Local-option COVID approach slammed

Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, says the Baker administration’s policy of leaving many of the major COVID decisions to local boards of health helps explain why local officials are facing harassment and many are leaving public service.

The Baker administration has adopted a local-option approach in many cases. For example, the state issued guidance earlier this month that masks are no longer needed in schools as of today, but school systems are free to adopt their own timetables. The state eased restrictions on wearing masks indoors, but again communities were free to adopt their own policies.

Pavlos said the local-option approach leads to bad public policy and leaves many local officials vulnerable to harassment and abuse. There have been reports of incidents in Salem, Westford, Abington, Framingham, and East Longmeadow. 

Speaking on a Health or Consequences episode of the CommonWealth Codcast with Paul Hattis of the Lown Institute and John McDonough of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, Pavlos indicated public health policy works best with more of a one-size-fits-all approach. 

“Not only are we seeing a patchwork of different rules in different communities in this state, which is confusing for the public and also less effective for the public health protections, but it also means that the decisions are getting pushed on to the backs of local public health staff who are then the folks who are being harassed and threatened,” Pavlos said. “That’s really unacceptable.”

Those doing the harassing tend to be a loud but small portion of the general public, Pavlos said. “The people who have been behaving so badly, with threats and intimidation, are really a small but organized minority of people,” she said. “In some ways, they are using the pretext of public health for what’s a larger hostile agenda.” 

Massachusetts is vulnerable to such pressure because each of the 351 cities and towns has its own public health board, responsible for a wide variety of functions, including dealing with COVID, restaurant and pool inspections, and chronic disease protection. Huge states such as Texas and California have fewer local public health boards than Massachusetts, she said. 

“It’s fractured, it’s inefficient, it’s almost always ineffective, but it is always inequitable,” Pavlos said. “Some people in Massachusetts have access to excellent public health services and others do not.” 

Pavlos said many years of under-investment in public health infrastructure came due during the pandemic and required municipalities and the state to invest in infrastructure on the fly. She is hopeful lawmakers will direct a significant amount of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act money to local boards of health and use some $200 million in the budget for competitive grants to the local boards to encourage cooperation and consolidation. 

She said COVID — and the nearly 23,000 people who have died from the disease — have reinforced a very tough lesson about the importance of public health in Massachusetts. “That is a number that is a little hard to grasp. I don’t think we take in the magnitude of that enough,” she said of the death toll. “Those deaths haven’t hit communities equally. Race and economic status and city or town in which people live — all of those things have shaped the pattern of this pandemic in Massachusetts, not to mention the country as a whole.”

BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Lynn’s new mayor: Jared Nicholson, who grew up in Sudbury and attended Princeton and Harvard Law School, is settling in as mayor of Lynn, preaching “inclusive growth.” A Q&A with Michael Jonas. Read more.

Healey does it again: For the second time, Attorney General Maura Healey rejects bylaws proposed by Brookline to do away with fossil fuel infrastructure in new construction or major retrofits. The attorney general said she agreed with what Brookline is trying to do but couldn’t allow the bylaws to take effect because they conflict with state laws and regulations. Read more.

No more facial recognition tech: The state’s unemployment assistance agency is shifting away from the use of facial recognition technology to verify the identities of applicants, a practice condemned by members of Congress, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Read more.

New breed of college: New University of Austin aims to provide diversity of thought on campus but critics say the school is little more than a publicity stunt to prop up the political right. Read more.

Change coming at Lottery: Michael Sweeney, the executive director of the Massachusetts Lottery, is stepping down after seven years. Read more.

OPINION

Mask mandate controversy: Westyn Branch-Elliman of Harvard Medical School, Elissa Perkins of Boston Medical Center, and Shira Doron of Tufts Medical Center explain why lifting mask mandates is such a divisive issue. Read more.

Fossil fuels still rule: Gordon van Welie, the CEO of New England’s power grid operator, says the use of natural gas and oil to produce electricity will remain a fact of life for some time to come. Read more.

The power is there: Carl Rosenfield, a former deputy general counsel for the Department of Public Health, says the agency has the power to halt hospital expansions. The question is whether the agency will use that power. Read more.

Russian aggression: Fulbright scholar and Boston native Eliot Usherenko says the West, led by the United States, has repeatedly failed to learn the lessons of Russian aggression. Read more.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell urges the City Council to approve the purchase of the 100-year-old, state-owned armory for $10 and the pledge of the state to invest $3.3 million in the building. Mitchell said the city would maintain the structure until a buyer can be found. (South Coast Today) 

A group of Taunton residents challenge a recent Interior Department ruling affirming the Wampanoag Tribe’s right to 321 acres in Taunton and Mashpee. (Cape Cod Times)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Maternal deaths are up in the US, and Black women have been hit particularly hard, according to a new report. (Boston Globe

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

A Ukrainian journalist said she had been wrong about President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Washington Post

The US Supreme Court prepares to hear a case that could limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to enact climate change policies. (NPR)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Harvard has outlined a number of commitments to the Allston community, but the Globe’s Jon Chesto asks whether it will be enough to win over residents – and Mayor Michelle Wu – as the university seeks approval for its massive buildout in the neighborhood. 

Thomas Mari was named president of Local 25 of the Teamsters, taking over from Sean O’Brien who was recently elected president of the Teamsters International. (Boston Herald

Lanesborough is asking a court to require the owner of the now-closed Berkshire Mall to board up the windows and put a fence around the structure to prevent break-ins. (Berkshire Eagle)

EDUCATION

The Worcester public schools will continue to require masks – at least until a March 7 meeting of the city’s board of health. (Worcester Telegram

ARTS/CULTURE

Investigators say there may be a link between a 1991 execution-style murder in Lynn and the Gardner art museum heist a year earlier. (Boston Globe)

MEDIA

60 Minutes looks at Alden Global Capital and the harm the hedge fund is doing to the local newspapers it is acquiring. The report says dated leaked financials indicate the firm set profit targets of as high as 30 percent at some newspapers in 2017. In Massachusetts, the target was 26 percent.

The New Bedford Light republishes a CommonWealth article from Friday pointing out that sometimes the best thing a news outlet can do is publicize how little it knows about an ongoing news event, in this case the uncertain employment status and criminal proceedings of Keith Hovan, the former CEO of Southcoast Health. 

PASSINGS

George Berkowitz, the founder of Legal Sea Foods, died at 97. (Associated Press)