following the newspaper’s push for the records. He says “most of the media lapdogs dutifully rehashed the DPH press release to put the best spin possible on the fact that 79 fully vaccinated people died of COVID.” That mostly seems to be a reference to the Globe’s story, which he says didn’t get to the 79 deaths until the fourth paragraph, after leading with the stat that only 0.1 percent of vaccinated people have been infected with COVID. 

It’s easy to be alarmed by numbers that aren’t considered in the right context. The state is desperate to push up vaccination rates, so anything that might be interpreted as evidence that vaccines don’t matter isn’t helpful to their cause. 

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were always touted as about 95 percent effective in preventing coronavirus infections, meaning there would be cases among those who get vaccinated. Virtually all new cases are now occurring among those not vaccinated, proof the state says, of just how important it is to get inoculated. 

As Battenfeld points out, we now know that early claims that any breakthrough cases would be mild are not 100 percent accurate. The state hasn’t offered a breakdown yet on the age or health background of those who died of COVID after being vaccinated.

State officials might have done better to simply offer the report on breakthrough cases, complete with the broader context of how rare they are, unprompted by a public records request and the heightened attention that came when the data were reported as news state officials didn’t want you to know. 

Between his hammering of the administration for how it handled the data request, even Battenfeld says the 79 deaths, as tragic as they are, and the .1 percent infection rate among vaccinated residents are part of a good news story. 

“It’s fair to say that those numbers are actually pretty good,” he writes. “It shows the vaccine is mostly working.”

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Offshore wind play: New Bedford is teaming up with a group of private investors to purchase a long dormant 29-acre parcel on the waterfront that will be used as a staging area for offshore wind development. The parcel is not far from the existing New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, a state-owned, heavy-duty wind farm staging area.

— New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said the project will give the city a leg up as it competes for a share of what promises to be a huge offshore wind industry as state and national leaders push for more renewable energy. What we’re trying to do is to grab as big of a piece of the pie as possible,” said the mayor. “We’re trying to get as far ahead of the pack as possible.” 

— The parcel should also blend well with New Bedford’s fishing industry and its historic downtown. The private investors, who include Andrew Saunders, John Lees, Maurice Gulson, and Lou Cabral, say they want a fish-centric retail and offloading facility facing the city’s business district. Read more.

Somerset appeals to Baker: While New Bedford is moving ahead on offshore wind, Somerset finds itself trying to play catchup at the 308-acre Brayton Point facility. The town’s Board of Selectmen approved a letter to the governor that calls for him to shut down what the board says is an illegal scrap metal operation on state land at Brayton Point that is violating Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

— Baker told CommonWealth earlier this week that he still isn’t clear on who owns what at Brayton Point, but the letter from the Board of Selectmen says state officials have confirmed the deep-water pier and adjacent 12.5 acres are under the control of the Department of Conservation and Recreation. 

— In their letter, the selectmen say the lease the state originally granted in 1959 to a company building a coal-fired power plant at Brayton Point could not be reassigned to new owners and definitely not to Commercial Development Inc., which tore down the power plant and began marketing the Brayton Point Commerce Center as an offshore wind staging area. “The state leased the land for $1 in order to help the region generate electricity. The state of Massachusetts didn’t lease the land to Brayton Point Commerce Center so it could make a profit by being a landlord,” the letter said. Read more.

Language gap: Two advocacy groups file suit against the Department of Children and Families, saying the language services provided by the agency are deficient. “Child welfare decisions, including whether to remove a child from their home, often turn not on what is in the best interests of the child, but rather on whether or not the parent speaks English,” said the lawsuit, filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Read more.

Tax break for caregivers: A Senate initiative included in the state budget sitting on the governor’s desk would put cash in the pocket of those paying for childcare or the care of a parent and don’t have enough income to claim a tax deduction. The refundable tax credit would provide cash payments to the caregivers. Read more

More clout needed: The Health Policy Commission, disheartened by the steady rise in health care costs in Massachusetts, say it may be time to move from public pressure to disciplinary action in dealing with providers who fail to stay within cost guidelines. Read more.

OPINION

Terrible trend: Political consultant Brian Jencunas says McKinsey & Company’s Future of Work report for the Baker administration is little more than regurgitated conventional wisdom. He says it’s also an example of a disturbing trend in politics where reports are written to support policy proposals and not to get at the truth. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

A group of lawmakers call for training hospitality workers to recognize signs of human trafficking. (Eagle-Tribune)

Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman invites law enforcement to a rally one year after he stalled passage of the police reform bill, which ultimately passed. Fattman called the bill disastrous and said it needs to be changed. (Telegram & Gazette)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

After the Globe runs a front-page story detailing the remaking of the old-line Algonquin Club into an opulent new social club for the city’s rich, if not necessarily famous, columnist Joan Vennochi contrasts that world with the reality in Boston neighborhoods that regularly contend with gun violence. (Boston Globe

GBH profiles the Fowler Clark, a farm in Mattapan that proved important to the community during the pandemic.

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Report cards are out for the water quality of Boston rivers and some areas of the Charles, Mystic, and Neponset Rivers are suffering from sewage pollution. Illegal storm drain hookups, combined sewer overflows, and leaky pipes all contribute to the issue. (WBUR)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

In Springfield, US House Ways and Means chair Richard Neal talks up the expanded child tax credit. (MassLive)

A new book says the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, worried in the waning days of the Trump administration that the then-president and his acolytes might try to stage a coup to remain in power. (Washington Post)

ELECTIONS

Developers are ponying up big to Acting Mayor Kim Janey and, to a lesser extent, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George in the Boston mayor’s race. (Boston Herald

Janey is getting the backing of City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo and his father, former councilor Felix D. Arroyo, a move that could help her with Latino voters. (Boston Globe

The Boston Globe apologized to mayoral candidate John Barros after the paper mistakenly used a photo of him in a story about Jon Santiago’s exit this week from the mayor’s race. (Boston Globe

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Before the pandemic, Massachusetts and New Hampshire had similar unemployment rates. In both states joblessness  soared during the pandemic. So why is New Hampshire recovering so much quicker than its southern neighbor? Diversity, density, and different approaches to pandemic safety all contribute to the disparity. (WBUR)

Businesses are reopening, but many are feeling the squeeze from landlords who are demanding back rent payments that piled up amid their pandemic closure. (Boston Globe

John Hancock won’t require its employees to return to the office until January, and most of them will then only go back there for three days a week. (Boston Globe)

EDUCATION\

The Boston School Committee approved sweeping changes to the city’s exam school admission policies that will have students compete for seats within eight tiers determined by socioeconomic factors. (Boston Globe)

UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney announces plans to step down, triggering the UMass system’s third chancellor search since 2019. (State House News Service)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Two Worcester police officers reportedly overdosed and were revived by Narcan. They are now on leave. (MassLive)

Lawyers for the ACLU argue before an SJC justice that the court should require the Hampden district attorney to investigate Springfield Police Department misconduct and brutality. (MassLive)

MEDIA

Dan Kennedy of Media Nation says he is worried the Supreme Court may overturn one of the key libel protections for the press. (GBH)