COVID-19 News

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COVID-19 News

Economy News | January 14, 2021
By: Chris Geehern

State and federal governments continue to pass measures and issue orders to address the medical and economic fallout from the COVID-19 issue.

Here is a summary for employers. If you have questions regarding these or other public policy issues, please contact a member of the AIM Government Affairs Team.

April 13

FEMA Offers to Reimburse Families for COVID-19 Funeral Costs

WWLP – The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA is now offering reimbursement for funeral costs due to COVID-19.

Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin is encouraging those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 to visit his official website for information on applying for assistance with funeral costs.

“So many people have lost loved ones to this pandemic and coping with the loss of a family member is hard enough without needing to worry about the costs of laying that person to rest,” Galvin said in a statement Wednesday. He said help may be available “even if the funeral has already been paid for.”

It was announced this week that FEMA will reimburse up to $9,000 in funeral expenses for those who lost a loved one to COVID-19 after January 20, 2020.

The agency will begin accepting applications this month. Information on eligibility and how to apply is available through the secretary of state’s website.

Massachusetts Employers Still Face Unemployment Tax Increases

MassLive – When the state Department of Unemployment first updated its employer contribution rates for 2021, Suzanne Murphy thought she spotted a mistake.

The solvency fund assessment, one of several factors used to calculate a business owner’s unemployment insurance contribution rate, jumped from 0.58% to 9.23% for 2021. For Murphy, CEO of Unemployment Tax Control Associates in Springfield, that meant an employer contribution rate that’s twice as high and a tax increase of thousands of dollars.

“I said it’s got to be an error,” said Murphy, CEO of Unemployment Tax Control Associates in Springfield. “It must not have reconciled everything based on the latest UI legislation that was passed.”

Despite the passage of an unemployment insurance law that legislators praised as a relief package for employers, business owners are getting hit with higher tax bills due to what some call an unintended consequence or a loophole of the pandemic-era unemployment crisis.

The state’s unemployment levels have stabilized since they hit record-high levels in the first months of the pandemic, but the million-plus claims swallowed the state’s UI trust fund. The fund is expected to face a roughly $4 billion deficit by the end of 2021 — in big part due to federal advances that the state has to repay.

Democrats Insist on Keeping Municipal Workers in COVID Leave Program

MassLive – Putting them at odds with Gov. Charlie Baker and a municipal trade group, House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka intend to preserve eligibility for municipal employees in an emergency COVID-19 sick leave program that the Legislature is working to finalize and return to the governor’s desk.

Baker has proposed several amendments to the sick leave program that the Legislature tried to include in a larger unemployment tax relief package, most of which the governor signed off on last Friday.

Many of the recommended changes remain under review, but Democratic legislative leadership said late Wednesday they do not intend to go along with Baker’s proposal to change employee eligibility for the leave program.

One of the governor’s amendments would exclude municipal workers, including teachers, public works employees, police and others. The administration said the change would align COVID-19 sick leave with the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program, which allows cities and towns to opt in instead.

Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill told the State House News Service that municipal employees deserve to take advantage of the program, which would provide up to five days of paid time off for full-time employees who are sick with COVID-19, isolating, taking time off to get vaccinated or caring for a family member ill with the virus.

”Our municipal employees, including our teachers and first responders, have been essential to the state’s COVID-19 response. We were disappointed to see Governor Baker’s amendment to exclude them from paid sick leave benefits,” Mariano and Spilka told the News Service in response to questions about the program.

Lawmakers Seek to Boost Post-Pandemic Public Education Funding

MassLive – The Massachusetts Legislature’s top budget writers have reached an agreement on school funding, proposing allocating more money than what Gov. Charlie Baker included in his fiscal 2022 budget plan.

The House and Senate Ways and Means committees propose a $219.6 million increase in Chapter 70 funds from fiscal 2021, bringing the total amount to $5.503 billion.

The state’s landmark education law that took effect in November 2019 requires that budget writers approve funding increases over seven years to prepare for full implementation in fiscal 2027. Under the new law, the state will provide $1.5 billion more annually for public education once it is fully implemented with more funds going to school districts with high concentrations of poor students and higher numbers of English language learners.

Massachusetts budget writers never funded the first year of the phase-in period, citing economic uncertainty due to COVID-19. Instead, the Baker administration and Legislature agreed to keep funding level, allowing for only inflationary increases.

Before the pandemic hit, Baker had proposed a budget that would have increased Chapter 70 aid by more than $303 million. A year later, he said he would fully fund the first year of the landmark education law. He proposed a $197.7 million increase of Chapter 70 funds. Education experts attributed the lower figures to the 37,000-student drop in enrollment for the 2020-21 school year.

House Chairman Aaron Michlewitz and Senate Chairman Michael J. Rodrigues said in a statement the money accounts for one-sixth of the funding phase-in needed before the state’s education reform law fully takes effect in fiscal 2027.

Working Mothers Derailed by Pandemic Face a Tough Road

Wall Street Journal – Before the Covid pandemic erupted, Brooks McCoy made $103,000 a year as a regional director for a commercial cleaning franchise in North Carolina. After being laid off last March, the mother of two resorted to selling Pampered Chef cookware to friends of friends. In August, after months of looking, she found a full-time job selling copiers and printers to businesses.

The company has given her the childcare flexibility she needs now, letting her work from home when her two daughters don’t have in-person school. But it pays $40,000 a year.

“I made that coming out of college,” says Ms. McCoy, 40 years old. She hasn’t been able to get a better-paying job.

After a brutal year of layoffs, parenting struggles, and juggling jobs and schooling under one roof, many working mothers are trying to regain their career momentum—and hitting new obstacles.

Stimulus Spending gets Scrutiny from Lawmakers

Eagle Tribune – The state has seen a windfall of pandemic relief funds, with billions of dollars more on the way from Washington, but lawmakers say they’re cut out of decisions on how the money gets spent.

On Thursday, members of the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight grilled Finance Secretary Mike Heffernan over what they described as a lack of communication from the Baker administration when it comes to parceling out more than $2.2 billion in federal stimulus.

“It’s frustrating and I almost feel like we’re being left out of the process,” state Rep. John Barrett, D-North Adams, during the live-streamed hearing. “This (federal aid) was all rushed out the door and we didn’t have any oversight.”

Barrett singled out allocations of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, which he said are dispersed in many places with “little or no input” from state lawmakers or officials. He said some of the funds went to “questionable” recipients, and little was spent on oversight.

“We want to play a role in this,” Barrett said. “This is taxpayers’ money, any way you look at it, and there has been a lack of oversight.”

Rep. Colleen Gary, D-Dracut, said she’s headed off constituents who joke that lawmakers don’t have any authority under “King Charles,” a reference to Gov. Charlie Baker’s unilateral powers during the pandemic.

Fact Sheet: The American Rescue Plan

US Treasury – The current public health crisis and resulting economic crisis have devastated the health and economic wellbeing of millions of Americans. From big cities to small towns, Americans – particularly people of color, immigrants, and low-wage workers – are facing a deep economic crisis. More than 9.5 million workers have lost their jobs in the wake of the pandemic, with 4 million out of work for half a year or longer.

The American Rescue Plan will change the course of the pandemic and deliver immediate and direct relief to families and workers impacted by the COVID-19 crisis through no fault of their own. This law is one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in history and will build a bridge to an equitable economic recovery.

Economic Impact Payments

Through this third round of Economic Impact Payments, the U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury Department) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are ensuring that Americans will receive fast and direct relief during the final phase of the COVID-19 crisis.

As of yesterday, approximately 90 million Economic Impact Payments had been disbursed, thereby ensuring that more than $242 billion of much-needed relief will be received by millions of Americans and their families within days of enactment of the American Rescue Plan.

Unlike the prior rounds of Economic Impact Payments, the American Rescue Plan requires a 2021 “true-up” additional payment, when applicable, based on information (such as a recently filed 2020 tax return) that the IRS receives mid-year during 2021. This additional Economic Impact Payment will ensure that Americans and their families receive greater amounts of financial assistance during 2021, rather than waiting to claim a Recovery Rebate Credit on a tax return in 2022.

Those eligible will automatically receive an Economic Impact Payment of up to $1,400 for individuals or

$2,800 for married couples, plus $1,400 for each dependent. Unlike the prior rounds of Economic Impact Payments, families will get a payment for all their dependents claimed on a tax return, not just their qualifying children under 17.

Normally, a taxpayer will qualify for the full amount if they have an adjusted gross income of up to

$75,000 for singles and married persons filing a separate return, up to $112,500 for heads of household, and up to $150,000 for married couples filing joint returns and surviving spouses. Payment amounts are reduced for filers with incomes above those levels.

The Treasury Department and the IRS continue to expand outreach to the millions of homeless, rural poor, and other disadvantaged Americans to ensure that they receive Economic Impact Payments. This includes new and continued relationships with homeless shelters, legal aid clinics, and providing Economic Impact Payment information in more than 35 languages.

Read a Summary of ARPA

Beacon Hill weighs post-pandemic policies

BOSTON  –  The pandemic has caused major changes in employment, transportation, childcare and myriad other areas. On Beacon Hill, policymakers are trying to decide how the state should prepare for a post-pandemic world.

On Tuesday, members of the Senate’s newly created Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency huddled for the first time – virtually– to discuss how the state government can respond to the profound changes.

Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who chairs the committee, said the panel will initially look at the impact on housing and technology.

The committee heard from several analysts who addressed the hurdles of planning for a post-pandemic world.

Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tuft’s University, said the challenge for policymakers is planning “for a world in flux.”

“The new normal is going to be different from the old normal,” he told the panel. “We don’t yet know the extent or nature of those differences. And that’s a challenge for crafting sound, responsible public policy.”

Horowitz said the pandemic has further exposed a “digital divide” between wealthy and low-income communities that has affected schooling and work.

Baker Administration Looks Toward Summer School

WWLP – Summer school is still on this year despite a slight rise in COVID-19 cases across the state.

Governor Charlie Baker still believes that summer school is vitally important, especially after many students were out of the classroom for the past year. The Baker Administration expects to put in tremendous efforts to keep schools open throughout the summer.

The governor said there are two reasons behind the push for keeping summer school in session. One is to address learning loss after a pandemic-driven school year and second, to use federal funds aimed at supporting summer school.

While COVID-19 case number rise slightly, health experts still think we can avoid shutting down if cases continue to increase.

“I do not think we are going to have to get there where you are going to want to lock down if we get those surges. I think we can avoid those surges,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID Director said.

Governor Baker said the state will be putting out resources and supplement the money that’s going to be available for school districts.

Editorial: Vaccine ‘Passports’ — with Protections — Can Help get America through Herd Immunity Limbo

Boston Globe Editorial Board – A traveler shows up at an airline gate, claiming that she’s been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and thus can fly safely to a country that requires that visitors be inoculated.

How, exactly, can an airline — or hotel, or any number of other businesses that need to worry about the vaccination status of their customers — be sure?

Solving the problem is one of the key steps on the road to reopening the global economy. And as controversial as they’ve become, “vaccine credentials” that allow individuals to show they’ve been vaccinated should be part of the answer — as long as careful safeguards are included.

How, or if, to certify vaccinations has become a more pressing concern as more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19. Uncertainty remains about whether and when the country will reach herd immunity — the point at which a large enough percentage of people become immune that transmission of the virus peters out.

The lack of clear data about how coronavirus immunity works, the emergence of new variants, and lingering reluctance among some Americans to get vaccinated are among the factors that may stand in the way of achieving herd immunity. Until then, the reality may be that Americans will have to learn how to travel, fully reopen the economy, and live with the virus before we’re able to live without it.

Climbing Tax Revenues, Federal Aid Leave Massachusetts in Improving Financial Place

Boston Herald – State economists are telling taxpayers to keep an eye on the state budget — and the rainy-day fund — as tens of billions in federal aid and tax collections beyond expectations flow into Massachusetts.

A Tuesday memo from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation points out that “much has changed” in the 10 weeks since Baker released his $45.9 billion fiscal 2022 budget.

Baker’s budget relies on drawing $1.6 billion from the state’s shrinking stabilization fund — a trend that emerged last year as the Legislature pushed off the passage of the FY 2021 budget for nearly seven months amid an uncertain financial picture as much of the state’s economy remained in lockdown throughout 2020.

Reliance on one-time funding sources like the rainy-day fund has irked economists. Marie-Frances Rivera, MassBudget president, at the time warned it sets the state up for a “short-sighted recovery.”

“The combination of action at the federal level, changing assumptions on the state’s Medicaid program and the public health and economic response to COVID-19 all have altered the fiscal landscape for budget writers,” according to the memo.

In addition to more than $8.1 billion in direct aid coming to Massachusetts, the state continues to outpace estimates on tax revenue collections. The state Department of Revenue reported more than $3 billion in tax revenue for March. That’s $402 million — 15.1% higher — than revenue collected the prior year during March and $648 million or 26.8% over the state’s benchmark.

April 6

AIM Alert:  Paycheck Protection Program Extended to May 31

President Biden signed an extension to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) created last year to assist small businesses recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The deadline to apply for the PPP loan has been extended from March 31 to May 31.

Biden, CDC Director:  Don’t Let Up Now on Coronavirus Safety Measures

President Biden and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) director are sounding the alarm on rising coronavirus cases across the country, urging people to not let their guard down and “just hold on a little longer” amid the vaccine rollout.

Virus case counts in the past week spiked by 10 percent across the country, and cases in Massachusetts have surged by more than 40 percent since the start of March. More contagious variants have been circulating as states ease restrictions and unvaccinated people gather without wearing masks.

“I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 Response Team press briefing, later adding, “Right now I’m scared.”

As virus cases jump, COVID hospitalizations and deaths are also now starting to rise.

A day later, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker was joined by Walenskyat the Boston vaccination site.

Walensky, a former Massachusetts General Hospital infectious disease specialist, would not say whether she thought Baker moved too quickly this month to reopen parts of the economy, encouraging larger gatherings of people at weddings and in places like theaters and ballparks.

“I’m not going to comment on individual states. What I will say is I’m really pleased to see everybody here is masked. Everybody outside is masked and people are doing their part to try to contain the virus here in Massachusetts,” Walensky said.

Walensky had a call with governors on Tuesday morning, and she said she urged those who had dropped their mask mandates to restore them. The public mask-wearing mandate remains in place in Massachusetts.

Thousands of Students Return to Full-Time, In-Person Learning on Monday

WGBH – On Monday, thousands of elementary students headed back to classrooms full-time, many for the first time in months.

For parents and students, it’s a mixed bag of emotions — especially as coronavirus cases tick back up.

Dr. Fatima Watt is the director of behavioral health services at Franciscan Children’s in Boston. She said talking to kids about what may be different in school and role playing, especially with younger kids, will help put their minds at ease.

“If a child is getting too close to them and they feel uncomfortable, if someone doesn’t have a mask on and they’re feeling uncomfortable, sort of problem solving and helping them navigate how to manage those difficult situations,” Watt said. “For younger kids, role playing can be really helpful. The more we practice and feel confident, the less stress we’re under and the more we’ll be able to enjoy and be relaxed for learning.”

Sharon Wolder is executive director of student support services in the Brockton Public School district. Brockton was granted a waiver from the state to delay all elementary school students coming back full-time until later this month. But Wolder said students are back in the classrooms one day a week, which she thinks will help make the transition back to full-time classroom learning easier.

“We approached it with the reality that in order to be prepared to learn, you have to feel safe and comfortable,” Wolder said.

More Massachusetts Residents Now Eligible for COVID-19 Vaccine

Boston Globe – The universe of Massachusetts residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine dramatically expanded on Monday as appointments opened to people 55 and older and those with one qualifying health condition, which now includes anyone who qualifies as overweight.

Massachusetts health officials on Friday added being overweight to the list of health conditions that allow someone to book an appointment, directing residents to a body mass index calculator from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine whether they qualify.

The state had previously said opening appointments to the new age group and those with one health condition would open up appointments to more than 1 million additional residents. It is not clear how many Massachusetts residents are now eligible under the overweight designation, though it had the potential to significantly increase the number of people who can now book slots. According to CDC data, about 74 percent of American adults age 20 and older are overweight or obese.

Pfizer Says COVID-19 Vaccine 100% Effective in Kids 12 To 15

CBS Boston – Pfizer says that its COVID-19 vaccine is 100-percent effective in children ages 12 to 15.

Right now their two-shot vaccine is approved for people 16 and older. But the company now hopes to expand that to ages 12 and up after preliminary results from this small study.

Pfizer said 2,260 children ages 12 to 15 took part in the phase three trial. The company said preliminary data shows 18 cases of COVID-19 in the placebo group and zero cases in the vaccinated group.

“We plan to submit these data to FDA as a proposed amendment to our Emergency Use Authorization in the coming weeks and to other regulators around the world, with the hope of starting to vaccinate this age group before the start of the next school year,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement Wednesday.

“We knew Pfizer did very well starting at age of 16 and now they’re telling us the response is even better in children 12 to 16 which I think is excellent news,” Dr. Rick Malley, a physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital, told WBZ-TV.

He is eager to see the specifics of the study, but he says Wednesday’s announcement is exciting.

UI Rate Freeze is Step Toward Recovery

AIM Blog – Governor Charlie Baker last week signed a two-year Unemployment Insurance rate freeze, along with a tax benefit for small companies that borrowed money under the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The governor returned to the Legislature proposed changes to a COVID leave program for workers.

Boston implements Vaccine Equity Grant Initiative

The Daily Press – Boston Mayor Kim Janey announced a Vaccine Equity Grant Initiative Friday that is designed to increase access and awareness among communities disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program — a joint effort between Janey, the Boston Public Health Commission and the Office of Health and Human Services — includes $1.5 million in available funding for nonprofits, according to a Friday press release. Grant applications will open Wednesday and close April 9.

“We are proud to be part of this grant initiative that will help us increase our current efforts to make sure residents in  our hardest hit communities have access to the vaccine and the support to get vaccinated when it is available to them,” Caitlin McLaughlin, director of media relations for BPHC, wrote in an email.

Applicants’ programs should target minority communities, those with disabilities, individuals over 65 and residents of Chinatown, Dorchester, East Boston, Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roslindale and Roxbury, the release stated.

Maddie Ribble, director of public policy and campaign strategy for the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said the effects of COVID-19 “have not been born equally.”

To Re-Open High Schools Faster, Vaccinate Teens, says BPS Superintendent

Boston Globe – Teenagers 16 and older should be prioritized for a coronavirus vaccine and schools should hold vaccination clinics, Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

“High school students are struggling,” Cassellius said. “They’re isolated.” The vaccine “would bring some normalcy to their lives.”

Cassellius made her appeal during a visit with Cardona at the Joseph P. Tynan Elementary School in South Boston. It was Cardona’s first stop on a multistate listening tour to understand the challenges of re-opening schools as President Biden’s administration pushes for the majority of elementary and middle schools to fully reopen in-person during his first 100 days in office.

“There is no substitute for in-person learning,” Cardona said. “And you’ve shown you can do it.”

Cardona did not publicly respond to the superintendent’s suggestion for a teen vaccination initiative. The Biden administration is urging all educators to be vaccinated, but has not made any special plans to vaccinate students.

Testing Shows COVID Positivity Below 1 Percent In Schools

WGBH – There is little transmission of COVID-19 in the state’s schools, according to Gov. Charlie Baker.

The Baker Administration released a report that found a 0.76 percent test positivity rate in schools throughout Massachusetts that took part in the state’s pooled testing program, which screens samples from students and staff to determine if the virus is present.

“The science is clear that it is safe for kids to be in the classrooms, and this initiative has proved to serve as an invaluable tool for schools throughout the Commonwealth as they return to in-person learning,” Baker said in a statement accompanying the findings.

Baker said the findings reinforce his support of the program offered free to school districts, which he’s extending through the end of the school year. The program was originally set to terminate April 18. The extended pool testing program is funded by approximately $207 million in federal testing funds.

The program has tested almost 159,000 individuals representing 22,679 pools of students and staff in the more than 1,000 schools that participate.

“Of the collected pooled tests, Massachusetts is not aware of any in which there was more than one positive individual, suggesting that there is extremely little evidence of in-school transmission of COVID-19 in Massachusetts,” Baker’s office wrote in a statement.

CDC Extends Eviction Moratorium through June

Boston Globe – Struggling renters just got more time to sort out their finances.

The Biden administration has extended a ban on many evictions for another three months, just days before it was set to expire. Citing the ongoing pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control said it will continue the moratorium until the end of June.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a historic threat to the nation’s public health,” the agency said in a statement. “Keeping people in their homes and out of crowded or congregate settings — like homeless shelters — by preventing evictions is a key step in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

The federal ban has probably kept millions of Americans from facing eviction since it was put in place by the Trump administration in September, particularly as even stricter state moratoriums, such as the one in Massachusetts, have expired. It prohibits courts from ordering the eviction of most households if they have lost income in the pandemic and would face homelessness.

Rescue Act Steers Nearly $400 Million to Massachusetts Counties

State House News – County commissioners in parts of Massachusetts where they still exist are used to managing relatively modest budgets, using funds collected through local taxes and fees to maintain courthouses, support regional schools or to manage pensions for employees.

But with $1.3 billion earmarked in the federal stimulus law for counties around the state, this vestige of local government in Massachusetts is about to become flush with cash, creating an unprecedented dilemma for some county officials: Do we keep the money and try to spend it or give it to someone else?

“All the stakeholders are looking for more clarity. I’m advocating for a real close look at this to determine what is the best way for the counties to approach this,” said Norfolk County Treasurer Michael Bellotti.

Norfolk County has an annual budget of about $32 million, but some estimates of the “American Rescue Plan” show the county in line to receive $137 million in relief funding that would have to be spent by the end of 2024.

“They’re trying to figure out what this means and what are the strings attached to this money,” Bellotti said, referring to Norfolk’s three county commissioners.

Unlike in other parts of the country where counties are an integral part of the local government ecosystem, in Massachusetts the county lines are more geographic than jurisdictional. Only six of the state’s 14 counties still have a government apparatus, and residents of those counties mostly depend on the state or their city or town to deliver services.

Health-Care Providers Can Now be Paid More Than $45 per COVID-19 Shot

Boston Globe – After garnering national attention for its decision to pay unusually high rates to health care providers for administering COVID vaccines, Massachusetts is no longer an outlier.

Governor Charlie Baker’s administration in January decided to reimburse providers about $90 for each two-dose vaccination they gave to people covered by MassHealth, the state Medicaid program for low-income individuals. It also required private insurers to pay at least that amount — which was twice what federal officials were paying for vaccines in the national Medicare program.

But in March, federal officials significantly raised Medicare payments to almost the same high rate Massachusetts had set. Baker administration officials then tweaked their own rates to match the updated national payments.

Baker Advocates Post-Pandemic Housing and Infrastructure Push

WGBH – With an end to the pandemic in sight, Gov. Charlie Baker has his eyes on shoring up the state’s housing stock and infrastructure for the post-pandemic world.

Baker said the most recent round of federal funding in the American Rescue Plan Act included about $475 million dollars for rental assistance in Massachusetts, which will help programs like Father Bill’s and MainSpring in Quincy provide housing for those affected by the virus. Baker was in Quincy to announce a grant for the homeless shelter.

March 30

Biden Economic Plan to Focus on Infrastructure

Boston Globe – President Joe Biden will lay out the first part of his multitrillion-dollar economic recovery package this week, focusing on rebuilding roads, bridges and other infrastructure, followed by a separate plan later in April addressing child and health care.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed on Sunday the administration’s plans to split the package into two legislative proposals, part of an effort to get support from congressional Republicans. But she adds that “we’ll work with the Senate and House to see how it should move forward.”

Biden will release details in a speech Wednesday in Pittsburgh about his proposal for federal investments in physical infrastructure, an issue that has drawn Republican support despite wariness over a pricey package so soon after passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan.

Lynch: Big Rounds of Aid Arriving in Massachusetts by May 

State House News – The check will be in the mail.

State and local governments in Massachusetts are set to receive about $7.9 billion in direct aid from the latest round of federal stimulus, and U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch said Monday that the state should see that cash around the second week of May.

“The $350 billion for cities, towns, states, counties and tribal governments should be going out within, I would say, 45 days, thereabout,” he told the New England Council.

“And those checks go out to the states, just for efficiency reasons. But the amounts are given to each city and town by formula … so it is merely an administerial function on the part of the state.”

In Massachusetts, counties, cities and towns are expected to get about $3.4 billion in federal aid through the American Rescue Plan Act on top of $1.8 billion in assistance for K-12 education.

Lynch said the mayors and town administrators in his district are eager to get the federal funding. While state government has not cut its share of aid to cities and towns, indicating that “tax revenues have dropped off precipitously in the cities and towns, so they are in desperate need of funding just for first responders, just for the core costs of dealing with the pandemic.”

On Tuesday, deputy director of the National Economic Council, Bharat Ramamurti, will brief the new House Committee on Federal Stimulus on how Massachusetts and its municipal governments stand to benefit from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Virus Cases Up 20 Percent in 11 Days

The Department of Public Health’s projection of active COVID-19 cases crept above 30,000 on Sunday, reflecting the increase in new cases in Massachusetts that has drawn attention from health experts.

Sunday’s estimate of 30,772 active cases, roughly equivalent to the population of Needham, is the highest since Feb. 26 and an increase of more than 20 percent from the low point of 25,397 reported on March 17. DPH recorded 2,362 new confirmed cases from 108,411 tests in Saturday’s report and 1,817 new cases from 75,179 new tests in Sunday’s report.

With another 64 confirmed deaths reported across Saturday and Sunday, the cumulative toll counting both those with confirmed and probable COVID-19 infections now stands at 17,115. The seven-day average positive test rate fell slightly over the weekend from 2.41 percent in Friday’s report to 2.28 percent in Sunday’s, while the number of patients in Massachusetts hospitals with confirmed COVID-19 cases climbed by 35 over the weekend to 657.

Former U.S. Food and Drug Administrator Scott Gottlieb, a member of Gov. Charlie Baker’s COVID-19 Advisory Board, took notice of the Bay State’s growth in cases.

“Michigan, Massachusetts, and the New York tri-state region remain some of the areas of greatest concern, where Covid cases are beginning to surge again,” Gottlieb tweeted Sunday.

Massachusetts entered the fourth phase of the Baker administration’s reopening plan one week ago, increasing gathering limits for event venues and public settings as well as allowing ballparks, arenas and stadiums to host some fans for games.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned states on March 1 against “rolling back” public health precautions too quickly, and since then she has noted that infection numbers nationally are again on the rise. – Chris Lisinski/SHNS

Baker Hesitant to Mandate Vaccines in Public Sector

State House News – Massachusetts “should not necessarily head down” the road of requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for state troopers and other public workers at this point, Gov. Charlie Baker said, voicing an interest in first seeing more “normalization to the whole idea of getting vaccinated.”

Asked during a radio interview if he believes the shots should be required for State Police and correctional officers, Baker brought up issues of vaccine hesitancy.

“I think the important thing is to recognize and understand that not everybody is jumping to the front of the line, and some people have some very good reasons for doing that,” Baker said on GBH radio.

“There are a lot of folks in the health-care space who you would think, given everything that went on with COVID in the health-care community, would have jumped to the front of the line, too, and many of them did but many of them didn’t, for all kinds of reasons, and I don’t think you should put somebody in a position where they have to choose between a vaccine that they may be very concerned about taking for some very good reasons, and their job, at least not at this point in the process.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized three vaccines – from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – for emergency use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes the vaccines as safe and effective, as has state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel, who said all three prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death.

Baker said that polling data indicates that people who are hesitant, in many cases, do plan to receive a vaccine at some point but “just don’t want to go first” and would like to hear from their own doctor, a trusted community member, or a relative who got the shot.

Legislators Left with Lingering Questions After Vaccine Hearing

State House News – The chairs of a legislative oversight committee came out of a lengthy hearing convinced that they need to “dig deeper” into why the Baker administration felt local public-health experts and the emergency plans they’ve fine-tuned for decades were not viable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton and Rep. Bill Driscoll of Milton, who are leading the Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management’s probe into the vaccine rollout, said in a joint statement Wednesday that the hours of testimony presented during the second oversight hearing “exposed two completely different sets of beliefs about our public health system” and how well-equipped it is to handle crises.

Gov. Charlie Baker and his top deputies defended their decision not to use local disaster plans and to emphasize the role of mass vaccination sites, telling the committee that the pandemic presented unique challenges that could not be met with the preparations already in place.

Comerford and Driscoll, both Democrats, pushed back on that characterization in their response on Wednesday.

“If private companies that have only recently entered into the world of emergency preparedness and vaccine coordination, can be trusted to find a pathway to scale COVID-19 vaccination efforts, then certainly the local public-health teams that have spent decades training and developing plans specifically on pandemic response can be as well,” they said.

“The complexities and barriers to entry to effectively administer doses of the vaccine are not insurmountable for local and regional public health teams and efforts to address any gaps identified during the hearing would serve only to build lasting capacity and capability within local and regional infrastructure.”

The chairs flagged several “unanswered questions” they will continue to pursue, including the pace of economic reopening amid constraints in vaccine supply. They did not specifically announce another hearing, but said the committee “will certainly follow up on these vital concerns.” – Chris Lisinski/SHNS

Pfizer, Moderna Vaccines up to 90% Effective at Preventing Infections 

Bloomberg – Covid-19 vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. effectively prevented coronavirus infections, not just illness, with substantial protection evident two weeks after the first dose, government researchers said.

Two doses of the vaccines provide as much as 90 percent protection against infection, according to data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published Monday. Earlier clinical trials had established that the shots also prevent illness, hospitalizations, and deaths.

The study adds to evidence that new vaccines made with messenger RNA technology actually reduce the spread of the virus in real-world conditions. An earlier study in Israel found a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine reduced infections by as much as 85 percent.

The CDC studied a group of about 4,000 front-line workers, including health-care personnel, first responders, teachers and service workers from mid-December to mid-March as vaccines rolled out widely. These groups were among the first to be vaccinated, along with the vulnerable elderly, because of their risk of exposure to the virus.

Final Person Vaccinated at Fenway Park

MassLive – As Fenway Park’s role as a Massachusetts COVID vaccination site came to a close, the vendor running the location posted a video celebrating the last person to receive a shot at the Boston stadium.

CIC Health posted a video showing Frannie Chan leaving Fenway Park.

Workers clapped as Chan walked out of the stadium. She was first handed a button noting she received the COVID vaccine. Chan then waved to a person taking the video.

The vaccine site at Fenway Park took appointments up until March 27, Saturday, before shutting down ahead of the Boston Red Sox opening day game against the Baltimore Orioles, which is on April 1.

The Fenway Park location moved to the Hynes Convention Center. CIC Health said it was contacting people who scheduled second-dose appointments past March 27 at Fenway Park so they can get their second shot of the vaccine at Hynes.

CIC Health reports 56,228 people were given vaccines at Fenway Park. 

Boston Mass Vaccination Site to Get more Doses through Federal Partnership 

WHDH – The Hynes Convention Center in Boston will see a boost in COVID-19 vaccine doses this week thanks to a partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The federal agency will allocate 6,000 doses a day to the site, for a total of 7,000 doses per day when combined with the state’s current allocation, the Baker Administration announced Friday.

A portion of the federal doses will be designated for mobile units in Chelsea, Revere, and Boston.

The Community Vaccination Center program will be open to the public, with additional services available for the most disproportionately impacted communities in Suffolk County, starting Wednesday.

FEMA and its federal partners will provide support through staffing, operations, logistics, and vaccine allocations over eight weeks.

Even with the additional vaccines coming to the convention center, Gov. Charlie Baker says supply continues to remain a big challenge.

“The feds are continuing to build their channels, and we now have here in Massachusetts far more capacity than we have supply,” he said. “I would love to see the two of those things align.”

Baker ‘Pleased’ With Vaccine Progress After ‘Lumpy And Bumpy’ Start 

CBS – Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said he is “pleased” with the adjustments the state has made to its COVID vaccine rollout, despite early struggles.

Baker told WBZ-TV political analyst Jon Keller that despite a rocky start with issues on the state’s vaccine website, he is happy the state was able to make adjustments.

“I am pleased about the fact that we made adjustments as we went along here. We said it would be lumpy and bumpy to begin with and it was,” Baker said.

“We’re now performing as well as any state in the country with respect with shots in arms and people fully vaccinated. In the end I do believe by the time you get the end of May, beginning of summer, Fourth of July, whichever particular milestone you want to pursue, we’re going to be as good as or better than any other state in the country and that’s what the people of Massachusetts deserve.”

Cape Cod Official Calls for Emergency Vaccine Site

Boston Globe – Cases of COVID-19 are rising on Cape Cod, causing alarm from local health officials and illustrating the continued threat posed by the virus and its variants even as vaccinations ramp up across the state.

Both COVID-19 case numbers and positivity rates have increased in recent weeks on the Cape, with about half of the region’s communities now considered to be at high risk for the spread of the virus, according to the state’s latest town-by-town report. In some towns, the increase is threatening to erase progress made in the wake of the winter surge, even as the Cape leads the state in the share of its population that has been vaccinated.

In response to the rising numbers, Yarmouth Health Director Bruce Murphy warned the region could be witnessing a “third wave” outbreak and called on state officials to redistribute some doses from mass vaccination sites to community clinics on the Cape and set up an emergency vaccination site in the region.

Boston Hotels Could Take Years to Recover

Boston Globe – Normally at this time of year at the Omni Parker House, anticipation is in the air. Wedding banquets are being planned, graduation dinners are being booked, and tourists are snapping up rooms at the elegant property, a fixture in downtown Boston since 1855.

This year, however, is anything but normal.

Even as the pandemic starts to ease its grip, the return of visitors to the city —particularly those flying in from other parts of the world or traveling on business — remains in doubt, which could stall what otherwise appears to be a promising recovery. And nowhere is the impact more evident than at the area’s struggling hotels.

The lodging market in Boston and Cambridge was steamrolled by the pandemic, with the area’s occupancy rate plunging to less than 26 percent last year, driving revenue per available room — the performance measure used in the hospitality industry — down more than 80 percent, according to the hotel consultancy Pinnacle Advisory Group. The region fared only slightly better than New York, which had the biggest drop in the country.

Massachusetts Unemployment Rate Falls to 7.1 Percent

State House News – Massachusetts employers added 14,100 jobs in February as the state’s unemployment rate fell to 7.1 percent, labor officials announced Friday.

The joblessness rate dropped 0.7 percentage points from January, and it now stands at the lowest level since the COVID-19 pandemic hit more than a year ago. February’s rate was 0.9 percentage points higher than the national rate of 6.2 percent.

The Massachusetts unemployment rate remains more than twice as high as the 2.7 percent joblessness rate reported in March 2020, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data based on a household survey.

Using a separate survey of employers, labor officials estimated that the private sector in Massachusetts gained 22,300 jobs in February while government employment dropped by 8,200. The leisure and hospitality industry, one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes to business that came with public health precautions, reported the largest gain with 10,300 jobs over the month.

Professional, scientific and business services added 9,400 positions, followed by trade, transportation and utilities with 2,000, education and health services with 1,300, manufacturing with 1,200 and financial activities with 800. Overall employment in Massachusetts remains about 325,000 jobs below February 2020 levels.

March 23

State Moves to Phase 4, Step 1 Re-Opening

AIM Blog – Ballparks, arenas and indoor and outdoor stadiums will be able to open with a 12.5 percent capacity limit when Massachusetts moves to Phase 4, Step 1 of its economic re-opening plan next Monday, Governor Charlie Baker announced today.

State Easing Travel Rules with Next Re-Opening Step

State House News – The fourth and final phase of the state’s economic and social reopening plan began Monday, and rules around out-of-state travel were also relaxed.

The July 2020 travel order that required people entering Massachusetts from most states to fill out a form and quarantine for 10 days, test negative for COVID-19, or face fines of up to $500 per day will be replaced with an advisory that instead encourages people to quarantine upon arrival in Massachusetts if they have been away for 24 hours or more.

The advisory, Baker’s office said, will not apply to those returning after trips shorter than 24 hours, those who tested negative for COVID-19 up to 72 hours before arriving in Massachusetts, or fully vaccinated travelers. Last month, Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said they planned to loosen gathering-size restrictions and transition to Phase 4 of the reopening plan allowing stadiums, arenas and ballparks to operate at 12.5 percent capacity after submitting plans to the Department of Public Health.

The administration reaffirmed that timeline and said capacity limits for large venues “are expected to be adjusted over time if favorable trends in the public health data continue.”

Gathering limits for event venues and public settings rose to 100 people indoors and 150 outside. For private residences, the caps remain at 25 people outside and 10 people inside.

Overnight summer camps will be allowed to open, exhibition and convention halls will be able to operate subject to the gathering limits, and dance floors will be permitted at weddings and other events. Businesses like bars and nightclubs will remain closed until a later point in Phase 4, for which a date has not been announced.

Boston Taking Modified Approach to Next Re-Opening Phase

State House News – As most of Massachusetts shifted into Phase 4 of the state’s reopening plan Monday, Boston adopted a modified version with lower caps on most indoor and outdoor events.

“This is consistent with the cautious approach that we’ve taken throughout the pandemic,” Mayor Martin Walsh said Friday during a City Hall press conference.

“It’s not a lot of changes but there are some changes that we are not going to be moving forward with as much as the state.”

Instead of allowing up to 100 people to gather indoors and up to 150 people to gather outside, Walsh said Boston will only allow indoor gatherings of up to 60 people and outdoor gatherings of up to 100 people until the city’s positive test rate stays below 2.75 percent for two consecutive weeks.

For private residences, the gathering limits will remain at 25 people outside and 10 people inside.

The city’s positivity rate is currently at 3.5 percent, the mayor said.

The city’s more stringent restrictions will not apply to indoor or outdoor stadiums, arenas or ballparks, meaning that Fenway Park and TD Garden will still be able to host fans up to 12 percent of their maximum capacity, Walsh said. He said the city will also wait for its positivity rate to stay below 2.75 percent for two weeks before allowing Fenway or TD Garden to increase the number of fans allowed at games.

“The case numbers have stayed below our thresholds of concern for about a month now. We are ready to move forward to reopening, so we’re happy in the trend we’re going. We’re obviously not where we completely want to be, but we’re getting to a better place,” Walsh said. But he added: “The trend has been flat for several weeks. So, we did see a decline, but it’s been flat for the last several weeks. So, we know that we still have work to do to make sure that we combat this virus.”

After a Year on Front Lines, Massachusetts Grocery Workers Want Vaccine Eligibility  

NBC Boston – They remained open when most businesses were closed during the worst of the pandemic, and now, grocery store workers in Massachusetts are fighting to get the vaccine.

As it stands, grocery store workers are next in line to receive the vaccine, but they are in a group with a bunch of other workers. After seeing teachers get moved up in priority, they would like to be moved up, too.

“I think everyone is really anxious for the shot. It provides a level of safety for everyone, and we’ve been here feeding everyone during this,” said Tony Russo, the owner of Russo’s in Watertown.

The store has plexiglass dividers, and gloves are handed out to every customer, but Russo said some employees are still fearful coming to work due to the risk of exposure.

Kim Brookmire works behind the deli counter at Russo’s and regularly wears two masks and a face shield just to protect herself.

“It’s just the paranoia of being close to everybody. We should 100% get the vaccine. I would feel so much more comfortable coming to work,” Brookmire said.

State Rep. Carmine Gentile, D-Sudbury, heard their plea and wrote a letter Gov. Charlie Baker that was signed by 35 lawmakers. In the letter, Gentile makes the case for why he believes grocery store workers should be eligible for the vaccine now.

“They’ve gotten sick. They’ve gotten COVID. Some of them have died, and it’s not right. They should be prioritized by getting the vaccine yesterday,” Gentile said.

Baker Plans to Fully Open Vaccine Eligibility April 19

State House News – All Massachusetts residents ages 16 or older will become eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine by April 19, the Baker administration announced.

Residents 60 or older and certain workers became eligible yesterday. Residents 55 or older and those with one qualifying health condition will become eligible April 5 and the general public will become eligible April 19.

“The Administration has received assurances from the federal government that an increased vaccine supply will be available to states soon,” Baker’s office wrote in a press release.

“Depending on supply, it could take weeks for people to be notified that an appointment is available at a mass vaccination site.”

President Joe Biden said last week that he was directing all states to make all adults eligible to be vaccinated no later than May 1. Baker’s administration had planned to make the general public eligible for vaccine doses sometime in its final rollout phase, which has long been scheduled to begin in April.

Baker’s office also announced a new $24.7 million investment in its Vaccine Equity Initiative meant to “increase trust, vaccine acceptance and administration rates … and to meet the needs of priority populations.”

Jobless May Need Help Transitioning to Post-Pandemic Work

State House News – The state must invest in workforce development programs to help people transition into technical trades and other in-demand industries if they are unable to return to their old jobs eliminated during the pandemic, a new report from several statewide workforce organizations recommends.

The paper, presented Monday at a virtual policy briefing for legislators, recommended five steps to ensure “a full equitable and sustainable recovery,” including expanded technical training, funding for programs for speakers of other languages, investments in digital access, and the ramping up existing workforce system capacities.

“With a new influx of federal stimulus dollars expected this spring, it is imperative that efforts be targeted to people who have been hurt the most during the pandemic; and ideally, to help them thrive beyond pre-COVID levels,” the paper said.

The report was written by Kathie Mainzer of Workforce Solutions Group, Tonja Mettlach of Massachusetts Workforce Association, and Anne Calef of Boston Indicators.

Some unemployed workers will need to switch to new occupations but may not have the necessary access to training required for positions, the report states. As a result, Massachusetts should scale up and fund effective job training in sectors with high employer demand, offer on-the-job paid training, and allocate funding for retaining instructors, the report recommends.

The paper says funding should head to existing organizations that identify talent needs and create joint training ventures like the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund and Learn to Earn, both offered by the Commonwealth Corporation.

“The Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund is a major one. It’s a competitive grant program around the state,” Mainzer said. “You must have employers at the table that have vacant jobs, and the employers partner with a community college or [vocational technical] school or training organization to help people get their CDL driver’s license or a CNA certification or early childhood education certification.”

The pandemic’s impact on the state’s accomodations and food services sectors topped all other industry areas in job loss between February 2020 and January 2021, according to the report. Roughly 103,300 people lost employment during that time period in accommodations and food services, with health care and social assistance coming in second at about 49,900.

Forced shutdowns and capacity restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus also brought on an economic downturn that silenced bustling downtown areas. The effect of staying at home, the report said, created a “slightly counterintuitive effect” of further job losses in the service sector.

“Many Massachusetts workers are now working remotely, which almost paradoxically, has led to even more service sector job loss in downtown areas as there’s fewer workers to frequent those businesses, services,” Calef said. “All of this has translated to the high unemployment rate … which has been above the national rate for most of the pandemic.”

With the shift to remote working, the need for stable internet connectivity and devices has skyrocketed. Access to online learning, the report said, is one of the largest equity gaps that keep some populations from “opportunity and prosperity.”

“Every child and adult needs reliable, affordable internet and technology to participate in basic education, upskilling and career preparation/ongoing learning,” the paper said.

SkillWorks Executive Director Andre Green said access to digital resources is one of the largest pre-existing inequities with roughly 16 percent of workers statewide in hard-hit industries lacking access to high-speed internet. That number, he said, rises to 26 percent in communities like Fall River and Springfield.

Taken together, the report notes the state had an unemployment rate below the national rate every month from July 2007 to March 2020 but jumped above the national average in April 2020 “and continues to exceed that national benchmark.”

The effects of job loss were not experienced equally across economic, racial, and gender lines, the report said, as lower-wage workers, women, workers of color, and young adults felt the effects disproportionately. Job loss “has been especially pronounced for women and even more so for women of color, because of the sectors they tend to work in, and because they are often the primary caregivers at home,” the authors wrote.

“This translates to a large setback for women in the workforce” – as of December 2020, there were roughly 2.1 million fewer women in the labor force than in February 2020,” the report said. “Because of their heavy representation in hard-hit sectors and care constraints, women of color have been particularly impacted.”

Facebook, Boston Children’s Hospital offer new way to find COVID shots

Boston Globe – Next time you’re searching for places to get a COVID-19 vaccination shot, don’t forget to check out Facebook. The social network on Monday announced a partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital to provide US residents with information about vaccine availability in their neighborhoods. The organizations are working to add the ability for users to make an appointment directly from the Facebook app.

John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, said that Facebook’s huge audience — over 220 million in the US and two billion worldwide — makes for an ideal way to spread the word. “That’s where people are,” Brownstein said. “We want to make sure we’re arming that platform with the best possible data on where vaccines are.”

But the listings at Facebook’s COVID-19 Information Center are less comprehensive than at other websites, including the State of Massachusetts’ Vaxfinder site. For instance, the Facebook listings don’t include the state-run mass vaccination sites at places like Fenway Park. The Facebook listings mainly feature pharmacies at CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart stores. However, the new Facebook service does include a link to the Massachusetts COVID-19 information page, where users can run a more thorough search. And Brownstein said more sites will be added over time, in Massachusetts and nationwide. At present, the Facebook page also offers vaccination site information for Alaska, Tennessee, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, Utah, and New York State outside of New York City.

Massachusetts is Getting Another Modest Increase in Vaccine Supply

Boston.com – Massachusetts is set to see another modest increase in vaccine supplies for next week, including thousands of unexpected doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration said Monday night that Massachusetts is receiving 170,000 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccines this week, after getting 155,000 last week through the federal government.

The coming shipment includes 8,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which officials say was a surprise after previously being told to expect a pause in deliveries until the end of March after the state’s initial shipment, as the company ramps up production.

The rest of the shipment for next week is comprised of doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Officials noted that the increased allocation does not include doses that are shipped through federal programs, such as the federal government’s vaccine partnership with retail pharmacies, which in Massachusetts received 95,000 first and second doses last week.

Massachusetts has seen its weekly supply of first doses slowly build over the last few weeks, after President Joe Biden’s administration increased the state’s shipment to roughly 100,000 first doses for the first week of January. However, officials have stressed that the demand for the vaccines continues to far outmatch available supply — and available appointments have been booked quickly.

The relatively small increase comes as officials in neighboring Connecticut announced plans Monday to accelerate their rollout to all residents over the age of 16 on April 5, after the officials said the Biden administration told them to expect a “significant” increase in doses over the next several weeks from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.

While Massachusetts has sped up the pace of its overall rollout, Baker has not hinted at any similar plans.

Moderna Testing New Vaccine that Does Not Require Ultra-Cold Storage

Boston Herald – Cambridge biotech company Moderna is testing a “next generation” coronavirus vaccine with the potential to remain stable at standard refrigerator temperatures instead of requiring ultra-cold storage.

The first participants have already been dosed with the new vaccine candidate, called mRNA-1283, the company announced on Monday.

“We are pleased to begin this Phase 1 study of our next generation COVID-19 vaccine candidate, mRNA-1283,” said Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna.

The vaccine candidate is being developed as a potential refrigerator-stable shot, which Bancel said, “could facilitate easier distribution and administration in a wider range of settings, including potentially for developing countries.”

The study will assess the safety of the vaccine at three dose levels and will be given to healthy adults either as a single dose, or in two doses 28 days apart, according to Moderna.

The candidate will also be evaluated in future studies as a booster dose for previously vaccinated people.

UMass President Proposes In-State Tuition Freeze

MassLive – University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan will propose that the UMass system keep in-state undergraduate tuitions the same for the second straight year as a way of helping students and their families during a difficult economy brought on by the pandemic.

Meehan said he intends to recommend a tuition freeze for the 2021-2022 academic year to the university’s Board of Trustees. The board in July followed Meehan’s recommendation on a tuition freeze for the current school year.

He made his remarks Monday in a presentation at the UMass Medical school in Worcester.

“To lessen the financial burden on our students and their families, many of whom have suffered from job losses, business closures and other impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, I intend to recommend to the UMass Board of Trustees that we freeze tuition for in-state undergraduate students for the second consecutive year,” he said.

He said the freeze is possible by the state’s congressional delegation, which helped pass the American Rescue Plan legislation. He also thanked the support of the state legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker.

U.S. Treasury Gives Green Light to State Tax Cuts

State House News – The U.S. Treasury has given state lawmakers some breathing room as they consider a tax relief package worth as much as $350 million, indicating that states may cut taxes without being penalized under the new federal stimulus law.

The Treasury told the Associated Press that tax cuts are allowed under the stimulus bill as long as state money is used to pay for the tax breaks.

The stimulus bill signed by President Joe Biden last week included a provision preventing a state like Massachusetts from using any of the $4.5 billion in direct aid it will receive “to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction” in net tax revenue. The restriction could apply through 2024.

Some tax experts expressed concern that this could wind up doubling the cost of certain proposed tax breaks in the unemployment insurance rate relief bill. Experts and lawmakers were particularly interested in how the federal restriction might impact a tax credit proposed for low-income workers on unemployment benefits collected over the last year.

While the House capped the credit at $50 million over two years, the Senate reworked the credit and said it could cost $126 million. The chairmen of both the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees told the News Service last week they were awaiting guidance from the Treasury but believed the state would not be penalized for the tax relief bill because legislators had not proposed to use stimulus money to pay for it.

“However, because tax revenue collections for this fiscal year have been trending positively and performing better than benchmarks, the relief package currently moving through the Legislature, which was in development prior to the federal legislation being finalized, does not rely on expected federal funds to pay for the provisions relative to PPP and the unemployment tax credit,” Sen. Michael Rodrigues said.

And Rep. Aaron Michlewitz said, “I’m confident the moves we are making, A, we can afford and, B, are the right ones for the commonwealth in terms of the COVID relief discussion.”

Legislature Plans Tax Deadline Delay, Mirroring IRS

State House News – With the Internal Revenue Service moving the federal tax filing deadline back about a month, the Massachusetts Legislature folded a matching extension for the state tax deadline into the unemployment insurance, paid leave and tax relief bill that passed the Senate on Thursday.

The U.S. Treasury and IRS announced Wednesday that the federal income tax filing due date for individuals for the 2020 tax year would be automatically extended from April 15 to May 17.

Commonwealth Conversations

Please join AIM on April 13 for a Commonwealth Conversation with House Ways and Means Chairman, Representative Aaron Michlewitz, moderated by Brooke Thomson, AIM’s Executive Vice President of Government Affairs.  Register here.

March 16

“Timely” Aid Bill Likely to Clear Senate Thursday 

State House NewsOn the heels of House action last week, the Massachusetts Senate plans on Thursday to advance a bill laying out new unemployment system costs and tax breaks for businesses, a new emergency paid sick leave benefit, and new tax relief for low-income workers.

“We are aware of the timely and sensitive nature of this bill,” Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues said Monday. His panel was still “putting the final touches on the language” of the bill with the goal of opening a poll vote to committee members Monday evening.

The final text will become available to the full Senate on Tuesday morning, Rodrigues said, with amendments due by 5 p.m. ahead of debate during a formal session on Thursday. The committee’s rewrite will “stick to the broad outline” that House and Senate leaders announced last week, he said.

“Those parameters include unemployment insurance rate freeze and relief for businesses based upon the governor’s bill, (Paycheck Protection Program) tax treatment changes to create equity and mirror what is done at the federal level, unemployment insurance targeted tax relief for low-income workers making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and the creation of COVID-19 emergency paid sick time program for employees who need to be absent from work due to COVID.”

The House unanimously approved its version of the bill last week, a smaller-scope version of which Gov. Charlie Baker first proposed in December. It would reduce the scheduled increase in unemployment taxes that employers pay, impose a surcharge on businesses to pay back federal interest, and authorize borrowing to keep benefits flowing.

Businesses across Massachusetts face a nearly 60 percent increase in the taxes they pay to fund the state unemployment system without action from the Legislature after the unprecedented surge in joblessness during the pandemic depleted the fund.

FAQ On Stimulus, Unemployment and Tax Rebates

New York Times – President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan on Thursday, enacting a nearly $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package with benefits including another round of stimulus payments, an extension of unemployment benefits and generous tax breaks to low- and moderate-income people.

When will my stimulus check arrive?

The Treasury Department said that stimulus payments began arriving in bank accounts by direct deposit this weekend.

Treasury and Internal Revenue Service officials said the payments will be released in batches over the next several weeks, with some coming in the mail in the form of checks or debit cards.

The Treasury Department has been working with financial institutions to try to ensure that payments arrive more quickly this time around than they did last year.

As before, you should be able to track the status of your payment via the I.R.S.’s Get My Payment tool. Be aware that the volume of users sometimes overwhelms the site.

What should I do if I still haven’t gotten a payment from a past round of stimulus?

If you were in fact eligible to receive it, you can try to recover it through the so-called Recovery Rebate Credit when filing your 2020 return. Make your claim on Line 30 of Form 1040 or 1040-SR.

How big are the stimulus payments, and who is eligible?

The stimulus payments will be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible will also receive an identical payment for each of their children.

To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person must have an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income must be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number has to be $150,000 or below.

To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number.

Is there a partial payment for higher earners? 

Yes. But payments phase out quickly as adjusted gross income rises.

For single filers, the checks decrease to zero at $80,000. For heads of household, the cutoff is $120,000. And for joint filers, the checks stop at $160,000.

Payments for children decrease in the same way. 

Do college students count as eligible dependents? 

College students whom qualifying taxpayers claim as dependents are eligible. (They weren’t for past payments.) The payment goes to the parent taxpayer, not the child. 

Do older relatives who live with us count as eligible dependents? 

Good news here, too. If claimed as dependents, these relatives are also eligible this time. The payment goes to the qualifying taxpayer, not the dependent adult. 

Which year of income determines eligibility?

The most recent year on record at the Internal Revenue Service. If you’ve already filed your taxes this year, it would be 2020. If not, it would be 2019. 

What if I receive a stimulus payment based on my 2019 tax return, but the income reported on the 2020 return that I haven’t filed yet will be too high to qualify? 

You will not have to return the money. 

What if I am newly eligible for a stimulus payment based on my 2020 income, but I haven’t filed my 2020 return?

You could try to file it quickly, in hopes of receiving your payment faster. But there’s no guarantee your return will be processed quickly enough, and haste can lead to errors.

And you don’t have to rush: The law includes a provision for the Treasury Department to make supplemental payments by September. If you don’t get one then, you can claim the $1,400 when you file your 2021 taxes. 

If I have a baby anytime in 2021 and meet the income qualifications, will I get a $1,400 payment for the child, too? 

Any baby born in 2021 (or before) is eligible. 

How does the stimulus package affect unemployment payments? 

If you’re already receiving unemployment benefits, payments will generally be extended for another 25 weeks, until Sept. 6. The weekly supplemental benefit, which is provided on top of your regular benefit, will remain $300 but run through Sept. 6.

Although unemployment benefits are taxable, the new law made the first $10,200 of benefits tax-free for people with incomes of less than $150,000. This applies to 2020 only.

If I already filed my 2020 taxes, how do I claim that new tax break? 

It’s not yet clear, but you may have to file an amended return, according to a Senate aide. The Internal Revenue Service has not issued formal guidance yet. (But here’s hoping they figure out a way to make it happen automatically.) 

How do the benefit extensions work?

The extended payments will continue to be delivered through different federal programs, largely based on the type of work you did and for whom.

Benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which covers the self-employed, gig workers, part-timers and others who are typically ineligible for regular unemployment benefits, will be available for a total of 79 weeks, up from 50, and run through Sept. 6.

And benefits through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which essentially extends benefits for people who exhaust their regular state benefits, will be available for a total of 53 weeks, up from 24, also lasting through Sept. 6.

What happens to the supplemental payments?

If you qualify for any benefits, you will also receive the full $300 supplemental payment for weeks ending after March 14 and through Sept. 6. Known as F.P.U.C., it’s called the federal pandemic unemployment compensation.

The stimulus package also extends an extra $100 weekly payment, called the mixed-earner supplement, through Sept. 6. This payment helps people who have a mix of income from both self-employment and wages paid by other employers, because they are often stuck with a lower state-issued benefit based on their (lower) wages.

The legislation also clarifies that the $300 federal supplement will not be counted when calculating eligibility for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The mixed earner supplement, however, will be counted.

Will payments be uninterrupted? 

Experts said there may be a gap for beneficiaries in many states because it usually takes a couple of weeks for agencies to program any benefit extensions.

What student loan changes are included in the stimulus package?

There is a big one for people who already have debt.

You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people.

This will be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025.

What kind of housing help is coming?

The stimulus package provides billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes.

Nearly $22 billion will go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it replenishes the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December.

To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households have to meet several conditions. Household income cannot exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic.

Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more will be given priority for assistance.

Is there anything for homeowners?

The legislation provides nearly $10 billion to help homeowners struggling with mortgage payments, utility bills and other housing costs.

Roughly $100 million will be dedicated to housing counseling, which will help both homeowners and renters remain in their homes. 

How about homeless people?

About $5 billion will be allocated to help the homeless, including the conversion of properties like motels into shelters.

Another $5 billion will be used for emergency housing vouchers to help several groups of people find stable housing. 

What does the relief package do about health insurance? 

Buying insurance through the program known as COBRA becomes a lot cheaper, but only temporarily.

COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium.

But under the relief legislation the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30 for people who have lost a job or had their hours cut.

A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 loses their eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily is not eligible, either. 

Will the cost of health insurance I buy through an exchange be affected?

The legislation lowers the cost of health insurance in many instances for people who bought their own coverage via a government exchange. And the premiums for those plans will cost no more than 8.5 percent of your modified adjusted gross income.

These changes will last through the end of 2022 and do not require people to re-enroll to access the lower prices.

How do I sign up for health insurance?

If you don’t already have health insurance but would buy it if the price was right, an open enrollment period is already in effect through May 15. You can also switch plans to try to lower the price you’re paying already or get more generous coverage. The Kaiser Family Foundation maintains a calculator that estimates your premiums based on your income and any available government subsidies. 

Are there any changes to health care flexible spending accounts? 

None this time, though there were some in the last stimulus bill. 

What is happening with the earned-income tax credit? 

For 2021 only, the stimulus package will increase for childless households the size of the earned-income tax credit, which helps those at the lower end of the income scale, and make more taxpayers eligible.

The maximum credit amount for childless people increases to $1,502, from $543.

The age range is also broader: People without children will be able to claim the credit beginning at age 19 instead of 25, with the exception of certain full-time students. The upper age limit, 65, will be eliminated.

How are separated spouses affected? 

Married but separated people can be treated as not married for the purpose of the credit if they don’t file a joint tax return.

This applies only if the taxpayer lived with a qualifying child for more than half of the taxable year and didn’t have the same principal home as the spouse at least six months of the year. A separation decree or agreement would also suffice, as long as the individual didn’t live with the spouse by the end of the taxable year.

This change will be permanent. 

Are there any other changes?

  • For the purposes of calculating the credit in the 2021 tax year, taxpayers could choose to use their 2019 income if it was higher than 2021, according to a Senate aide.
  • People who otherwise would be eligible but whose children do not have Social Security numbers will be permitted to claim the version of the credit available to childless households. This change is permanent.
  • Taxpayers won’t be disqualified for the credit in 2021 until they have investment income of $10,000, up from $3,650. This change will be permanent, with the $10,000 threshold indexed to inflation.

How does this change the child tax credit?

The credit is more generous for 2021, particularly for low- and middle-income people.

Usually, the credit is worth up to $2,000 per eligible child. This year, it will increase to as much as $3,000 per child ($3,600 for ages 5 and under). The age limit for qualifying children also rises to 17, from 16.

Does it change how the credit works?

Here’s where it gets interesting: You could receive some of the credit as an advance on your 2021 taxes. (You can also opt out of advance payments if you wish.)

The legislation makes the credit fully refundable, which means you can receive money from it as a tax refund even if your tax bill is reduced to zero. And half of that money can be advanced to households over the next six months (based on their 2020 tax information, or 2019 if that was unavailable). It’s not clear how frequently payments would be made — perhaps monthly — but they should begin in July.

The changes are effective for 2021 only, though at least some Democrats would like to make it permanent.

Who is eligible?

Married couples who have modified adjusted gross income up to $150,000 (or heads of household up to $112,500 and single filers up to $75,000) receive the full value of the new benefit.

But after that, the extra amount above the original $2,000 credit — either $1,000 or $1,600 per child — is reduced by $50 for every $1,000 in modified adjusted gross income that exceeds those levels. (For joint filers with one child age 6 to 17, the extra amount will be phased out at about $170,000.)

At that point, the tax credit levels out at $2,000, and is subject to the usual income limits: It begins to phase out when married filers have adjusted gross income of $400,000 ($200,000 for singles).

How do the advance payments work? 

The advance payments would total up to half the value of the credit the household is eligible to receive. (The other half would be claimed on its 2021 return.) But exactly how often the payments would be sent out depends on what the Treasury Department decides is feasible.

Here’s how it might work for a couple earning $150,000 or less: With two children, ages 7 and 9, they would be eligible for a $6,000 credit ($3,000 per child). If the payments were made monthly, the family would receive $500 per month starting in July and lasting through the end of the year. The remaining $3,000 would be claimed in 2021 on their tax return.

Could I end up having to pay any of it back? 

Conceivably, yes.

A taxpayer may receive too much money from the advance payments in certain situations, such as a change in income or filing status, or if they no longer claim a child as a dependent. (Single parents may run into this situation if the other parent claims the child as a dependent in some tax years.)

This could cause you to owe money at tax time or reduce your refund.

But the legislation mitigates the danger in a couple of ways.

First, only half of the credit is paid in advance. And the law also says that if the wrong amount was paid because of changes in the number of qualifying children, up to $2,000 per child would not need to be paid back by taxpayers who fall below certain income thresholds: $40,000 for a single taxpayer, $50,000 for a head of household, and $60,000 for joint filers. People whose income is above those thresholds may receive partial protection, which phases out as they earn more, tax experts said.

The stimulus package requires the establishment of an online portal to allow taxpayers to opt out of receiving advance payments and update information about their income, marital status and number of qualifying children.

What is changing about the child and dependent care tax credit?

This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, will be significantly expanded for a single year. More people are eligible, and many recipients will get a bigger break.

The legislation also makes the credit fully refundable, which means you can collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill is zero.

“That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. 

How much is the credit worth? 

For this year only, the stimulus legislation makes the credit worth up to $4,000 for one qualifying individual or $8,000 for two or more. The credit will be calculated by taking up to 50 percent of the value of eligible expenses, up to certain limits, depending on your income. (The more you earn, the lower the percentage you can claim.)

Usually, the credit is generally worth between 20 and 35 percent of eligible expenses with a maximum value of $2,100 for two or more qualifying individuals.

The stimulus package also significantly increases the income level at which the credit begins to be reduced. In past years, that started at an adjusted gross income of $15,000, but for this year the full value of the credit will be available to households making up to $125,000.

Previously, the credit was not further reduced below 20 percent, regardless of income, Mr. Luscombe said. But for this year, the legislation will begin to reduce the credit below 20 percent for households with income of more than $400,000.

What about dependent care flexible spending accounts?

The stimulus package makes one big change. For 2021 only, you can set aside $10,500 in a dependent care account instead of the normal $5,000. But employers have to allow the change: You can’t adjust the withholdings from your paycheck yourself if your employer declines to provide the option.

Are paid sick and family leave provisions being extended?

The legislation extends through September tax breaks to employers who voluntarily provide their workers with paid sick and family leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. But it does not mandate that employers provide the leave — that requirement expired on Dec. 31, and was not renewed in the legislative package signed at the end of last year.

Under the new stimulus package, self-employed people will also continue to receive leave-related tax breaks through September.

The paid leave provisions also cover time taken to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, or to recover from any illness or condition related to the immunization.

More than 400,000 Residents Sign Up for Vaccine through New Pre-Registration System

Boston Globe – More than 400,000 Massachusetts residents pre-registered for COVID-19 vaccine appointments by Friday evening, even as the state sought to do more to reach people of color and immigrant communities.

Launched around 3 a.m. Friday, the state’s new preregistration site prompts users with a series of questions to sort eligibility, and takes just a few minutes to fill out. Once the preregistration is complete, people receive a confirmation through their delivery method of choice — text, e-mail, or phone call — as well as a weekly update on their status.

No immediate problems were reported Friday, a positive development after weeks of complaints about a balky sign-up process. It could still take weeks for the actual vaccine appointments to arrive.

The new service signs up users for shots at the mass vaccination sites such as Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium. “I think we’re up to about 200,000 people preregistered at this point, which is great,” said Governor Charlie Baker during a briefing around 9:40 a.m., hours after the new system went live.

Meanwhile, criticism continued to mount about the fairness of the vaccine progress. The Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights said in a statement that “people of color and immigrants remain effectively locked out of equitable vaccine access.”

Legislature calls Baker to Second COVID-19 Oversight Hearing

Boston Globe – Governor Charlie Baker has been called to testify at a second legislative oversight hearing exploring Massachusetts’s COVID-19 rollout, according to state lawmakers, who intend to drill down into his administration’s decision to entrust a handful of private companies with running its seven mass vaccination sites.

The March 23 hearing will explore what lawmakers called the rollout’s “technology infrastructure” as well as the public health and emergency response plans the state had spent two decades and millions of dollars creating ahead of the pandemic, legislators said Friday.

The blueprint hinged on mobilizing the state’s vast network of local public health departments to respond in an emergency situation. But shortly after federal drug regulators authorized the first COVID-19 vaccine in mid-December, the state abandoned essential elements of the plan and turned over its largest vaccination sites to three private providers, the Globe has reported.

News of the hearing came on the same day that a survey showed a significant drop in public approval for Baker’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Baker’s approval rating fell from 80 percent a year ago to 59 percent today, according to a report from Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers, and Northwestern universities.

David Lazer, a Northeastern political science and computer science professor who worked on the survey released Friday, said researchers found that approval ratings for governors’ handling of the pandemic had declined across the country.

Billions in Additional Fed Aid Coming to Massachusetts

State House News – The new federal stimulus is expected to funnel billions of dollars to Massachusetts for state and local government aid, education and transportation funding, and direct payments to more than three million families.

Passage of the American Rescue Act that will provide state governments with direct federal aid for the first time since the pandemic began happened on the one-year anniversary of Gov. Charlie Baker declaring a state of emergency around the coronavirus that has since gone on to kill more than 16,000 people here and infect almost 550,000 others.

The version of President Joe Biden’s bill that cleared the U.S. Senate over the weekend was approved by a 220-211 vote of the U.S. House with only Democratic Rep. Jared Golden of Maine crossing the aisle in either direction. Biden is expected to sign the bill into law Friday.

Democratic leadership in the U.S. Senate projected that Massachusetts state government and municipalities would receive more than $8.1 billion in direct government aid, including $4.513 billion for the state, $3.415 for city, county and other local government aid, and $174 million in capital project funding.

Baker has described state and local government aid as “critical” to helping states like Massachusetts rebuild their economies as more of the public becomes vaccinated against COVID-19 and he has been calling on Congress to approve state aid for months.

“When we began our work, hundreds upon hundreds of community leaders reached out to us asking for help. They told us the relief in this bill would mean recovery instead of recession,” New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the Oversight Committee responsible for the bill’s $362 billion in dedicated aid to state and local governments, said.

“It can be used for vaccines, increased testing and countless jobs. Cities across this nation, states, have lost billions in expected tax revenue. This bill helps.”

Massachusetts is among the states that have not seen their tax collections live up to pre-pandemic revenue estimates, but the Bay State has nonetheless collected $1.123 billion or 6.1 percent more in taxes through two-thirds of fiscal year 2021 than it did during the same eight pre-pandemic months of fiscal year 2020.

Using Department of Revenue benchmarks for the remaining four months of fiscal 2021, Massachusetts is on track to collect $29.878 billion in taxes this year. While that would be $788 million more than DOR’s most recent estimate and $282 million more than what was collected throughout fiscal 2020, it would still be $1.27 billion less than the pre-pandemic consensus revenue estimate of $31.15 billion for fiscal 2021.

Massachusetts is also in line for more than $1.039 billion in transit assistance and $2.68 billion in total education aid, according to Senate estimates. And that’s on top of other stimulus spending that would flow to schools, businesses, testing and vaccination programs, the unemployed and more than $7.3 billion in direct checks to more than 3.1 million families in Massachusetts.

Baker said Wednesday that the extension of unemployment benefits is “a big deal for a lot of people who are in a pretty crummy place with respect to COVID generally,” and that the money for vaccination and testing “will also make a big difference.”

As Baker’s administration continues to prod communities to resume full-time in-person learning, the governor said Wednesday that the federal education aid “should make it possible for every school district and every municipality to find a way to do whatever they think they need to do as we go forward to either support summer schools or acceleration academies or additional work around building construct and all the rest to support that stuff going forward.”

As of March 3, the federal government had already sent more than $61 billion in aid to Massachusetts since the pandemic began, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Much of that money went directly to businesses, families, non-profits and public entities like regional transit authorities.

And while much of the federal money is earmarked for specific purposes, Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill have shown a desire this session to play a more active role in deciding how Massachusetts spends the billions in general government aid included in this round of federal relief.

The House this session created a new Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight that will be tasked with reviewing federal spending, including stimulus bills and block grants, and recommending ways Massachusetts can tap into additional federal resources. Rep. Daniel Hunt of Dorchester was named chairman.

With stimulus, Federal Government Makes a Massive Investment in Child Care

Boston Globe – Child-care providers, whose shoestring survival has been tested by the pandemic conditions of the past year, are not only getting a belated lifeline from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan but also a sudden show of appreciation for their essential role to the economy.

The beleaguered Massachusetts child-care system is expected to reap more than $500 million, according to the office of Representative Katherine Clark, the assistant speaker of the US House, including money that can be used to stabilize budgets, hire additional staff, or boost pay for overworked employees.

William J. Eddy, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, called the investment a “game-changer,” and said it “will just give a jolt to our system.”

Massachusetts’ private day-care providers have received almost no government help to survive the pandemic, save any paycheck protection act loans they were able to obtain. Until now, state government directed the limited federal aid available to providers who care for children with government-subsidized care. (The state only recently began offering all providers personal protective equipment and COVID testing.)

In the meantime, many providers have buckled under the burdens of COVID-era care and constraints. According to the Department of Early Education and Care, 922 family child-care providers and 450 child-care centers have not reopened.

State Unemployment Rate Dips Below 8 Percent

State House News – The unemployment rate in Massachusetts fell to 7.8 percent in January, and revisions to 2020 estimates have pinpointed the highest spike of pandemic-era joblessness to last April, labor officials announced Friday.

The January rate dropped 0.6 percentage points from the revised December rate of 8.4 percent, and it stands 1.5 percentage points higher than the U.S. joblessness rate, the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said.

Despite continued improvement from double-digit figures in the early months of the COVID-19 crisis, the unemployment rate in Massachusetts remains more than two and a half times higher than it was before the virus upended public life. Businesses reported adding 35,500 jobs in January, according to federal data based on a survey of employers.

From May to January, the state added slightly more than half of the roughly 690,000 positions that evaporated last March and April.

Friday’s release also revised the monthly data estimates for 2020. Labor officials now say the unemployment rate peaked in Massachusetts at 16.4 percent in April, a change from the previously reported high of 17.7 percent in June. The revised unemployment rates steadily declined from April to 15.3 percent in May, 14.8 percent in June, 9.8 percent in July, 9.3 percent in August, 8.9 percent in September, 8.5 percent in October, 8.4 percent in November and 8.4 percent in December.

Massachusetts Reports 1,508 New COVID Cases; 908,553 Residents Vaccinated

MassLive – Massachusetts public health officials on Sunday reported that 1,508 more residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and another 30 have died from the virus.

Since the pandemic hit the U.S. about a year ago, at least 568,616 Bay State residents have tested positive for the coronavirus and 16,311 have died, according to the state Department of Public Health.

DPH officials estimate there are at least 26,459 active cases in Massachusetts as of Sunday.

The latest case totals are based on 90,244 new molecular tests. The state’s seven-day average rate of positive tests is 1.67 percent, which remained steady this past week after dropping following a winter peak. The rate reached a low of 0.8 percent in September.

Currently, 636 residents are hospitalized with COVID-19, including 169 in intensive care and 95 who are intubated. Like the daily new case counts, hospitalizations have declined for weeks.

So far, a total of 2,522,847 vaccine doses have gone out across Massachusetts. At least 908,553 residents are fully vaccinated as of Sunday, according to a daily vaccination report from DPH.

The state recently launched a website to help streamline vaccine access. Anyone who lives or works in the state can use the site to pre-register to get the vaccine, whether or not they are currently eligible.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of President Joe Biden’s top pandemic advisors and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday that case counts are still too high across the country to declare a “victory,” even if trends are “in the right direction” a year after the pandemic began.

Phase 4 Expected to Start Next Week in Massachusetts; Here’s What Can Reopen

NBC Boston – In one week, Massachusetts is expected to move into the final phase of its reopening following last year’s coronavirus shutdowns.

The state moved into Phase 3, Step 2 of the four-phased reopening on March 1, and Gov. Charlie Baker has said that provided public health metrics continue to improve all communities in Massachusetts will move into Phase 4, Step 1 on Monday, March 22.

This includes a range of previously closed business sectors under tight capacity restrictions that are expected to be adjusted over time if the public health data continues to trend in the right direction.

The following industries will be allowed to operate at a strict 12 percent capacity limit after submitting a plan to the state Department of Public Health:

  • Indoor and outdoor stadiums
  • Arenas
  • Ballparks

Also effective March 22, gathering limits for event venues and in public settings will increase to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors. Outdoor gatherings at private residences and in private backyards will remain at a maximum of 25 people, with indoor house gatherings remaining at 10 people.

Additionally, dance floors will be permitted at weddings and other events only, and overnight summer camps will be allowed to operate this coming summer.

Exhibition and convention halls may also begin to operate, following gatherings limits and event protocols. Other Phase 4 sectors must continue to remain closed.

The COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Plan in Massachusetts
AARP

Who can get the vaccine now? 

Adults age 65-plus and people with two or more serious medical conditions. People who accompany those 75 and older to one of the state’s mass vaccination sites can also be immunized if they make an appointment. Each older resident is limited to one guest who can receive a vaccine.

Health care workers, long-term care facility residents and staff, first responders and people living or working in congregate care settings like homeless or domestic violence shelters.

Where can I get vaccinated?

Mass vaccination sites, including Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Fenway Park in Boston, the Doubletree Hotel in Danvers, the Natick Mall in Natick, the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston and the Eastfield Mall in Springfield. You can pre-register for an appointment or use the state’s vaccine finder tool. Or you can call 2-1-1 to use a toll-free scheduling hotline. Use the prompt “for help with a vaccine appointment.” The hotline is staffed by English and Spanish speakers, and additional translations services are available.

Certain hospitals, health centers and vaccine clinics. Use the interactive map on the state’s COVID-19 vaccine website to find a location near you and book through the vaccine finder tool or by calling 2-1-1.

Certain retail pharmacies. Check the websites of WegmansWalgreens or CVS to see if vaccines are available. You can also get a CVS appointment at some Target stores with CVS pharmacies inside.

Check the state’s COVID-19 vaccine website for more information. You can also keep up with Massachusetts vaccine datasign up for vaccine alerts or call 877-211-6277 for appointment questions.

Vaccine supplies are limited everywhere and available only to those now eligible under each state’s phased plan. Most vaccine sites require you to schedule an appointment online or by phone. Appointments can be very hard to get, as available time slots are booked quickly, and you may experience long wait times on the phone. If a time slot is not available, you may be put on the site’s waiting list. Some people are signing up at multiple sites to increase chances of getting an appointment. Once you have a confirmed appointment, public health officials ask that you don’t schedule or confirm another with any other provider so that vaccine appointments stay open for others.

What should I bring to my vaccination appointment?

Some vaccination sites ask for proof of identity or eligibility. Officials recommend that you bring a driver’s license or other state-issued ID that shows your name, age and state residency, and your health insurance card, if you have one. You will not be charged, but the vaccine provider may bill your insurer a fee for administering the vaccine.

If you are eligible due to an underlying medical condition or comorbidity, you may need a note from your doctor or some other form of proof. If you are eligible on the basis of your work, bring proof of employment such as a pay stub, badge or letter from your employer.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says to wear a mask at your appointment.

Who will be eligible to get vaccinated next?

Teachers, food and agriculture workers, sanitation and public health employees, judges and other court system workers are also grouped in Phase 2, though they’re further down the priority list. Teachers and education staff will be able to get a vaccine starting on March 11. The general public will be able to get a vaccine in Phase 3. According to the state’s vaccine timeline, Phase 3 could begin in April.

How will residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities get vaccinated?

Most residents and staff of long-term care facilities are being vaccinated through a federal program that has contracted with CVS and Walgreens to administer the two-dose COVID-19 vaccines at three free on-site clinics at the facilities.

Almost all nursing homes, which were given first priority, have completed their first and second clinics, and most have also finished their final clinics, according to data from CVS and Walgreens. Many assisted living and other long-term care facilities are also taking part in the program. Almost all of them have completed their first clinics, and most have completed their second. All the vaccination clinics are slated to be complete by late March.

I’ve heard that some vaccines require a second shot.

The COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require two doses. If you get one of these, you’ll need a follow-up dose to be effectively immunized. The recommended second-shot date is three weeks after a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and four weeks for Moderna’s, but the CDC says an interval of up to six weeks is acceptable. You should get a card from your provider saying when and where to return for the second dose. The state says it will send reminders via text, emails and phone calls.  Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine requires just one shot.

It’s not yet known how long immunity from a coronavirus vaccine lasts and whether it needs to be administered on a regular basis like a flu shot.

Do I have to pay for the vaccination?  

You should not have any out-of-pocket cost for getting the vaccine. AARP fought to make sure the federal government is covering the cost of the vaccine itself. Providers can recoup a fee for administering the shot, but not from consumers. They would be reimbursed by the patient’s insurance company or the government (in the case of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries and the uninsured, for example).

Should I still wear a mask after getting vaccinated?  

Yes. Experts still need to learn more about the protection the vaccines provide under “real-world conditions,” the CDC says. It could take your body a few weeks to build up immunity after the second dose.

The vaccine is just one tool that can help slow the spread of the coronavirus. The CDC says it could take months for the population to build up immunity and continues to recommend preventive measures such as face masks and social distancing.

In addition, it’s not yet clear how effective the vaccines are against new, more contagious strains of the coronavirus initially identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere, although they would still provide some protection.

Moderna Partners with Baxter BioPharma Solutions to Supply 60-90 million Vaccine Doses this Year

Boston Herald – Moderna is bolstering its coronavirus vaccine manufacturing efforts with an agreement with Baxter BioPharma Solutions to provide fill and finish services for 60-90 million vaccine doses this year.

“We have seen a remarkable demonstration of scientific and health-care expertise in the effort to develop vaccines for COVID-19,” said Marie Keeley, vice president of Indiana-based Baxter BioPharma Solutions.

“Baxter is honored to provide our deep expertise in vaccine manufacturing to help partners like Moderna bolster the supply of their vaccine.”

Baxter will provide manufacturing services and supply packaging for about 60 to 90 million Moderna doses from its Indiana facility, the company announced on Monday.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with Baxter BioPharma Solutions on fill/finish manufacturing for the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine in the U.S.,” said Juan Andres, Moderna’s chief technical operations and quality officer. “This additional production will help us continue to scale up our manufacturing capacity in the United States.”

Baxter BioPharma Solutions employs more than 700 people at its 600,000-square-foot campus and has expertise in vaccines.

As coronavirus vaccination demand continues to far outweigh supply, Moderna isn’t the only company forging partnerships to ramp up production.

As Teacher Vaccinations Ramp up in Boston, a Full Return to School in Sight for Fall

Boston Herald – Nearly one year after Massachusetts schools closed their doors to students and teachers as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the state, Boston Public Schools staff visited a vaccination clinic to get their shots, prompting administrators to say a full return to school is finally in sight.

“We keep saying better days are ahead and we do really see the light at the end of the tunnel here,” Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said after greeting teachers at the Boston Centers for Youth and Families Gallivan Community Center in Mattapan on Sunday.

The site will inoculate 2,000 BPS teachers and staff with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine over the next two weeks as the district ramps up in-person learning. K-3 students are already back in class and fourth- through eighth-graders return part-time on Monday.

The relief among teachers, staffers and bus drivers — many of whom have been working at least part-time with students throughout the pandemic — was palpable as they exited the clinic on Sunday.

Mattahunt Elementary School special education teacher Molly Norton called the experience “so easy and awesome.”

Bus driver John Sullivan of Hyde Park said he “felt a sense of relief in his core” after watching four co-workers die of the virus this past year.

High school social worker Patricia Valdez who works to connect needy families with rent relief and food assistance said, “I’ll feel a little more comfortable going into the building to provide for them.”

Gov. Charlie Baker on March 15, 2020, issued an executive order shuttering all schools for three weeks effective March 17. Students and teachers would ride out the remainder of the turbulent school year on screens. Remote learning would remain the norm last fall and as of this March, 20 percent of Massachusetts public schools are taught entirely online. Nearly all the rest continue with hybrid learning models where students split time between in-person and remote learning.

Boston last month became one of the first urban districts to forge ahead with a phased plan to bring students back to class under the hybrid model. Cassellius said a return to traditional schooling “is starting to feel more real” with students in the classrooms. High school students return on March 29.

When are We Going Back to the Office? Big Employers Set Timelines but Remain Cautious

Boston Globe – After scrambling to shut down their offices last March, many top executives told their staffs that normal commutes would probably resume by sometime in September, if not earlier. But Labor Day 2020 eventually turned into New Year’s Day 2021, as the coronavirus surged and return-to-office timelines kept getting extended.

Some of the area’s biggest companies now have June or July circled on their calendars. Many others are talking about Labor Day again. And many aren’t giving any return dates, no matter how tentative, just yet. They’ve been burned before.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the timeline for our return to the office is still hazy.

The uncertainty doesn’t just weigh on commuters and employers. It’s vexing everyone from state policy makers to the cobblers, clothiers, and café owners who make downtown office districts hum. Complicating matters: A newfound embrace of remote work will continue in some form once it is deemed safe to head back.

The uncertainty doesn’t just weigh on commuters and employers. It’s vexing everyone from state policy makers to the cobblers, clothiers, and café owners who make downtown office districts hum. Complicating matters: A newfound embrace of remote work will continue in some form once it is deemed safe to head back.

Baker Seeks Tax Break for Business Owners

Salem News – Gov. Charlie Baker wants to tax certain businesses to help their owners skirt a federal cap on deductions of state and local taxes.

Tucked into Baker’s preliminary budget is a proposed “workaround tax” allowing pass-through corporations — partnerships, limited liability companies, and S corporations — to get around the $10,000 federal cap on deductions for state and local taxes.

The measure looks to aid small businesses owners, many of whom report and pay taxes on their business income as part of their personal income taxes.

“There are businesses that would definitely see this as a beneficial way to be taxed,” said Chris Carlozzi, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “Many of these business owners have struggled greatly during the pandemic.”

Carlozzi said the changes would put Massachusetts “on a competitive playing field” with neighboring states, such as Connecticut and Rhode Island, which have already approved similar changes.

Baker’s plan would create an optional “pass-through entity tax” allowing eligible business owners to pay income taxes separately from their personal tax returns. In turn, partners and shareholders of those entities would get refundable credits for federal income taxes, equal to the amount paid.

Did You Take our Survey Yet?

During the last quarter of 2020, AIM fielded a pulse survey to gather data on the effects of COVID -19 to businesses in Massachusetts. We used that data to advocate on behalf of our members and drive public policy. We are revisiting that work so we can continue to collect data and share these stories. With your help, we can gather the data we need to tackle the issues that matter most as we come together on the road to economic recovery. Thank you in advance for your time and attention.  Take our “5 minute business reopening survey” here.

March 9

What’s in the Senate Stimulus Package?

On Saturday, March 6, 2021, the U.S. Senate passed the Coronavirus Relief Bill.  The bill now goes back to the House, where a vote is expected on Tuesday. It is expected to pass and head to the President this week.

The total amount of the stimulus is $1.9 trillion made up of the following:

  • Stimulus checks – $1,400 checks for individuals making less than $75,000 annually or $150,000 for married couples. Payments would phase out at $80,000 for individuals and $160,000 for married couples. Children and adult dependents would be eligible for the full $1,400.
  • Unemployment payments – $300 a week through September 6, 2021 with the first $10,200 of the benefits for 2020 nontaxable for those making less than $150,000.
  • Vaccines and testing – $8.75 billion to federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal public-health agencies for distributing, administering, and tracking vaccinations, with some funds specially dedicated to making sure the vaccination process reaches underserved communities.
  • Vaccine development -$20 billion going to federal biomedical research for vaccine and therapeutic manufacturing and procurement; $3 billion for a strategic national stockpile of vaccines and $25 billion for testing, contact tracing and reimbursing hospitals for lost revenue related to the pandemic.
  • Tax credits for children – For one year only, increase the $2,000 Child Tax Credit to $3,000, set the credit at $3,600 for parents of children under age 6 and make parents of 17-year-olds eligible. It would also make the credit fully refundable, so low-income households would get the full benefit, no matter how little they earn.
  • Student loan forgiveness: Student-loan forgiveness free from income taxes for 2021-2025.
  • Minimum-wage increase – $15/hour minimum wage not included.
  • Schools – $130 billion in funds for K-12 schools to reduce class sizes, improve social distancing, improving ventilation, and provide more PPE.
  • State and local aid – $350 billion to state and local governments. $10 billion of the state and local aid for infrastructure projects. Details on state disbursements TBD.
  • Health care – Expands eligibility for subsidies to purchase insurance to people of all incomes and caps the maximum premium at 8.5 percent of a person’s income. It also takes steps to lower, or even zero out, premiums for people making less than 150 percent of the federal poverty line.
  • Medicaid – Encourages the expansion of Medicaid by having the federal government pay for new recipients. Employees who lose their jobs or lose benefits because of working fewer hours qualify for 100 percent Cobra health-insurance subsidies.
  • Other – Federal workers, including postal workers, may take as many as 600 hours of emergency paid leave related to COVID-19. The restaurant industry will receive $25 billion in relief targeted at small and midsize restaurants and chains.

Top House, Senate Leaders Agree on Relief to Workers, Employers

State House News – Top legislative Democrats announced Monday they’d reached a deal on a COVID-19 recovery bill that aims to help workers and employers.

The deal includes tax relief for certain unemployed workers, paid leave related to COVID-19 and vaccinations, relief from planned hikes in unemployment insurance rates, and waiving state taxes on Paycheck Protection Program grants.

Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Ways and Means Committee Chairs Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues announced the bill in a joint statement, in which they said they’d seek to pass legislation quickly but did not lay out a timeline for action.

The four Democrats said they’d agreed on “targeted tax relief to unemployed workers whose income falls below 200 percent of the poverty line,” a waiver of penalties for missed tax payments on unemployment insurance benefits received in 2020, and access to paid leave for workers who need time off because they contract COVID-19, are ordered to quarantine or need time off to get vaccinated.

“Finally, the bill will prevent increases in the UI rate schedule for 2021 and 2022, providing employers with needed stability and relief as the Commonwealth continues to recover,” the statement said.

“The agreement also allows for state borrowing, secured by a temporary employer assessment, to ensure the solvency of the UI trust fund. In addition to UI relief, to help many small businesses and employers who received PPP loans to stay afloat and save jobs, we have agreed to conform to the current federal tax code to exclude forgiven PPP loans from gross income for small businesses organized as pass-through entities.”

Earlier in the day, a group of mostly Republican lawmakers joined the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance for a press conference calling for quick action to waive state PPP taxes. The House is scheduled to meet next in an informal session on Wednesday: the Senate next meets in an informal on Thursday.

Spilka Downplays Outlook for New Taxes

Senate President Karen Spilka said Thursday she is not planning to raise taxes this session but left open the possibility of increases if the pandemic persists and worsens.

The $45.6 billion budget Gov. Charlie Baker filed for fiscal year 2022 cuts overall state spending and does not include new taxes on individuals. House Speaker Ronald Mariano said last month that taxes “are not on the table.” Asked on Bloomberg Baystate Business if she could make the same statement Thursday, Spilka equivocated.

“I think that that we’ll have to see how the year progresses,” she said as she recounted the last year of Beacon Hill budget management, which included a wait-and-see approach on the state spending plan and use of the state’s rainy day fund.She talked about the potential that another federal stimulus bill could be passed soon.

“At this point, I am not planning on anything, but I think we could, we have to see what happens with COVID,” she said. “I am hoping with my fingers crossed that we’re on a downward slide, a downward trend, but you just don’t know what will happen. And with the new strains and with some states in particular loosening the reopening guidelines, or no masks and people traveling, I mean, it’s so important that people continue to be vigilant and wear their mask and use the hand sanitizer.”

The Senate president pointed out in her response that the House raised taxes last session – in an $18 billion transportation bond bill and a revenue package passed in early March 2020 – and said the Senate resisted tax hikes last year. Notably, Spilka did not cite the work of the Senate’s revenue working group that Sen. Adam Hinds has led with the idea of bringing forth possible changes to the state tax code. Hinds plans to offer recommendations this budget season.

In November, when the Senate debated the fiscal year 2021 budget, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sen. Michael Rodrigues said his committee would not support tax amendments, but said all signs indicated “a robust debate on revenue in the new year, and I for one look forward to that.”

Tax collections over the first eight months of fiscal 2021 have beat expectations by nearly $2 billion and the state could receive another $4.5 billion in aid under the American Rescue Act moving through the Congress. In addition, Spilka also did not mention a roughly $2 billion increase in income taxes on the wealthiest Massachusetts households that could move to the November 2022 ballot if it receives a favorable vote at a Constitutional Convention that she will oversee.

State Gearing Up For Rescue Act’s Cash Windfall

State House News – With Congress on the verge of passing an economic stimulus bill more than twice the size of the recovery bill used to help America claw out of the Great Recession, Massachusetts is bracing for a massive windfall, and with it the inevitable debate over how it gets spent.

“We are, like everyone, still figuring out what this means and what this means for Massachusetts but it’s pretty apparent that this is going to have a pretty significant impact on a number of areas in the state and on the state budget,” said Doug Howgate, executive vice president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

A week after the House passed a version of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the U.S. Senate on Saturday voted for a slightly altered package that includes $350 billion for state and local government, $170 billion for schools and $20 billion for vaccine administration and distribution.

The House will vote on the new version Tuesday, and Biden is expected to sign the stimulus bill before the end of the week, when enhanced unemployment benefits are otherwise set to expire.

“This package will also help get more Americans vaccinated, including providing our state and cities $350 billion to distribute the vaccine, balance their budgets and keep teachers, firefighters and bus drivers on the job,” U.S. Sen. Ed Markey said during a press conference Sunday.

The latest estimate from the House Oversight Committee projects that Massachusetts state government and municipalities will receive more than $7.96 billion in direct government aid, including almost $4.55 billion for the state.

The aid comes with challenges: making sure it gets spent responsibly and in ways that are needed most and ensuring it doesn’t bloat government budgets with one-time funds, which could create problems in out years.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues told the Baker administration last week that he wanted the Legislature to play a “highly constructive and meaningful role” in determining how billions in potential new federal stimulus funding gets spent.

“With the American Rescue Plan on the brink of becoming law, we need to think carefully how to best use additional federal assistance to continue supporting our residents during the public health emergency and position our Commonwealth for long-term success,” Rodrigues said in a statement to the News Service on Monday.

Baker late last year tried to amend a section of the state budget that created a new federal COVID-19 response fund in order to retain control over how future non-earmarked federal relief for Massachusetts got spent, but he was overridden by the Legislature.

Rodrigues said that law was intended to “increase transparency on the use of federal COVID-19 relief funds.”

“Working with the Senate President and our partners in the House, I look forward to building off of those efforts and ensuring that the Legislature plays a more meaningful and direct role in determining the fate of these additional federal resources,” Rodrigues said.

The timing of the latest federal relief effort comes at the start of the fiscal 2022 budget process on Beacon Hill, but one House official recently told the News Service that the Legislature may look to put the annual budget and stimulus spending on separate tracks, especially considering the budget may not be resolved until at least July.

The administration did not say if or when it planned to file a separate budget bill seeking legislative authority to spend any of the federal stimulus money headed its way, but with past COVID-19 relief bills the administration has exercised broad discretion in how federal funding gets used.

For instance, last year the governor leveraged Coronavirus Relief Fund aid to create a $668 million business recovery grant program.

Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan has said that one priority the administration has for federal aid is to use it to reduce the state’s reliance on its “rainy day” fund to balance the budget. The administration has estimated it will need $1.35 billion in fiscal 2021 and $1.6 billion in fiscal 2022 from the stabilization account, though tax collections continue to outperform expectations.

The state’s education system is also in line for a big infusion of federal assistance at the exact time Baker and Education Commission Jeff Riley are amplifying the pressure on schools to return to in-person learning.

The stimulus bill includes $170 billion for education, including $125.8 billion for K-12 schools $40 billion for colleges and universities, and $2.75 billion for governors to share with private schools.

The K-12 school money, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, will be distributed based on relative Title 1 funding for states, which could put Massachusetts in line to receive nearly $1.9 billion in additional funding for elementary and secondary education.

The Senate bill requires that at least 87.5 percent of a state’s allotment go straight to local districts, with 20 percent required to be spent on programming, including summer school, to address learning loss over the course of the pandemic.

The Senate bill also includes $7 billion for a program created by Markey to help equip students with the technology they need to connect to the internet and learn from home.

“We don’t know how long it’s going to take for every child to be back in class every day so that’s why this is critical funding,” Markey said.

The federal package also includes $30.5 billion for transit, though transit officials said Monday they don’t yet know how much the cash-strapped MTBA will receive, and $25 billion for restaurants and bars that will be administered as grants through the Small Business Administration.

The direct payments of $1,400 will be coming to individuals earning up to $75,000 and married couples earning $150,000. The benefit will be phased out for individuals earning more than $80,000 and couples earning more $160,000 a year.

The child tax credit will increase from $2,000 to $3,000 for minors age 6 to 17 and $3,600 for children under 6, and the maximum deduction for child care will climb to 50 percent of qualifying expenses up to $4,000 for one child, or $8,000 for two or more children, and make families at higher income levels eligible.

Current law allows for a credit of up to 35 percent of child-care expenses of $3,000 for one child or $6,000 for multiple children.

The Senate bill also sets aside $86 billion for about 185 multi-employer pension funds that are at risk of collapse, which has been a priority for Congressman Richard Neal and would likely wind up supporting the retirements of some Teamsters unionized truck drivers, warehouse workers, roofers and New Bedford fishermen in Massachusetts.

Business: Recovery ‘is not going to be flicking a switch’

Boston Globe – After a year of hunkering down, the country is about to bask in the biggest boom in nearly four decades. But the scars of the pandemic linger.

By summer, most American adults should be vaccinated, and life is expected to return to something approaching normal as people eat in restaurants, hop on a plane, or catch a game at Fenway Park. Getting out of the house for work and recreation will swell the economy, juiced by another big federal stimulus program and trillions of dollars in savings that consumers are eager to spend.

Yet that rosy outlook isn’t reflected in the sentiments of many local employers who would benefit greatly from a post-pandemic resurgence. Hammered by COVID-19 shutdowns, they remain wary after earlier forecasts about the trajectory of the disease proved too optimistic.

Instead of the rapid rebound projected by economists, these employers — from small business owners to big institutions such as hospitals and universities — expect a more gradual recovery marked by fits and starts. So, they’re ramping up slowly and delaying hiring decisions until the picture is clearer.

Massachusetts is digging out of an especially big hole. We were among the first states to shutter our economy last March to contain the coronavirus. And now, as other states such as Connecticut and Texas lift most pandemic restrictions, we’re likely to be among the last to reopen. The state ended 2020 with 335,000 fewer jobs than the year before, a 9.1 percent decline that was the fourth-largest in the country.

When Are the Stimulus Checks Coming? And Who Will Get One?Wall Street Journal – Another round of stimulus checks is almost certain to happen now that the Senate has approved President Biden’s coronavirus relief legislation.

A House vote is expected Tuesday, to be followed shortly afterward by Mr. Biden’s signature.

When are the payments coming?

Mr. Biden said Saturday that the checks would start coming this month. The Internal Revenue Service will likely provide more details once Mr. Biden’s signature turns the bill into a law.

The IRS has recent experience sending out payments, and that is a good guide for what to expect now. Last year, when former President Donald Trump signed the first big relief bill in March, the bulk of direct deposits arrived within about two weeks. The second round of payments, approved in December, hit bank accounts within a few days after Mr. Trump signed them into law.

CDC Says Fully Vaccinated People Can Gather in Small Groups Without Masks

People who are fully vaccinated against the new coronavirus can gather privately in small groups without masks or physical distancing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, relaxing safety guidelines for inoculated individuals under some circumstances.

The CDC said Monday that fully vaccinated people should continue to take precautions in most circumstances to prevent the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. People who are fully immunized should continue to wear masks and keep their distance from others in public or while visiting unvaccinated people at higher risk for severe cases of Covid-19, the CDC said.

It is possible that vaccinated people could still get infected by the virus and transmit it to others who are at risk for severe disease, public-health experts say. But early research suggests that in addition to protecting against severe cases of Covid-19 that could lead to hospitalization or death, authorized vaccines likely also make people less vulnerable to infection and potentially less likely to spread the virus, the CDC said.

“There are some activities that fully vaccinated people can begin to resume now in the privacy of their own homes,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. “Everyone—even those who are vaccinated—should continue with all mitigation strategies when in public settings.”

The CDC released its guidance for vaccinated people as more than 90 million Covid-19 shots have been administered across the U.S., allowing people who have been vaccinated to navigate life during the pandemic with that added layer of protection against the virus. More than 17% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to CDC data, and just over 9% of the population has gotten two shots.

A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose of the two-shot vaccines made by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE as well as by Moderna Inc., or two weeks after getting the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The CDC said people who are fully vaccinated against the virus can visit with unvaccinated members of a single household without wearing masks or maintaining social distancing as long as those people are at low risk for severe cases of Covid-19. Vaccinated individuals don’t need to quarantine or receive a Covid-19 test after being exposed to the virus if they don’t have any symptoms, the CDC said.

Vaccinated people are also less likely to get infected during activities such as eating indoors at restaurants or going to the gym, the CDC said, though people should still follow safety precautions in those circumstances.

“We know that people want to get vaccinated so they can get back to doing the things they enjoy with the people they love,” Dr. Walensky said.

For now, the CDC said, everyone should avoid gatherings larger than small groups of individuals regardless of their vaccination status. The CDC didn’t update its travel guidance for vaccinated individuals, which includes avoiding nonessential travel and wearing masks on planes, buses, trains and other public transportation.

COVID Hospitalizations Plummet in Massachusetts with Vaccine Rollout

Boston Herald – Coronavirus hospitalizations in Massachusetts have plummeted since the state prioritized the most vulnerable populations in the vaccine rollout, prompting one leading doctor to tell the Herald that “the worst is behind us” for Bay State hospitals that have been slammed for much of the last year.

The peak of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Massachusetts’ second surge was 2,428 patients on Jan. 4, which came a couple weeks into the start of the vaccine rollout for health-care workers and nursing home residents and staff.

As of Sunday, two months and more than 2 million vaccine doses later, the number of coronavirus patients has plunged to 665. Cases and deaths in long-term care facilities have also dramatically decreased.

A key early on in the vaccine rollout was targeting the population that is most likely to be hospitalized, said Massachusetts Medical Society President David Rosman.

Massachusetts Explores The Advantages, Challenges of Johnson & Johnson Vaccine

WBUR – Massachusetts received 58,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine this week, the first shipment of what could be a substantial boost in vaccination efforts here and across the country. But it’s not clear how that boost will play out or when it will start. Gov. Charlie Baker says he’s not expecting any more J&J deliveries until late March or early April.

And Baker hasn’t spelled out how Massachusetts might target the J&J vaccine given its unique advantages: it’s a single dose shot, and it can be moved around a lot — even jostled without risking stability.

Seventy-two percent of Americans who received the J&J vaccine in trials were protected from a mild to moderate case of COVID-19, as compared to more than 90 percent for the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. The three are similar at preventing the worst outcomes: hospitalizations and death. Public health and medical experts are urging people to get any vaccine offered.

“If someone offered me any one of those three vaccines, I absolutely would be comfortable and would be very willing to take any one of those three,” said Dr. Paul Biddinger, who chairs the vaccine advisory board in Massachusetts.

Spilka: State Should Allow Health Departments To Vaccinate Teachers

CBS Boston – Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka said that while she believes Gov. Charlie Baker did the right thing by following President Biden’s directive to vaccinate educators, she added the state needs a better strategy to quickly get shots in the arms of teachers.

Last week, Spilka called for the state to designate a portion of its shipment of Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccines for teachers. The state did not respond to the request.

Baker announced that teachers will be eligible to sign up for COVID vaccines at any of the state’s vaccination sites starting March 11. Teachers are currently eligible to sign up through CVS following President Biden’s directive.

Spilka discussed the state’s vaccination plan with WBZ-TV political analyst Jon Keller.

“I think we need to make sure the support services and resources are given to the schools. First and foremost are vaccinations for teachers and staff,” Spilka said. “I believe we need to follow the science and listen to the experts, who seem to be saying let’s get at least one vaccination into the arms of teachers. I believe the most efficient way to do that is to bring the vaccination into the communities.”

Rather than making teachers compete for vaccine appointments with other eligible residents, Spilka said local health departments should be allowed to give shots to teachers.

State Orders Elementary Schools To Re-Open Classrooms By April 5

WBUR – Public schools in Massachusetts will have to begin offering in-person learning to elementary school students five days a week next month.

It’s the first decision education Commissioner Jeff Riley made under new authority approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Friday afternoon, by a vote of 9-3. Under the regulation change, Riley can determine when remote-only education will no longer be an option for districts.

“The time is now to bring our kids back to school,” said Riley during Friday’s meeting.

State officials said the plan to open classrooms for elementary students would allow districts who have been remote-only for most of the school year to take a more graduated approach to fully reopening their buildings. Parents would still have the option to choose remote learning for their children through at least the end of this school year.

CDC Director: ‘Now is not the time to relax’

WWLP – CDC officials are warning people to not let down their guard when it comes to staying safe during the pandemic.

Many states, including Massachusetts, have been loosening and lifting restrictions. However, not everyone is comfortable with the speed of reopening.

“We are going too fast for a pandemic that is currently still active,” Richard Serrano from Belchertown, told 22News.

Officials from the CDC said they are deeply concerned about the COVID-19 virus.

“Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close,” CDC Director, Rochelle P. Walensky said.

Massachusetts is now in Phase 3, Step 2 of the reopening plan. The plan has raised capacity limits to 50 percent in most of the commonwealth’s businesses. And there are no capacity limits for restaurants.

If the state’s health metrics continue to improve, Phase 4 is slated to begin by the end of March. However, the CDC is raising concerns about COVID-19 variants, and the decline of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the country is showing signs of stalling.

The CDC is urging people to double their efforts in all COVID-19 safety measures. That includes social distancing, maintaining proper hygiene, and wearing a well-fitted mask.

“Do whatever you can to make sure your children are safe, and that you are safe too because mentally it’s really wreaking havoc on a lot of people,” Serrano said.

Vaccine-Finder Website Could Cost State up to $250,000

Boston Herald – The state’s Vaxfinder website — whose failure last month prompted that ubiquitous octopus graphic — is powered by a tool that could cost up to $250,000.

“If it actually helps speed shots into arms, that’s a price I’ll take,” state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, said. “But that’s an awful lot of money to pay for a picture of an octopus.”

After technical glitches plagued vaccine signups for those ages 75-plus on Jan. 27 and drew sharp criticism, the state inked an emergency contract with Project Beacon on Feb. 1 for a maximum of $250,000 for an online “scraper platform” that would find and amalgamate open appointments scattered across various providers’ websites.

The tool was first used internally at the state’s call center for vaccine appointments, which launched on Feb. 5 to help connect seniors to shots. The state pays $10,000 a month for its use by the call center, according to contracts provided to the Herald.

Essential Workers Feel Left Behind by Massachusetts Vaccine Rollout

Boston Herald – Grocery and other essential workers who have toiled for a year on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic are feeling left behind in the state’s vaccine rollout and say the powers that be are making “value judgments” in prioritizing other groups ahead of them.

Their frustrations have been growing in the days since President Biden essentially forced Gov. Charlie Baker’s hand in opening up vaccine eligibility to teachers ahead of the rest of the essential workers’ group in Massachusetts — which still lacks a definitive start date for access.

“There is a sense of relief that teachers are getting vaccinated. But we also think that the governor needs to understand that exposure is exposure and it goes across the board in many different industries,” said Gabe Camacho, political director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1445. “It seems that the governor is making value judgments that are beyond the control of anything that makes sense.”

Essential workers — a group that ranges from teachers, to food and agriculture workers, to public health workers, to public transit employees and rideshare drivers — are the next to gain access to potentially life-saving coronavirus vaccines in Massachusetts.

Pink Slip: Assessing the Impact of COVID on Women in the Work Force

In Massachusetts, women account for nearly 80 percent of all workers over the age of 20, who left the workforce in January related to COVID-19.  2.5M women in the U.S. lost jobs or dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic.  Learn more about the effects COVID-19 has had on women in the workforce.

Join AIM on March 18 for a panel discussion with Colleen Ammerman, Director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, Paige Fetzer-Borelli, Lead, Corporate & Community Affairs at Dell Technologies, Robert Lewis Jr., President and Founder at The Base, and Brooke Thomson, EVP of Government Affairs for AIM as they shed light on why women are leaving the workforce and how employers can act now to prevent this talent loss.  Register here.

March 2

What’s in the $1.9 Trillion House Stimulus Plan?

Washington Post – The House on Saturday approved President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package, marking a crucial step toward passage of the White House’s first major piece of legislation.

Biden unveiled his proposal, the American Rescue Plan, last month, with hundreds of billions of dollars going to vaccination programs, expanded unemployment insurance, $1,400 stimulus checks, state and local governments, school re-openings and more.

Biden’s sprawling proposal set off an immediate debate among Republicans and Democrats over how best to heal the economy — or if another stimulus package is needed at all. Some issues, like raising the minimum wage to $15, have been especially fraught.

Many Democrats are backing Biden’s message that it is better to go too big on a relief bill than too small. Republicans, meanwhile, say the bill is much too large and is full of provisions that have little or nothing to do with responding directly to the pandemic.

The bill now heads to the Senate. Democratic leaders have said they hope to get a final version to Biden’s desk by mid-March, when expanded unemployment benefits expire for millions of Americans.

Stimulus Checks

  • The House bill provides $1,400 stimulus checks, on top of the$600 payments issued through the stimulus bill passed in December. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget puts the price tag of this next wave of checks at $422 billion.
  • The vast majority of Americans who received an earlier stimulus payment will get one again. But the most affluent families would be left out. Republicans and more moderate Democrats argue that this next round of payments should only go to thehardest-hit households.

Here’s the new Democratic plan for $1,400 stimulus payments

  • Under the plan released by House Democrats, earlier this month, individuals earning less than $75,000 would receive $1,400 and married couples earning less than $150,000 would receive $2,800.

Expanded unemployment insurance and child tax credit

  • The$900 billion stimulus package passed in December provided the unemployed an extra $300 per week in unemployment benefits. But that program expires in mid-March, raising concerns about a looming cliff facing its recipients. Nineteen million Americans were on some form of unemployment insurance for the week ending Feb. 6.
  • The House legislation increases the weekly benefit from $300 to $400 per week through August 29. That’s one month shorter than Biden’s original proposal.
  • The House law alsoexpands the Child Tax Credit to $3,000 per child, and $3,600 for children under age 6. The bill also expands the Child and Dependent Tax Credit so families can claim up to half of their child care expenses on their taxes.

Minimum wage

  • The House bill would increase the hourly minimum wage to $15, up from the current level of $7.25.
  • But whether it remains in the final version sent to Biden’s desk is still unclear. On Thursday,Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, a nonpartisan official, ruled that the wage increase cannot remain in the coronavirus bill as written. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a statement Thursday night saying “we are not going to give up the fight,” and many liberals are urging Schumer to challenge the ruling. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that Biden was “disappointed in this outcome” but “respects the parliamentarian’s decision and the Senate’s process.”

Minimum-wage increase imperiled in covid relief bill by Senate official’s ruling

Pandemic response

  • About $50 billion will fund coronavirus testing and contact tracing. Another $19 billion will go to increase the size of the public health workforce. And another $16 billion will fund vaccine distribution and supply chains.
  • Economic policymakers, including Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, havesaid that vaccinations are the most important tool for the economy. Biden on Thursday marked the 50 millionth coronavirus vaccine administered in the United States — the halfway mark to the administration’s goal of 100 million vaccines in the first 100 days.

Aid for state and local governments and transit

  • The House law sets aside $350 billion for state and local governments, territories and tribes.
  • Facing deep budget shortfalls,state and local governments have shed 1.3 million jobs since the pandemic began last year. While tax revenue grew in some states last year, the majority — at least 26 states — were hit with declines.
  • That has divided somemoderate Senate Democrats over how best to target aid to governments that need it most. Senior Democratic lawmakers have become concerned that some states would use federal aid to cut local taxes.
  • About $90 billion would go toward various transportation and infrastructure causes. About $47 billion would increase funding for the Disaster Relief Fund,which is managed by FEMA, and cover funeral expenses tied to covid. Transit agencies would get $28 billion in grants, and $11 billion would go to airports and aviation manufacturers. About $2 billion goes to Amtrak and other transit-related spending.
  • Another $12 billion provides grants to airlines and contractors to freeze layoffs at airlines through September, according tothe Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget breakdown.

Schools and child care block grants

  • The bill sets aside almost $130 billion for K-12 education. That money would go to improving ventilation systems, reducing class sizes, buying personal protective equipment and implementing social distancing,according to the House Committee on Education and Labor.
  • Colleges and other higher-education institutions would get almost $40 billion. Schools must dedicate at least half of the funding for emergency financial aid grants to prevent hunger, homelessness or other challenges for students during the pandemic, according to the House committee.
  • Almost $40 billion would go to child care providers through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program. The bill also sets aside $1 billion for the Head Start program, which provides early-childhood education, health and nutrition services to low-income children and families.

Biden administration expands unemployment insurance rules to allow workers who turned down unsafe job offers

Assistance for food, rent and mortgages

  • The bill invests more than $5 billion in Pandemic-EBT,a program through which schoolchildren can receive temporary emergency nutrition benefits loaded on EBT cards that are used to purchase foodIt also includes more than $800 million for the WIC program, which supports low-income women and infants.
  • The bill sets aside $30 billion in emergency rental assistance and other relief for the homeless.
  • Another $10 billion goes to mortgage assistance.

Business relief and retirement security

  • The bill provides $25 billion in grants for restaurants and bars that have lost revenue because of the pandemic.
  • Another $15 billion fundsEconomic Injury Disaster Loan Advance grants of up to $10,000 per business. Additional funding for Paycheck Protection Program loans, and expanded eligibility for nonprofits and digital media companies, adds up to $7 billion.
  • The bill also provides grants for multi-employer pension plans and changes to single-employer pension rules. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget puts the price tag at $58 billion.
  • Congress has long been looking for ways to stabilize the multi-employer pension system and avoid insolvency. But someargue the COVID bill isn’t the solution.

Health care coverage

  • The bill reduces health-care premiums for low- and middle-income families by increasing the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) premium tax credits for 2021 and 2022, according toa summary from the House Ways and Means Committee.
  • The bill also provides COBRA subsidies so workers who have been laid off or had their hours reduced hours can keep their doctors and health coverage. The bill also creates health care subsidies for unemployed workers who are ineligible for COBRA.

Walsh Says Boston’s Outdoor Dining Program Will Resume April 1

Boston Globe – Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Monday that the city’s outdoor dining program for restaurants will return on April 1, weather permitting, as restaurants continue to battle the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Single-Dose COVID Vaccine Recommended by CDC

A CDC advisory panel on Sunday unanimously recommended Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose coronavirus vaccine for Americans 18 and older, paving the way for the shot to be administered to the public beginning this week.

Twelve members of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices endorsed the vaccine, with none voting against and a single member recusing due to potential conflicts. The vote comes after the FDA on Saturday authorized emergency use of the shot for adults 18 and older.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky signed off on the recommendation shortly after the vote.

“This vaccine is also another important tool in our toolbox to equitably vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible,” Walensky said in a statement.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the first single-dose shot authorized in the U.S. and is easier to store and transport than two-dose COVID vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. For that reason, it will be especially useful in rural communities and for hard-to-reach populations.

The shot was found to be 66 percent effective in preventing moderate to severe Covid-19 at least 28 days after vaccination, and 85 percent effective in preventing severe to critical COVID over the same time frame, according to the FDA.

The J&J vaccine’s efficacy rate is lower than both the Pfizer and Moderna shots, which were found to be 95 percent and 94 percent, respectively. Public health officials warn the rates don’t offer apples-to-apples comparisons, and that the J&J trial may offer a better measure of how the company’s vaccine stacks up against new, more transmissable COVID strains that are proliferating around the world.

“I think we need to pull away from this comparing and parsing numbers until you compare them head-to-head. Just be really grateful that we have three really efficacious vaccines,” Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

A senior administration official told reporters the Biden team has directed states to distribute all three vaccines evenly throughout all populations. The official said the federal government is closely monitoring state distribution and whether equity metrics are being hit.

The Biden administration says roughly 4 million J&J shots will be sent out this week, including 2 million to states and another 2 million to pharmacies and community health centers.

Here’s the List of COVID Restrictions Being Eased This Week

Boston Herald – Restrictions limiting restaurants and businesses begin to roll back on Monday, a “good sign,” Gov. Charlie Baker said, for the state’s economy that has been struggling under nearly a year of pandemic-era shutdowns.

Here’s what changes started Monday, subject to local restrictions:

  • Concert halls, theaters, and other indoor performance venues can reopen at 50% capacity, with a 500-person limit.
  • Laser tag, roller skating, trampolines, obstacle courses and other indoor close-contact recreational activities can reopen at 50% capacity.
  • Capacity limits for all businesses will be raised to 50% and excludes employees.
  • Capacity limits lifted for restaurants but must adhere to 6-foot social distancing and 90-minute table limits and limits of 6 people per party remain in place.
  • Restaurants can host musical performances.

Here’s what businesses are due to reopen effective March 22:

  • Indoor and outdoor stadiums can reopen to fans with 12% capacity limits.
  • Arenas may reopen, also limited to 12% capacity.
  • Ballparks can reopen with 12% capacity.
  • Gathering limits for public event venues increases to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors.
  • Gatherings at private homes remain limited to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors.
  • Dance floors may open at weddings and other events.
  • Summer camps may open this coming summer.
  • Exhibition and convention halls may also reopen in accordance with gathering limits.

Boston delays reopening of concert halls, theaters, other indoor businesses

Boston Globe – Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced last Friday that Boston will delay the reopening of indoor performance spaces and recreational activity venues until March 22, taking a harder stance than the state, which said those spaces could open Monday.

Governor Charlie Baker announced plans to lift several business restrictions last Thursday, most of which Boston is following, such as ending the restaurant capacity limit and increasing other business capacity limits to 50 percent. But Walsh is holding back on reopening spaces such as concert halls, theaters, and indoor roller-skating rinks. In other areas of the state, those spaces are now able to reopen with capacity restrictions and a maximum of 500 people.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boston has taken a cautious approach to reopening,” said Mayor Walsh in a press release. “We’ve prioritized the health and safety of our residents, and we’ve made decisions based on the latest public health data and metrics. We’ve only moved forward when it’s safe.”

The return of live music at restaurants will also be delayed from March 1 to March 22 in Boston.

Walsh said Boston is prepared to move to Step 1 of Phase 4 on March 22, along with the state, as long as public health data supports it. That step will allow large venues to reopen at 12 percent capacity, including Fenway Park and TD Garden, which are located in Boston.

Businesses Celebrate Re-Opening; Experts Warn about Lifting Restrictions

Boston Herald – Business owners are cautiously optimistic after nearly a year of pandemic-era shutdowns as Massachusetts takes a major step forward in reopening its economy on Monday, but public health leaders warn it’s still too soon to start easing restrictions.

Concert halls and theaters that closed last March can reopen — with limited capacity — and restaurants will be able to bring in live music and will no longer be bound by capacity limits as the state resumes Phase 3, Step 2, of its reopening this week.

Then, beginning March 22, sports fans will be welcomed back into stadiums in limited numbers for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit last year and wedding and event venues will be allowed to host larger gatherings.

“This is recognizing how far we’ve come with vaccination and low positivity rates and knowing things are getting better,” said Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which represents more than 4,000 small businesses. “As we approach the one-year anniversary, that’s an important message that the governor is giving and we appreciate that.”

Restaurants Set to Move to Full Capacity Seating

WPRI – Starting March 1, some restrictions at restaurants and venues will ease up in Massachusetts.

A few weeks later, on March 22, larger weddings will be allowed at venues.

Perhaps you’ve seen the advertisements on 195 East, White’s of Westport is offering minimonies, wedding ceremonies of just 10 people or fewer.

It’s one way they got creative to stay relevant when larger weddings were canceled.

But business is already picking up again, even before restrictions are officially lifted in the Bay State.

“A hundred is huge compared to where we’ve been for the last year,” said General Manager Charlie Fellows.

Engaged couples rejoiced, when they heard Gov. Charlie Baker announce Thursday that soon they could have their dream wedding.

“Finally once the Governor said, ‘Okay on the 22nd, we can have 100 people’, everybody’s booking their parties and frantically trying to get their prime dates and Saturdays and May is a very busy month so it’s been good. We’re excited. And when he opens it up even more, we’re really excited. Then we’ll fill this room up again.”

Fellows said while Lafrance Hospitality, which owns White’s, waits for March 22, they’re also preparing for more business starting Monday at their restaurants, Merrill’s in New Bedford and Bittersweet Farm in Westport, to name a couple.

Starting Monday, they’ll be able to seat at full capacity again while social distancing.

Fellows said these are all great steps, but he’s hoping for more answers from the government soon for his clients.

“Let us know when we’re going to be able to do 300 people. This venue here, White’s, we can do almost 2,000 people. So let us know when we can do a little more.”

Lafrance Hospitality also set up what Fellows calls two virtual restaurants and a food truck for the warmer months ahead, options he believes will stick around post-pandemic due to their success.

Arlington to Develop Plan for Full, In-School Teaching in Spring

The Patch – The School Committee has directed administrators to create a plan for full, on-campus instruction in spring, including a possible move to three feet between desks for grades K-8.

This plan would not commit Arlington Public Schools to adopt this reduced distance or give a precise deadline for its possible implementation. Nor would it scrap before June the “remote academy by choice,” by which some students, per their parents’ request, learn completely remotely.

Since September under Arlington’s hybrid system, desks are kept at least six feet apart, which means that currently no child is on campus more than two days a week save for the most high-needs special-education students, who may attend up to four days a week.

The unanimous vote came after heated discussion during which members praised teachers and supported widespread Covid-19 vaccinations — and criticized Massachusetts officials for demanding five-day-a-week in-person instruction while refusing to supply shots to on-campus staffers.

Before the vote, Superintendent Kathleen Bodie reiterated the district’s plan, voted in January, to have all grades full time on campus in September. She said that kindergartners are expected to return to campus full time imminently, and that grades one and two are set to follow as soon as teachers have access to vaccines.

Baker Eyes Teacher Vaccinations by Mid-March

The Patch – The governor’s remarks came as he visited a pooled-testing program at a middle school in Newburyport, Boston 25 reported.

Widespread vaccinations for teachers and school staff has been a sticking point in the fight over resuming in-person learning. The Massachusetts Teachers Association has advocated for the state to add teachers to the priority group receiving vaccines in the first few phases of the roll-out.

Baker gets earful from lawmakers, looks ahead to reopening sports stadium

Gov. Baker said Thursday, Feb. 25, that the state on Monday will move to Phase Three, Step Two of its economic reopening amid the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing indoor performance venues and indoor recreational activities to reopen and capacity limits across all sectors will increase to 50 percent.

The state will then move to the next step March 22, “as long as the public health data continues to get better,” permitting large arenas, such as Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, to welcome fans in person at 12-percent capacity.

Meanwhile, the public continued to report long wait times to schedule inoculations along with some improvement from a state website.

State lawmakers harshly criticized Baker over the state’s handling of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout during a virtual oversight hearing Feb. 25, grilling the governor in sometimes contentious exchanges over frustrations with the state’s troubled website used to book vaccination appointments and Baker’s handling of the snags.

Governor Presses Schools to Ramp Up Virus Screening

WGBH – Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is pushing for more school districts to adopt in-house COVID-19 screening as they bring students back for classroom learning this spring.

Baker appeared at the Nock-Molin Middle School in Newburyport to tour the school’s pool testing operation and reopened in-class learning Friday morning.

Baker’s pool testing program, launched in January, allows schools to test samples from groups of students and teachers for infection. When a positive result is found, each member of the group is then tested to find any infected individuals The method is seen as a way to screen groups like school pods and whole classes using minimal laboratory resources.

“There are hundreds of school districts and schools at this point and hundreds of thousands of kids and staff who are currently doing this and we have the resources and the capability to do this for pretty much everybody,” Baker said.

Baker said part of the reason for coming to Newburyport was to spotlight the school’s testing program to show it as an example of how districts can adopt pool testing.

“It’s a really effective way of dealing with one of the major questions people have generally about this stuff, which is ‘what’s going on in my building every week,'” Baker said.

COVID Vaccination Totals Catch Up with Infections

State House News – As Massachusetts enters the second month of March to be shaded by the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people here who have been fully vaccinated is roughly equal to the number of people who have been infected with COVID-19 over the last year.

The equivalent of the population of Methuen — roughly 51,000 people — got their second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine between Friday’s report from the Department of Public Health and Sunday’s update. There are 550,000 people fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday morning, compared to 550,302 total confirmed COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic.

With more than 1.2 million residents having received at least one vaccine dose, Massachusetts is again beginning to reopen its economy more widely and a third vaccine approved by federal officials over the weekend could help alleviate some of the tensions that come with the limited supply of doses.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization Saturday for the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was developed in part by a group at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. It joins the Moderna and Pfizer two-dose vaccines in the public health arsenal and states are expected to receive an initial batch of the doses this week.

“Our healthcare leaders and clinicians see the authorization of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as a significant step forward in the effort to vaccinate residents of the commonwealth,” Valerie Fleishman, senior vice president and chief innovation officer at the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, said. “This vaccine has been shown to be highly effective in protecting against COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths, and those who receive it should have every confidence that they are protected against serious illness due to COVID-19 and its variants.”

Baker: Massachusetts Ready to Work Single-Dose Vaccine Into Mix

State House News – Massachusetts will likely receive thousands of doses of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week, a step that Gov. Charlie Baker praised Monday as a major turning point in the state’s fight against COVID-19, but significant quantities are not set to arrive until later in March.

During a visit to a vaccination clinic at Mattapan’s Morning Star Baptist Church, Baker said the J&J vaccine’s single dose and its simpler transportation and storage requirements will allow for easier distribution.

“One of the things you’ll see with J&J is the ability to do certain kinds of things that would be hard to do now,” Baker said, referencing the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna options already in public use.

States do not yet have a clear picture about how much volume they should expect to receive after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Saturday approved emergency use authorization for the new vaccine.

“It is likely that we will get, for next week, a shipment,” Baker told reporters. “That shipment will probably be distributed pretty evenly across what we think of the vaccinating community here in Massachusetts, but the message that’s come from the feds at this point is, ‘Yep, they’ve made some, we will distribute those through our own channels and to you, and then you should expect there will be a bit of a pause as they ramp up production.’ ”

The governor said the new vaccine “will certainly dramatically boost” the state’s vaccination efforts and “should mean a big increase” in the amount of vaccine available. Baker cited comments from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci about the vaccine’s effectiveness, saying that Massachusetts residents “don’t need to pick one from the other.” “If you have a chance to get vaccinated, you should take it, whatever it is,” Baker said.

Urgent Care Company Cancels Second COVID Shots

MassLive – A Massachusetts urgent care company that administered thousands of first doses of the coronavirus vaccine canceled appointments for individuals’ second shot, noting the state cut off its supply.

CareWell Urgent Care, a Quincy-based company, vaccinated more than 6,000 people at 16 clinics across Massachusetts but has been canceling appointments for an undisclosed number of patients’ second shots.

As required by state guidelines, CareWell noted, first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered within 10 days of the company receiving the supply to avoid wastage.

“However, due to the severely limited inventory and other logistical challenges, the state has not yet been able to replenish our vaccine supply,” the company said in a statement. “We hope to receive a new allocation soon and are prepared to immediately resume appointments as soon as a new shipment arrives.”

In the meantime, the company is encouraging those who had their appointments for their second doses canceled to sign up for a slot at one of the state-run super vaccination sites. However, tens of thousands of appointments at six large-scale locations went live Thursday morning and were fully booked within hours.

A spokesperson for CareWell told MassLive the company has “been following the news reports about vaccination anxieties” and noted suggestions that “these appointments will be permanently canceled” are premature.

“First, we apologize for any additional stress people have experienced during this trying time. Concern about postponed appointments is completely understandable,” the spokesperson said. “We at CareWell Urgent Care are assured by state officials that they are actively working on our request for second doses for all of our patients.”

Fraud Overwhelms Pandemic-Related Unemployment Programs

Boston Herald – With the floodgates set to open on another round of unemployment aid, states are being hammered with a new wave of fraud as they scramble to update security systems and block scammers who already have siphoned billions of dollars from pandemic-related jobless programs.

The fraud is fleecing taxpayers, delaying legitimate payments and turning thousands of Americans into unwitting identity theft victims.

The massive sham springs from prior identity theft from banks, credit rating agencies, health care systems and retailers. Fraud perpetrators, sometimes in China, Nigeria or Russia, buy stolen personal identifying information on the dark web and use it to flood state unemployment systems with bogus claims.

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating unemployment fraud by “transnational criminal organizations, sophisticated domestic actors, and individuals across the United States,” said Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the department’s criminal division.

Massachusetts Tops 550,000 COVID Cases

NBC Boston – Massachusetts has now confirmed more than 550,000 coronavirus cases after reporting 1,428 new cases of the virus on Sunday, along with 52 more deaths. The grim milestone comes a little over a year after the first coronavirus case was reported in the Bay State.

There have now been totals of 550,302 confirmed cases and 15,796 deaths in the state, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Another 322 deaths are considered probably linked to COVID-19.

The state had shifted to Phase 3, Step 2 in October, but returned to the first step of Phase 3 on Dec. 13, after a post-Thanksgiving spike in cases.

Returning to Step 2 will ease some restrictions placed on businesses.

Boston, meanwhile, is taking things a bit slower than the state as a whole. See some of the differences below.

Looking at the Future of Health-Care Reform

Boston Business Journal – Years of discussion and numerous state studies finally brought about the potential for lasting change for two thorny health care issues that had been plaguing the state when Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill last month: behavioral health care and surprise billing.

Yet that progress — largely spurred by the pandemic — has left many other longtime goals for health care reform in the state untouched. When more fundamental change might come, and what it might look like is anyone’s guess.

“If there’s any lesson in Massachusetts, health care reform is an iterative, constant process,” Sen. Julian Cyr, who worked on a mental health care bill prior to the pandemic. “We may need some bigger-picture look here, but I also think we need to be honest that we’ve created this remarkably overly complex series of structures and systems. Undoing that is going to take some time and work.”

Legislators enacted several emergency provisions during the pandemic, and since then have extended some even further. Most prominently, the new law mandates that telehealth visits be reimbursed at rates equal to an in-person visit, a holdover from the pandemic. Such rate equivalency are permanent for behavioral health visits, but will last two years for primary care and chronic care visits, and 90 days after the end of the state of emergency for everything else. The bill also defined telehealth for the first time in statute, mandating that both video and telephone interactions should be reimbursed.

Additionally, the legislation broadened the scope of practice for a number of advance practice nurses and optometrists, eliminating certain supervision requirements while also mandating enhanced training.

The two provisions seem incremental but they are transformational for the behavioral health industry, Cyr said. Initially enacted during the emergency, the telehealth provisions have incentivized providers to take up virtual visits, and providers have seen a marked drop in the number of no-show appointments by going virtual. The bill will enable therapists and more to keep those wins long-term. The bill also permanently increased the number of therapists, through enhancements for psychiatric nurse mental health specialists.

Cyr said the bill, coupled with several mental-health policy changes enacted through the state’s budget, accomplish many of the goals laid out through mental health care legislation passed by the senate in February 2020. Given the trauma of the pandemic, the provisions are now more important than ever.

“It provides real certainty that what is a very effective way for patients to get care and for providers to give care, that it will exist in perpetuity,” Cyr said.

Beyond telehealth, the legislation also addressed the long-debated practice of “surprise billing.” In the past, patients undergoing elective or emergency procedures might receive care at a facility that contracts with their insurer, but by a doctor who didn’t. That often left patients on the hook for thousands of dollars of unexpected bills.

Now, both insurers and physicians will now be required to disclose whether doctors are “out of network.” By September, several state agencies have been tasked with recommending a default rate for out-of-network billing.

James Roosevelt, an attorney with the Boston office of Maine-based Verrill Dana law firm, and the former CEO of Tufts Health Plan, said the provisions build off federal reforms to surprise billing, and will lead to lasting change.

“Without requiring providers to be in-network, this puts a lot more pressure on them to be in-network,” Roosevelt said. “If patients are going to know ahead of time if you use this particular radiologist, it won’t be paid for by insurance, patients typically are going to say, ‘Can I go somewhere else?’”

While the bill makes strides in some areas of reform, several long-discussed changes to the health care system remain on the drawing board.

Roosevelt noted that while the bill raises telehealth behavioral health rates, it doesn’t increase behavioral health reimbursements overall, which have historically lagged other types of medical reimbursements.

Additionally, while the recent legislation provided a short-term boost for some of the state’s community hospitals, it also didn’t address the chronic reimbursement gaps between community institutions and their academic medical center peers.

Lora Pellegrini, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, also said questions about telehealth reimbursements remain for everything except behavioral health. While the legislation addresses surprise billing, it doesn’t set an out-of-network rate. Long-debated drug price transparency measures were also left out of this bill, as were the governor’s vision to shift spending toward primary care and behavioral health have not been enacted.

Work also remains on resolving racial health disparities, which were on broad display during the pandemic, added Dr. David Rosman, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society and associate chair of radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital.  The medical society is now participating in a state commission created last year to study racial disparities in maternal mortality. Rosman said that while that commission should spur legislative changes, more wide-ranging reform is critical.

“We have been so active talking about equity during this pandemic … equity in vaccine distribution and testing. And yet during the time of Covid, inequity has increased,” Rosman said. “We don’t get to despair about the lack of success, but realize we need to be more persistent. That’s where a lot of the work in the next legislative session can move things forward.”

Massachusetts will either lead the way toward that reform, or be dragged into it after it is long overdue, Cyr said.

“I hope coming out of the pandemic, the public and elected officials realize that the current way we’re doing business isn’t working when it comes to health care,” Cyr said. “Whether an equity perspective, a life-saving perspective, an economic resiliency perspective, and a business perspective, there has to be a better way to do this. For me personally, that’s what this pandemic is reiterating.”

February 25

Baker Announces $4.7 Million for Vaccine Equity; Regional Vaccination Collaboratives

Governor Charlie Baker’s administration on Wednesday announced it would spend $4.7 million on its new initiative to reduce barriers to accessing the COVID-19 vaccine in Massachusetts’ 20 hardest-hit communities, an effort that comes amid a push from elected officials, public health leaders, and activists for the Baker administration to prioritize equity in vaccine distribution.

Baker made the announcement Wednesday from the new mass vaccination site at the Natick Mall as he offered details about the state’s appointment booking process and said about 50,000 new appointments would go live Thursday morning at the state’s six mass vaccination sites in Foxborough, Boston, Springfield, Dartmouth, Danvers, and Natick.

The equity initiative, which was first announced last week, will focus on communities of color, seniors who are homebound, people with disabilities, and other hard-to-reach populations, Baker’s office said in a statement.

Baker said the state will work with two organizations, Archipelago Strategies Group and Health Care for All, to use the money to “reduce barriers to vaccination and to increase awareness of the efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine.” It will launch this week and continue through at least June 30, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said at the briefing.

“This will include multilingual vaccine awareness events, services to help people navigate logistical barriers to the vaccine, especially people who are homebound or otherwise unable to get to a particular location, and others who might find certain kinds of challenges in front of them that need to be dealt with,” Baker said.

The 20 communities include Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Framingham, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, New Bedford, Randolph, Revere, Springfield, and Worcester, which were identified using a measure from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and chosen by the Department of Public Health for having the highest average daily infection rates and large proportions of residents of color.

150 Executives Back Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Relief Plan

Axios – 150 top executives from companies like Goldman Sachs, Google, IBM, Blackstone and United Airlines sent a letter to Congress endorsing President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan.

Republicans in Congress have argued that the plan, which has enjoyed bipartisan support in polls, could lead to faster inflation, expand the federal deficit, and discourage Americans from looking for work by providing enhanced unemployment benefits.

“Previous federal relief measures have been essential, but more must be done to put the country on a trajectory for a strong, durable recovery,” the executives wrote in a letter obtained by CNN. The letter will reportedly be sent to congressional leaders later today.

“Congress should act swiftly and on a bipartisan basis to authorize a stimulus and relief package along the lines of the Biden-Harris administration’s proposed American Rescue Plan.”

Information on the COVID-19 Vaccine

The Administration recently launched vaxfinder.mass.gov to help eligible individuals book vaccine appointments and will continue to improve this tool. As a reminder, individuals can read about the phasing of vaccine eligibility, consult an FAQ, and read more about the science and efficacy of the vaccine online. Vaccine deployment data and most recent updates are also available online.

FDA Staff Assesses J&J Vaccine Ahead of Friday Meeting

State House News – Ahead of a Friday meeting that could lead to an emergency use authorization for the Johnson & Johnson single-shot COVID-19 vaccine, briefing documents posted online by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration appeared to back up the company’s claims of the one-dose vaccine efficacy.

The federal agency said the potential third vaccine option was shown to be 66.9 percent effective across all geographic areas “when considering cases occurring at least 14 days after the single-dose vaccination” and 66.1 percent effective “when considering cases occurring at least 28 days after vaccination.”

In the United States, the Johnson & Johnson shot was 72 percent effective at preventing “moderate to severe/critical disease,” the FDA said, and it was 64 percent effective in South Africa, where a more contagious strain of COVID-19 is dominant.

“The data are very strong, the J&J vaccine provides robust efficacy across all demographics and variants; and shows rising protection over time, consistent with belief it’s eliciting strong T-Cell response,” former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted. With the state’s vaccine rollout squeezed by the limited supply of doses from the federal government and infrastructure challenges, Gov. Charlie Baker has repeatedly touted the promise of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“One of the big benefits of the J&J vaccine, if it gets approved – I feel like I’m waiting for Godot – is that vaccine doesn’t require the same degree of deep freeze that we have with Pfizer and Moderna,” Baker said this week. The FDA’s vaccine advisory panel will meet Friday to consider the company’s request for an emergency use authorization, which could come from the FDA as soon as this weekend.

The J&J vaccine also appears to provide more protection against worrisome virus variants than the drug giant initially reported.

Company briefing documents indicate the vaccine was 68 percent effective at preventing moderate to severe disease caused by the dominant variant in Brazil and 64 percent effective against the dominant variant in South Africa.

When Johnson & Johnson announced interim results of its study on 43,783 participants on Jan. 29, it said the vaccine developed with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center was 66 percent effective against the Brazilian variant and 57 percent effective against the South African variant.

CDC Provides Roadmap for Re-Opening Schools

Associated Press – The nation’s top public health agency on Friday provided a roadmap for reopening schools in the middle of a pandemic, emphasizing mask wearing and social distancing and saying vaccination of teachers is important but not a prerequisite for reopening.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the long-awaited update, but it cannot force schools to reopen, and agency officials were careful to say they are not calling for a mandate that all US schools be reopened.

They said there is strong evidence now that in-person schooling can be done safely, especially at lower grade levels, and the guidance is targeted at schools that teach kindergarten up to 12th grade.

State Reports 32,428 New COVID-19 Vaccinations

Boston Globe – The number of coronavirus vaccinations administered in Massachusetts rose by 32,428 to 1,476,276, state officials reported Tuesday.

The number of new vaccinations was slightly higher than on Monday, when 29,959 were reported.

The total number of shots administered amounted to 85.4 percent of the 1,729,550 doses shipped to providers in the state so far, the Department of Public Health said.

The total shots administered included 1,061,335 first shots and 414,941 second shots. Those who have gotten their second shot of the currently approved two-dose vaccines are considered fully vaccinated.

Massachusetts is in the midst of a high-stakes campaign to vaccinate 4.1 million adults in an effort to bring an end to a pandemic that has sickened hundreds of thousands and caused more than 15,000 deaths in the state.

Administration Calls for Elementary School Students to Return to Class in April

Boston Globe – Governor Charlie Baker and top education officials unveiled a proposal on Tuesday to force districts to reopen their schools for in-person learning five days a week, a move that immediately ignited passions across the state and raised questions about local control.

The proposal calls for full-time in-person learning to begin in April for elementary schools and eventually expand it to middle schools. By then, tens of thousands of students will have been out of their classrooms full time for more than a year.

State officials said they were persuaded to step in out of concern over the deteriorating mental health of many students and increasing loss of learning. They also cited the drop in coronavirus cases around the state.

“We’ve seen the repercussions of prolonged remote learning for our kids,” Baker said at an afternoon press conference. “Their social, mental, and emotional well-being has been significantly impacted. Kids want to be in school learning alongside their friends. … They want to have a chance to engage their teachers in person.”

Officials were less clear about whether they would set a timeline for a full return for high schools before the school year ends, characterizing it as a possibility while potentially dashing the hopes of many graduating seniors. Reopening high schools is more complicated because, unlike elementary school, students do not stick with the same group of peers all day and frequently change classes in crowded hallways.

If students return to the classroom in the spring, they will have to space out at least 3 feet apart, not 6 feet apart, under the state’s guidelines.

Pushing for schools to send all their students back to the classroom, Commissioner Jeff Riley said Massachusetts public schools will face a “3 to 6 feet” social distancing requirement.

“I would just remind people that in Europe and Asia and in fact in many states of this country, people are at 3 feet or less,” Riley said. “We’re sticking with our guidance, which is 3 feet.”

Hospitals to Resume Offering Vaccine

Boston Globe – A week and a half after abruptly cutting off new supplies of COVID-19 vaccine to hospitals, Massachusetts health officials have reached an agreement with 15 hospitals and health systems allowing them to rejoin the massive state effort to vaccinate all residents.

Under the plan, vaccine doses will be allocated to 13 organizations willing to inoculate any eligible Massachusetts residents. Additionally, two health systems with large numbers of patients spread over a wide geographic area — Mass General Brigham and Beth Israel Lahey Health — can offer the vaccine exclusively to their patients.

Hospitals were blindsided by the Baker administration’s decision on Feb. 11 to halt their new vaccine supplies and provide only enough for scheduled appointments and second doses. The administration said it would focus on mass vaccination sites.

The move was criticized as undercutting efforts to reach people of color and communities hard-hit by the pandemic, and inconveniencing patients who preferred to get the vaccine from their hospital-based doctors.

“The administration understands the important role health systems play in the lives of residents of the commonwealth and as such, the command center worked with the Massachusetts Hospital Association to provide a limited supply of vaccines to select hospitals and health systems,” said Kate Reilly, spokeswoman for the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center.

Powell Pledges to Maintain Economic Support

New York Times – Jerome H. Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, told lawmakers that the economic rebound from the pandemic recession had further to go and reiterated that the central bank planned to keep up its growth-stoking policies, which include rock-bottom interest rates and large-scale bond buying.

“The economic recovery remains uneven and far from complete, and the path ahead is highly uncertain,” Mr. Powell said in prepared remarks he delivered to the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday. “Although there has been much progress in the labor market since the spring, millions of Americans remain out of work.”

Unemployment has come down sharply after surging last year, but the official jobless rate remains at nearly double its February 2020 level and probably understates the extent of weakness in the labor market. Likewise, consumer spending has bounced back but the service sector remains subdued.

The Fed slashed interest rates to near-zero last March and is buying about $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month, policies aimed at fueling lending and spending. Congress and the White House have also provided support in the form of enormous spending packages, and Democrats are now pushing for another $1.9 trillion in relief for workers and businesses.

Some economists have warned that inflation could take off as vaccines allow consumer activity to pick up and as the government pumps money into the economy, but Fed officials have generally played down those concerns. Mr. Powell said on Tuesday that inflation dynamics generally do not “change on a dime” and that if unwanted price pressures arise, the Fed has the tools to push back on them.

For now, “the economy is a long way from our employment and inflation goals, and it is likely to take some time for substantial further progress to be achieved,” Mr. Powell said, reiterating a pledge to keep up buying bonds at the current pace until “substantial further progress” has been made.

Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, asked whether the Fed’s policies might be fueling higher asset prices. Mr. Powell acknowledged that there was a “link” but said “many factors” were contributing.

And Mr. Toomey pressed Mr. Powell on what would happen to the Fed’s bond-buying plans if inflation moved up before full employment was achieved, prompting Mr. Powell to reiterate that the Fed was looking for more progress before dialing back purchases.

Mr. Powell said at one point that he would avoid weighing in on fiscal policy — a comment he made not long after Mr. Toomey said the central bank should avoid moving beyond its narrow economic mandate and into areas like racial inequity and climate change. The Fed is politically independent and tends to avoid partisan issues, though it has been providing advice to policymakers in Congress and weighing in on socioeconomic disparities over the past year.

“I, today, will really stay away from fiscal policy,” Mr. Powell said when asked specifically about the gender gap in the labor market. “There is still a long way to go to full recovery, and we intend to keep our policy supportive of that recovery.”

White House Announces Increase in Vaccine Shipments to States

New York Times – The White House said on Tuesday that weekly shipments of coronavirus vaccines to the states would rise by one million doses to 14.5 million, as vaccine manufacturers continue to ramp up production.

The figure was provided to governors in a call with Jeffrey Zeints, the president’s coronavirus response coordinator, said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, on Tuesday. With tens of millions of eligible Americans waiting to get shots, state officials have been clamoring for more vaccine, saying health practitioners could easily double or triple the number of shots they are administering.

Ms. Psaki said the increase was the fifth boost in distribution in five weeks, and said it came just short of doubling the vaccine shipments underway at the time Mr. Biden took office on Jan. 20.

Before snowstorms disrupted vaccine distribution last week, the average number of daily doses administered across the country had been steadily increasing as the two federally approved vaccine manufacturers, Pfizer and Moderna, get more efficient and expand production. While that acceleration was expected well before Mr. Biden assumed office, officials have been anxious to highlight every increase in shipments as evidence that the new administration is fiercely battling the pandemic. As of Tuesday, the seven-day average rate of doses administered across the country was 1.4 million a day, after peaking at about 1.7 million before the storms, according to a New York Times vaccine database.

Many vaccination appointments last week that were postponed by snowstorms and other disruptive weather are resuming this week. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti said vaccinations would start back up again on Tuesday at all of the city-run sites and indicated that people whose inoculations had been delayed by the weather would be given priority over those making new appointments.

At a congressional hearing Tuesday morning, top officials from Pfizer and Moderna reiterated previous supply commitments in front of lawmakers. Both firms promised earlier this month to deliver a total of 400 million doses by the end of May, weeks ahead of schedule, and a total of 600 million by the end of July.

John Young, Pfizer’s chief business officer, testified that his firm will be able to ship more than 13 million doses per week by mid-March, compared to a weekly shipment of just four to five million at the start of this month. He cited a variety of reasons, including federal regulatory approval to count each vial as holding six doses instead of five, more efficient production processes and faster laboratory tests of the vaccine before it is shipped.

Dr. Stephen Hoge, president of Moderna, testified that his company expects to double its current shipments to more than 10 million per week by April.

More supply is expected to come from Johnson & Johnson, but not as quickly as federal officials initially had hoped. Federal regulators are widely expected to grant emergency use authorization for that vaccine by early next week.

Dr. Richard Nettles, a company vice president testified that the firm is prepared to deliver 20 million doses of its vaccine by the end of March. Of that, he said, nearly four million doses could be shipped as soon as the Food and Drug Administration gives the firm the green light. Unlike the other two authorized vaccines, Johnson & Johnson’s requires only one dose.

Dr. Nettles’s testimony was the first public indication by the company of how many doses it could supply before April.

His promise falls short of the 37 million doses that Johnson & Johnson’s federal contract called for it to deliver by the end of March. Asked what accounted for the gap, Dr. Nettles did not directly answer. But he implied that the company would catch up, saying the firm will deliver the entire 100 million doses it has promised by the end of June, as the contract requires.

Together with the deliveries from Moderna and Pfizer, which developed its vaccine with a German partner, BioNTech, the new supply from Johnson & Johnson would mean that the nation would have enough doses on hand by the end of next month to vaccinate about 130 million Americans. That would cover roughly half of all eligible adults and 40 percent of the total population.

February 23

Baker Set to Testify Before COVID-19 Committee

Gov. Charlie Baker has agreed to testify before the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness on Thursday at the first oversight hearing of the new panel where lawmakers are planning to question the administration on its coronavirus vaccine program, according to one of the committee’s chairs.

Massachusetts’ position with respect to other states has been rapidly improving as the supply of vaccine coming into the state has increased and as the state has opened up its eligibility criteria to include more of the population.

Two new mass vaccinations sites are set to open this week in Natick and Dartmouth, and according to the Centers for Disease Control the state ranked 15th in the country for doses administered per capita and 11th for people with at least one dose per capita. However, after last week’s website crash, lawmakers continue to raise questions about the state’s technology, the lack of ability to preregister for a shot and the decision to stop distributing vaccine to local clinics in favor of high-capacity vaccination sites.

Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat and co-chair of the COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness Committee, confirmed that Baker over the weekend had accepted the committee’s invitation to testify at Thursday’s oversight hearing. Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and officials with the Department of Public Health have also agreed to go before the committee, she said.

The committee invited Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, Assistant Public Health Commissioner Jana Ferguson and Assistant Public Health Commissioner and Director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences Kevin Cranston.

In addition, the chairs of three other committees – Health Care Financing, Public Health, and Racial Equity, Civil Rights and Inclusion – have been asked to assemble expert panels to present to the oversight committee.

US COVID Deaths Surpass 500,000

New York Times – The United States reached a staggering milestone on Monday, surpassing 500,000 known coronavirus-related deaths in a pandemic that has lasted almost a year. The nation’s total virus toll is higher than in any other country in the world. It has far surpassed early predictions of loss by some federal experts. And it means that more Americans have died from Covid-19 than did on the battlefields of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.

“The magnitude of it is just horrifying,” said Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University who has modeled the virus’s spread and says that the scale of loss was not inevitable, but a result of the failure to control the virus’s spread in the United States. “It’s been a failure,” he said.

The United States accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s known COVID deaths but makes up just 4.25 percent of the global population.

About one in 670 Americans has died of Covid-19, which has become a leading cause of death in this country, along with heart disease and cancer, and has driven down life expectancy more sharply than in decades. The losses, monumental for the country, have been searingly personal for the relatives and friends of the 500,000.

The harrowing milestone comes amid hopeful news: New virus cases and deaths have slowed dramatically, and vaccine distribution has gradually picked up pace. But uncertainty remains about emerging variants of the virus, some more contagious and possibly more lethal, so it may be months before the pandemic is contained. Scientists say the trajectory of the U.S. death toll will depend on the speed of vaccinations, the effects of the variants and how closely people stick to guidelines like mask-wearing and social distancing.

Massachusetts yesterday reported 1,150 new COVID-19 cases and 26 deaths.

Massachusetts Surpasses 1.2 Million Vaccine Doses

MassLive – Massachusetts has administered a little over 1.2 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine since the statewide rollout began in December, according to the latest weekly vaccine data.

Over the last seven days, roughly 225,341 doses of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine have gone into the arms of Massachusetts residents, the data shows.

Roughly 1,527,150 total doses to date have been shipped to the state, with approximately 1,158,050 being shipped from the state to providers, and another 369,100 going to CVS and Walgreens through the Federal Pharmacy Partnership Program.

Community Health Centers Gear Up for Broader Vaccination Role

Boston Globe – Community health centers are gearing up for an expanded role in the state’s vaccination effort, widening the pathway into the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19.

While much attention has focused on high-volume sites including Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park, the 52 community health centers in Massachusetts are emerging as a growing force in the vaccination effort, now that the eligibility guidelines have expanded to include people age 65 and older and those with two health conditions that put them at higher risk.

A few health centers are already running mass vaccination sites, but all are giving priority to their own patients and neighbors — the very people most likely to get sick from COVID-19 and least likely to get vaccinated. All are expanding their capacity to provide vaccinations, with support from the state.

“Our health centers want to make sure that the patients that are closest to the disease are closest to the vaccine,” said Michael Curry, CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. “They know their patients are more likely to be hospitalized, and most likely to die.”

In so doing, the health centers, which provide primary care and other services chiefly to low-income people, confront a paradoxical challenge: coping with a barrage of calls from people eager for the vaccine and also reaching and persuading those who aren’t sure about it.

Markey Decries ‘Vaccine Redlining’

WBUR – After about a full year of the coronavirus crisis, data have gradually revealed what many predicted would happen: people of color, as well as people who are medically or financially vulnerable, are experiencing more loss and fewer gains than white people enduring the pandemic.

Several Massachusetts political powerhouses and community leaders held a Facebook Live panel on Saturday to discuss how marginalized people have fared almost a year into the deadly pandemic — specifically their access to and education about the vaccine, and what they’re championing at the State House, White House and Congress to address the issues.

“[Communities of color] were the first to get the virus, the first to stay on the job, the first to die but last to get the relief and the care they need during this crisis,” said Senator Ed Markey.

During the Facebook Live discussion, several commenters wrote that vaccine distribution should be equal, therefore race shouldn’t factor into that. But early distribution data show Black and Latinx people are being vaccinated at a lower rate than white people.

Access to the vaccine is one of the biggest hurdles. Another major hurdle is an earned distrust of medicine that stems from well-documented experimentation on marginalized people and people of color.

When Massachusetts’ two vaccine websites debuted and shortly crashed for eligible people 65 and older, it left people waiting for hours or not getting an appointment at all. Many in that age group aren’t savvy with computers and Rev. Miniard Culpepper — who leads the Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Dorchester — said even if they are tech-oriented, many couldn’t afford to wait for several hours or refresh the page hundreds of times.

Beset by Critics, Baker Stresses Speed and Scale for Vaccination

Boston Globe – Stung by criticism it was moving too slowly, the Baker administration has overhauled its approach to delivering COVID-19 vaccines in just three weeks, increasingly relying on a network of massive facilities equipped to give more shots quickly as it expands the pool of eligible residents.

The rise of mass vaccination sites such as Boston’s Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium in Foxborough has helped to rapidly boost the state’s standing in national vaccine distribution. Its ranking shot up to 17th in per capita doses administered, according to the latest federal data. As recently as Feb. 1, Massachusetts ranked 34th among states.

With growing capacity to give shots assembly-line style, emboldened state officials doubled the number of residents who qualify for a vaccine literally overnight last week, adding almost 1 million aged 65 to 74, living in low-income senior housing, or suffering from two or more medical conditions.

Massachusetts Shifts Vaccine Deliveries away from Local Boards of Health

WCVBMassachusetts is moving forward to a new phase of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout and is again reallocating doses away from facilities that played a crucial role earlier in the process.

Most local boards of health were informed Wednesday that future shipments will be directed elsewhere. That follows last week’s decision to curtail doses sent to hospitals.

Gov. Charlie Baker said that the state will instead prioritize vaccine shipments to high-throughput vaccination locations, such as the state-run mass vaccination sites, regional collaboratives and retail pharmacy sites.

Municipalities and hospitals were key to the distribution process during Phase 1 when the vaccines were new and the only eligible personnel were health care workers and first responders. Now, Baker said those distribution channels no longer meet state goals for efficiency.

“As we move forward through the vaccination phases we need to continue to make sure that we have locations that can distribute the doses quickly, efficiently and effectively,” Baker said. “What worked for the early, targeted populations in Phase 1 is a lot different than what’s going to work for the millions of people across the commonwealth who are eligible in Phases 2 and 3.”

An estimated 1 million additional residents became eligible for vaccinations on Thursday, when Massachusetts moved to the second step of Phase 2. That includes residents age 65 or older and those with two or more comorbidities.

Exceptions will be made for 20 of the state’s 351 cities and towns, which were identified by the Department of Public Health as having had the greatest COVID-19 burden and have the greatest percentage of non-white residents. These municipalities are: Boston; Brockton; Chelsea; Everett; Fall River; Fitchburg; Framingham; Haverhill; Holyoke; Lawrence; Leominster; Lowell; Lynn; Malden; Methuen; New Bedford; Randolph; Revere; Springfield; and Worcester.

Officials said those 20 communities will continue to distribute doses at the local level, will be prioritized for the retail pharmacy program, and are served by community health centers and other health care providers administering vaccines.

Other local boards of health are asked to continue supporting the state’s immunization plan by making plans to vaccinate homebound individuals and increasing vaccine awareness.

Schools Start Pooled Testing for COVID

WHDH – Dozens of school districts will start pooled COVID-19 testing this week, but officials say many more schools aren’t ready to launch.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said batch testing once a week for the coronavirus can determine that many people in the same group are low-risk, and if one test in the batch shows symptoms then everyone in that batch gets further testing.

“We know children are asymptomatic at higher rates than adults so when you pool test, you’re finding all the asymptomatic cases,” Najimy said. ‘When adults and children are in the school building, they are assuming a level of risk, and we have to be careful not to bring that risk home to their families and their communities.

“I do think it’s a pretty good tool to provide people with comfort,” Gov. Charlie Baker said.

While pooled testing has capacity for 300 districts and 120 initially signed up, only 88 are ready to launch Monday, Najimy said. The state pays for the first six weeks of testing and while Najimy said some districts are worried about funding tests after that, she said federal relief should soon kick in.

“I don’t understand where that concern is coming from because there is federal money but again, it’s then the responsibility of the federal government and the state if any one district doesn’t have funds, they’ve got to step up and make this happen,” Najimy said.

White House Adjusts Rules to Encourage More Loans for Tiny Businesses

New York Times – Aiming to steer more federal aid to the smallest and most vulnerable businesses, the Biden administration is altering the Paycheck Protection Program’s rules, increasing the amount sole proprietors are eligible to receive and imposing a 14-day freeze on loans to companies with 20 or more employees.

The freeze will take effect on Wednesday.

In December’s economic relief package, Congress allocated $284 billion to restart the aid program. Banks and other financiers, which make the government-backed loans, have disbursed $134 billion to 1.8 million businesses since lending resumed last month. The money is intended to be forgiven if recipients comply with the program’s rules.

Companies with up to 500 workers are generally eligible for the loans, although second-draw loans — available to those whose sales dropped 25 percent or more in at least one quarter since the coronavirus pandemic began — are limited to companies with 300 or fewer employees. The 14-day moratorium is intended to focus lenders’ attention on the tiniest businesses, according to administration officials, who spoke to reporters at a news briefing on Sunday on the condition that they not be named.

Most small businesses are solo ventures, employing just the owner. For such companies, including sole proprietorships and independent contractors, one major impediment to getting relief money was a program rule that based their loan size on the annual profit they reported on their taxes. That made unprofitable businesses ineligible for aid, and left thousands of applicants with tiny loans — some as small as $1.

The new formula, which Small Business Administration officials said would be released soon, will focus instead on gross income. That calculation, which is done before many expenses are deducted, will let unprofitable businesses qualify for loans.

The agency is also changing several other program rules to expand eligibility. Those with recent felony convictions not tied to fraud will now be able to apply, as will those who are delinquent or in default on federal student loan debt. The agency also updated its guidance to clarify that business owners who are not United States citizens but lawful residents are eligible for loans.

Dems Prepare for Party-line House Vote on Biden’s Pandemic Aid Bill

Politico – The House is on track to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package by the end of this week as Congress sprints to deliver aid to millions of Americans reeling from the pandemic and facing a jobless benefits cliff in mid-March.

But House Democrats aren’t expecting to get a single GOP vote for their aid package, which they’re taking up with the procedural maneuver known as reconciliation in order to win Senate passage without the threat of a filibuster. The House Budget Committee met Monday afternoon to tee up the legislation for floor passage on Friday or Saturday, with Senate action as soon as the following week.

Monday’s markup is one of the last major House steps in the reconciliation process, but the final aid package sent to the president’s desk will likely change from the House-passed bill. That’s because Senate consideration will be laden with political minefields, and major provisions in the bill — such as its minimum wage hike or paid sick leave expansion — could be stripped out or rejiggered as Democrats in the upper chamber muddle through budget restrictions during floor debate.

In short, there’s plenty of uncertainty to come before the House and Senate must ultimately resolve any differences and agree on any amendments before the measure is sent to Biden’s desk.

“We’re working as quickly and expeditiously as we possibly can,” said House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “We’ll send it over to the Senate and see what happens.”

No substantial changes to the text are expected since the Budget panel’s members can’t offer regular amendments. The panel’s meeting to assemble Biden’s plan comes after nine House committees marked up their own portions of the massive measure.

Republicans are almost certain to complain about the proposal to raise the hourly minimum wage to $15 and $350 billion for state and local aid, among other parts of the package. House GOP leaders circulated a whip notice Friday urging their members to vote against the bill, arguing that it provides “a bailout” for blue states and pays “people not to work.”

“We’re definitely going to expose how this is the wrong plan, at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons,” said Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. “We’re going to point out all the different items in this legislation that are bad for the working class.”

In the Senate, committees have started meeting with an official adviser known as the parliamentarian, who will decide whether certain pieces of Biden’s plan run afoul of the so-called Byrd Rule. That rule requires policies passed through the budget reconciliation process to have a significant effect on federal spending, revenues and the debt and bars policies that would lead to debt increases beyond the next decade.

One of the biggest outstanding questions is whether Biden’s push to raise the federal minimum wage for the first time since 2009 — a proposal championed by progressives — will survive the budget restrictions.

Democratic leaders and the White House have indicated that they will make a final decision on how to proceed after the Senate parliamentarian rules on the proposal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been tight-lipped, even with senior members of her leadership team, about the status of talks on the most contentious issues.

But Biden has signaled privately to governors that the wage hike likely isn’t happening as part of his first Covid aid measure. Progressives, like Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have insisted that the provision will survive, citing recent analysis from the Congressional Budget Office as evidence.

Democrats could barrel ahead by overruling the parliamentarian if the minimum wage increase doesn’t pass muster, but Biden is leaning heavily against the idea, POLITICO reported earlier this month.

Still, the wage hike remains a top progressive demand, and liberal leaders insist the pandemic relief package is the most viable legislative vehicle this year to get it done.

“It is really important to us that it happens in this package because we think it is directly related to Covid relief,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Given the makeup of the Senate, this is our best opportunity and the right moment in the midst of this pandemic.”

Biden Aides Continue Push for School Re-Openings

Boston Herald – Top Biden administration officials insisted on Sunday that K-8 schools can safely reopen by April, even without requiring all teachers to be vaccinated first, as some states make educators a priority for COVID-19 shots.

White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki underscored that President Biden wants to see those schools open for five days a week of in-classroom learning after his first 100 days in office, meaning by the end of April.

She said state and local governments should make decisions about vaccinations, retrofitting of buildings and other approaches using this month’s “science-based guidelines” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“That’s our goal, that’s our objective, that’s our plan,” Psaki said of the April target on ABC’s “This Week.” She tied the goal to approval of $130 billion in school reopening funds that’s part of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill moving through Congress.

“Many schools across the country don’t have the resources to be able to invest in improving facilities, on hiring more bus drivers, on hiring more temporary teachers so we can have smaller class sizes,” Psaki said.

February 18, 2021

State Expands Vaccine Program to People 65 Years of Age and Older

The Baker Administration announced that individuals ages 65 and older and those with or two or more medical conditions, including Asthma, can visit www.mass.gov/covidvaccine to start book an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine beginning today.

With this announcement, almost 1 million individuals are newly eligible for vaccine.

Due to extremely high demand for appointments and limited vaccine supply, it could take more than a month for all eligible individuals to secure an appointment, unless federal supply significantly increases. Recently, Massachusetts has been receiving approximately 110,000 first doses per week from the federal government. Residents are encouraged to keep checking the website as appointments are added on a rolling basis.

Individuals 65 and over, including residents and staff of low income and affordable public and private senior housing are eligible to receive vaccine effective today.

Residents and staff of low income and affordable public and private senior housing can learn more about vaccination options here.

Individuals 16 and older with two or more of certain medical conditions (defined below) are eligible for vaccine, effective tomorrow.

In concert with CDC guidelines, the commonwealth has adopted the list of conditions that cause individuals to be at an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Massachusetts has also identified moderate to severe asthma as an eligible medical condition.

Eligible medical conditions include:

  • Asthma (moderate-to-severe)
  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Down Syndrome
  • Heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies
  • Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant
  • Obesity and severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 kg/m2 or higher)
  • Pregnancy
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Smoking
  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus

Learn more from CDC: COVID-19: People with Certain Medical Conditions

Mass Vaccination Appointments Available

More than 70,000 appointments are scheduled to be posted today at mass vaccination sites (Eastfield Mall in Springfield, Double Tree Hotel in Danvers, Fenway Park in Boston and Gillette Stadium in Foxboro).

Details for booking can be found via the COVID-19 Vaccine Finder, which enables residents to search for a vaccination location and view appointment availability before scheduling. The tool can be accessed via the state’s vaccination website at www.mass.gov/COVIDvaccine or directly at https://vaxfinder.mass.gov.

Individuals who are unable to access appointments via the Internet can call 211 and follow the prompts for vaccine appointments.

There are currently more than 170 vaccination locations across the commonwealth. Almost 95 percent of the population lives within a 45-minute drive of a mass vaccination site or within 30 minutes of a regional (high volume site) – not counting the pharmacies, provider and community health center vaccination sites.

State Initiates Streamlined Vaccination Distribution Plan

Local Boards of Health were informed yesterday of the commonwealth’s streamlined vaccination distribution plan that prioritizes equity and high-capacity throughput vaccination, particularly as vaccine supply from the federal government remains extremely constrained.

Utilizing the social vulnerability index as a starting point, the Department of Public Health has identified 20 municipalities that have had the greatest COVID burden and have the greatest per centage of non- white residents. These municipalities are: Boston; Brockton; Chelsea; Everett; Fall River; Fitchburg; Framingham; Haverhill; Holyoke; Lawrence; Leominster; Lowell; Lynn; Malden; Methuen; New Bedford; Randolph; Revere; Springfield; and Worcester.

These municipalities will continue to distribute vaccine at the local level, are prioritized for the retail pharmacy program, and are served by community health centers and other health care providers administering vaccine.

The Baker Administration is asking Local Boards of Health to support these critical objectives:

  • Planning to vaccinate homebound individuals in their community and older adults in private and public low income and affordable housing.
  • Encourage residents to get vaccinated at mass vaccination sites, retail pharmacies and other locations that are open to all residents.
  • Increase vaccine awareness of safety and efficacy so that when the Commonwealth does have more incoming vaccine from the Federal Government, and as more groups become eligible, communities are ready and willing to accept vaccine.

Vaccine Equity Czar Among New Coalition’s Demands

State House News – A senior-level director in charge of COVID-19 vaccination equity and an allocation of $10 million to community organizations for outreach and engagement in communities of color are part of a list of five demands outlined Wednesday by a new coalition seeking to address what they say are serious racial injustices in the state’s vaccine distribution plan.

The coalition, made up of 11 civil rights, social justice, and medical organizations, presented the plan at a press conference Wednesday and said they are ready and willing to work with Gov. Charlie Baker to implement the five steps. This comes as Baker rolled out an outreach initiative Tuesday focused on 20 cities and towns that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The Vaccine Equity Now! Coalition wants the administration to track vaccine benchmarks that mirror the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on Black and Latinx residents, improve language access and cultural competence across all levels of the administration, and implement an enhanced 20 percent allocation of vaccines to communities most impacted by the pandemic that was laid out in the initial distribution plan.

“We know that communities of color and immigrant communities in Massachusetts have disproportionately been impacted by COVID-19, infection, hospitalization, and death rates. This is a combination of centuries of structural racism in our country and the pandemic only has aggravated the inequities that have long existed,” said Eva Millona, executive director at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

“These disparities underscore why our vaccine rollout must be centered on those who have been most impacted by the crisis.”

Millona said Black residents comprise 9 percent of the state’s population and 14 percent of health care workers, but only 3 percent have been fully vaccinated. She said only 1 percent of the Latinx population has been fully vaccinated while they make up 12 percent of the state’s population and 10 percent of health care workers.

The governor’s initiative directs the Department of Public Health to work with local leaders and community- and faith-based groups in each of the 20 cities or towns to overcome barriers so residents can get vaccinated. The cities and towns were identified using the Centers for Disease Control’s Social Vulnerability Index and state COVID-19 case rates since the start of the pandemic.

The administration pledged to deploy “DPH Vaccine Ambassadors” to provide support to local boards of health, disseminate culturally appropriate translations of vaccination information, and hire local residents to boost outreach.

While the stakeholders at Wednesday’s press conference said Baker’s plan was a step in the right direction, Massachusetts Public Health Association Executive Director Carlene Pavlos said there needs to be a deeper look at the initiative with a focus on how the administration plans to follow through on it.

“There are a lot of pieces of the announcement … that need operational detail for us to understand how good a first step it is, but it is certainly a first step,” Pavlos said at the press conference.

Survey Documents Disparate Impacts of COVID Pandemic

State House News – Public health experts have warned since the beginning of the pandemic that the COVID-19 crisis wreaks more severe impacts on vulnerable populations such as communities of color and lower-income earners.

Now, those gaps in the pandemic experience have been highlighted in a state-run survey of more than 35,000 Massachusetts residents.

Groups including LGBTQ populations, people of color, lower-income households and those with disabilities often experienced more worry about COVID-19, less economic stability during the crisis, and greater rates of delayed medical care, according to data from the survey presented at a state Public Health Council meeting on Wednesday.

Residents who are unable to maintain social distancing of at least six feet, whether because their local stores are too crowded or because their work requires physical proximity, were more likely to be most concerned about contracting the highly infectious virus.

About 52 percent of statewide respondents polled between September and November said they continued to work outside their homes during the pandemic, and DPH found those adults were more than twice as likely to test positive for COVID-19 than those who worked remotely.

In-person working rates were far higher than the state average among some population groups: 82 percent of workers with less than a high school degree reported working outside the home, as did 75 percent of those with a trade school or vocational education and 73 percent of employees with a high school diploma or GED.

Among industry groups listed in the DPH survey, grocery store and hotel accommodation employees had the highest rates of leaving home for work at 94 percent and 91 percent, respectively. Conversely, only 15 percent of college and university workers reported doing their jobs away from home.

The survey also found evidence that the COVID-fueled economic crisis is creating greater burdens on some communities.

For both Hispanic and Black populations, more than seven in 10 people surveyed expressed concern that they could not pay for at least one crucial expense or bill such as housing or utilities, compared to four in 10 among white respondents.

Residents of several ethnicities, particularly Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian and Cape Verdean, were nearly or more than twice as likely as the statewide average to indicate worry about getting food or groceries in the coming weeks.

Women surveyed were twice as likely as males – 16 percent to 8 percent – to change their employment in the past year so they could care for children, fitting into a pattern that has drawn national attention.

Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said the extensive results – which also include data on health care access, mental health, testing, workplace distancing and more – would contribute to the Baker administration’s efforts to make vaccines more available in the hardest-hit communities.

“These survey findings have informed our efforts and provided a data-driven foundation for our vaccine equity initiative,” Bharel said. “We are laser-focused on ensuring equitable access to the COVID vaccine.”

Senate President Announces Special Committee on Post-Pandemic Resiliency

Press ReleaseToday, I am announcing the creation of the new Senate Special Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts: Post-Pandemic Resiliency.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended assumptions about the way we live, work, and travel in Massachusetts. It has also laid bare long-standing inequities in various aspects of our economy and communities. As we look to the future as we recover from the pandemic, we have a rare opportunity—and a responsibility—to question the status quo and reimagine the path towards continued vibrancy for the Commonwealth.

Massachusetts has historically been a leader in innovation, and we are well poised to lead in the “new normal.” But we must ensure that our efforts are integrated across multiple areas.

This committee will serve as a hub to synthesize information and share best practices that have been developed in response to COVID-19, as well as a forum for new ideas as to how to move forward. The committee will also work to actively ensure that historical inequities are addressed.

COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our lives; this committee acknowledges that and asks how we help direct the change we know lies ahead. While the newly-created COVID-19 committee will be focused on pandemic response and the challenges posed by COVID-19 today, the Reimagining Mass committee will be focused on tomorrow and the next day. We have not experienced anything like this pandemic in a hundred years, and this crisis deserves our attention and our best efforts at mitigating its effects.

The Reimagining Mass committee doesn’t look like anything the Senate has done in the past, but that’s intentional. We will need collaboration and creativity to reimagine our future.

But it does draw on the best practices from the working groups the Senate developed last session—on revenue, transportation, COVID-19 and racial justice. These working groups were cross-functional and called on experts from across the commonwealth, as well as the experience of the Senate members and their constituents. The efforts of the COVID-19 working group resulted in legislation such as vote-by-mail, telehealth, more flexibility for municipalities to work remotely, expansive outdoor and take out options for restaurants, and other innovations spurred by the pandemic. It is my hope that this committee will catalyze innovation in a similar way.

I look forward to the Senate Special Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts: Post-Pandemic Resiliency acting as a forum for oversight, coordination and ideas as we create a new vision for the Commonwealth’s future.

Mariano: “We Have No Intention of Raising Taxes”

State House News – House Speaker Ronald Mariano is sending a message about tax policy ahead of budget season on Beacon Hill. “Right now taxes are not on the table. We have no intention of raising taxes,” Mariano told WCVB’s “On the Record.”

Mariano expressed concern that the state budget was “going to be short,” and said the fate of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief and economic stimulus bill looms large.

“I’m not optimistic that tax revenues are going to match … even with some surprisingly robust returns … I’m still afraid we’re going to be a little short,” Mariano said. “But we do have to wait and see what the feds do. We are watching with a high degree of intensity what goes on in Washington.”

If the $1.9 trillion package passes, Mariano said, “I think we’ll be able to be alright without having to do anything more than to reallocate our funds … and maybe put some money back into the rainy day fund.”

Gov. Charlie Baker two weeks ago proposed a $45.6 billion fiscal 2022 budget that does not include any tax increases on residents and would trim state spending by about $300 million, or 0.7 percent, while state tax revenue is expected to rise 3.5 percent over the current budget year.

Speaker Says Teachers Should Go to “Head of the Line” on Vaccinations

State House News – Seven weeks into his tenure atop the House, Speaker Ron Mariano called for prioritizing vaccine availability to educators.

Massachusetts early education and K-12 workers are likely still weeks away from starting to qualify for COVID-19 vaccines, slotted behind another not-yet-eligible group that includes individuals aged 65 and older, those with two or more comorbidities, and residents and staff of low-income and affordable senior housing.

Mariano said, “I don’t have a problem with the concerns that have been expressed, but I think it’s incumbent upon us to move teachers into the head of the line so that they have access to the vaccine.

“They can say with some degree of confidence that they’re protected,” Mariano said. “They can take the vaccine, still mask up, still practice social distancing, and be relatively safe, relatively sure in knowing they’re safe from infection.”

Mariano said that under the current conditions he would hesitate to push a teacher back to in-person work, particularly if they may be caring for an elderly or immunocompromised relative, because “everyone’s home situation is different.”

A former teacher and School Committee member, Mariano stressed that he wants to see students return to classroom learning as soon as possible, if they haven’t already, a goal that Gov. Charlie Baker has been targeting for months.

WHO Formally Authorizes the Use of the AstraZeneca Vaccine

New York Times – The World Health Organization on Monday authorized the use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, clearing a path for the cheap and easy-to-store shots to be distributed in lower- and middle-income countries around the world.

A small clinical trial in South Africa recently failed to show that the vaccine could keep people from getting mild or moderate cases of COVID-19 caused by a coronavirus variant spreading there. But that vaccine had protected all participants against severe disease and death in other trials and may yet prevent severe disease and death caused by the variant first detected in South Africa.

The authorization, expected after a panel of WHO experts recommended use of the vaccine last week, applied to the vaccine’s two manufacturers: AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute, the Indian producer that will supply many doses for the Covax initiative to bring vaccines to poorer parts of the world.

The WHO last year authorized the Pfizer-BionNTech vaccine. But its decision on AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been highly anticipated, because the low price and easy storage requirements have made the vaccine the backbone of rollout plans in many countries around the world.

“Countries with no access to vaccines to date will finally be able to start vaccinating their health workers and populations at risk, contributing to the Covax Facility’s goal of equitable vaccine distribution,” Dr. Mariângela Simão, the W.H.O. assistant director general for access to medicines and health products, said in a statement.

The W.H.O. panel of experts recommended that the AstraZeneca vaccine be used in all adults, and in countries where concerning new variants are circulating. Countries are expected to begin receiving their first tranches of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Covax later in February.

Expert Opinions Differ about COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout in Massachusetts

WCVB – While more Massachusetts residents are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, some experts have conflicting opinions about how well the state’s rollout is going.

Gov. Charlie Baker says more doses of the vaccine are needed before more people can become eligible for it.

Massachusetts ranks 20th in terms of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered, according to recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to that same CDC data, the Bay State has the eighth-highest rate in the country for doses delivered per 100,000 people – which leads some experts to say that Baker cannot blame supply.

Last week, Harvard University professor Graham Allison gave the state’s vaccine rollout a failing grade.

“Every other state is facing almost identical problems,” said Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government for Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Jeffrey Liebman, one of Allison’s colleagues at Harvard’s Kennedy School, says that failing assessment is “a little out of date.”

“The state has not only caught up but moved to the front of the pack,” said Liebman, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Public Policy. “If you look at percentage of the state residents that have received at least one dose, we’re now in the top ten.”

While some states have made more people eligible for the vaccine, Massachusetts is still limiting doses to residents 75 or older outside of its Phase 1 group of health care workers, long-term care workers and residents, and first responders.

“We’ve been very sluggish at getting to this next level of vaccination — individuals that are 65 plus — and I have not seen a clear explanation for why it is that we have the vaccines here and are not getting them into people’s arms efficiently,” said Samuel Scarpino, an assistant professor in the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University.

“It also makes people anxious,” Scarpino added. “They don’t understand why in neighboring states, people that are 65 may already be eligible and in Massachusetts, we don’t really seem to be getting close to that level yet.”

Massachusetts residents under the age of 75 have asked WCVB to get more information from Baker, specifically if there are any specific benchmarks the state needs to reach in order to move to the next step of Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout.

Baker has not yet provided any benchmarks thus far. WCVB has not yet received word from the governor’s office regarding an explanation for a lack of a benchmark.

Document: National Governors Association Letter to President Biden on Vaccines

Dear Mr. President:

The nation’s Governors again congratulate you on your victory and look forward to a working
partnership as we battle these difficult times together. We thank you for the coordination that your team has already extended to the Governors. We are the front line in the battle against COVID-19 and we will only succeed if we work together.

We have two immediate issues of concern. First, we believe it is essential that the American people understand the vaccine distribution process and the extent of the effort that governments on both the federal and state level are extending. There has been an ongoing issue since last year with which we would ask your assistance. Due to the anxiety created by the demand and supply of the vaccine, it is imperative that the American people fully understand the process.

Currently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides public information on a state and territory level as to the number of vaccines distributed to each state and the number of vaccinations performed. The CDC reporting mechanism has created unnecessary confusion. We would ask that the CDC reporting accurately reflects the reality.

The vaccine is delivered and administered through several different programs. By one program, the federal government administers a program in which it contracts with private pharmacies for vaccinations in nursing homes and long-term care facilities (LTCF program). The program is not
controlled by the states. Your Administration has started a new federal program to directly deliver vaccines to certain pharmacies in our states the federal government selects. Your Administration has also announced another new federal program whereby the federal government will directly distribute to Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) that it selects. These are three separate federal efforts beyond our control.

State and territorial governments then receive vaccine allocations for “first doses” and “second
doses” from the federal government. We appreciate transparency, accountability and our
responsibility for the administration of the first and second doses. However, the federal LTCF
program, federal pharmacy program and the federal FQHC program, are federally administered and beyond the states’ control.

We believe it is important that the CDC in its reporting distinguish between these separate efforts to avoid confusion and provide a clear understanding to the American people. States also need visibility into the federal vaccination efforts at the facility level happening in our borders.

Second, we believe that federal decisions to use pharmacies and FQHCs should be coordinated with state governments. States also allocate doses often to these same pharmacies and FQHCs. We understand the capacity of the individual entities and we know the range of the individual entities throughput and their inventory. As usual, some pharmacies and FQHCs are better suited for the task than others. Following the performance data on these entities is essential. We also know the need in the respective communities they serve and other efforts in the geographic vicinity. If the federal government distributes independently of the states to these same entities without state coordination and consultation, redundancy and inefficiency may very well follow.

We are most appreciative of our relationship with your Administration and Mr. Jeff Zients in
particular, who has been doing great work, and we look forward to working through these issues in a mutually productive manner. Thank you in advance.

Nearly the Entire Massachusetts Delegation Calls for Vaccine Pre-Registration System

Boston.com – Nearly every member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation is calling on Gov. Charlie Baker to set up a system to allow residents to pre-register and receive a notification for COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

Two months into the state’s bumpy and uneven vaccine rollout, 10 of the 11 members of the state’s all-Democratic delegation signed a letter to the Republican governor arguing that a centralized pre-registration system would help officials target populations where there is unmet demand for the vaccine and streamline the appointment-scheduling process for both patients and providers.

“A disjointed and cumbersome sign-up process has left seniors confused and unable to access desperately needed vaccine appointments, and the disproportionate reliance on mass vaccination sites has left appointments unfilled and large portions of our most vulnerable populations unserved,” said the letter, which was dated Friday and led by Rep. Katherine Clark.

The preregistration system — wherein residents could provide relevant information online, over the phone, or in person ahead of time, and then later get notified when they’re eligible to book an appointment — would “help to alleviate these challenges,” lawmakers wrote.

Rep. Richard Neal was the sole delegation member who did not sign on to the letter.

Baker has acknowledged the frustrations with the pace of the rollout, which he has attributed to limited supply, the state’s decision to prioritize highly vulnerable groups, and higher-than-expected reluctance to get the vaccine among those groups.

In a statement Monday night, a spokesperson for the state’s COVID-19 Command Center also noted that the administration has worked to improve the booking process, including a call center and a new website to help residents find vaccination sites.

More Than $1 billion in Federal Stimulus Cash Still Unspent

Boston Globe – Even as Massachusetts pushes Congress for more federal stimulus funding, new state data show it had spent only half the $2.7 billion it received last year through the federal CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund.

State and local officials say the numbers illustrate some of the logistical challenges associated with obtaining and spending the money, including some uncertainty about how precisely the funds can be spent. And with the pandemic still ongoing, some cities and towns have been trying to reserve portions of the money while they determine how much additional cash they will receive from the federal government and what restrictions those funds may carry.

“There’s a logic to keeping your powder dry,” said Phineas Baxandall, an analyst with the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a think tank. State officials expect all the money to be spent by the deadline at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Governor Charlie Baker and Representative Richard Neal, Democrat of Springfield, held a joint press conference last week in Boston to promote a new $1.9 trillion relief package moving through Congress. Neal, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, predicted the bill will pass by mid-March.

As of the end of 2020, Massachusetts had spent about $1.4 billion of the relief funds, a quarter of which was spent on salaries and payroll for public safety staff.

Specifically, the state allocated $150 million for the Department of Correction, $99 million to the state police, and smaller amounts to local sheriffs’ departments. The funds accounted for nearly one-third of the Department of Correction’s payroll spending last year.

Other major expenses included contact tracing, testing, and grants for small businesses. More than $140 million was spent on helping schools reopen. And a tiny fraction of the money, $35,243, went to the grim task of opening temporary morgues.

State officials set aside another $502 million for municipalities. But only $324 million of that has been distributed so far, as some cities and towns have not yet requested the full amount allocated for them. And of the money they have received, much still remains unspent, state figures show.

The CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund was just one small portion of all federal funding allocated to Massachusetts, but it provided relatively flexible funds that officials could use on many unexpected expenses incurred due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, federal officials barred government agencies from using the funds to pay off debt or cover routine expenses, even if governments suffered revenue shortfalls due to business closures and other problems related to COVID-19.

Focus on Capitol Hill Turns to Passing Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Bill

Washington Post – Congressional Democrats renewed their focus Tuesday on passing President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, as they face a mid-March deadline for when enhanced unemployment benefits will expire if Congress doesn’t act in time.

With former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial out of the way in the Senate, Democrats are preparing to push the legislation through a few final procedural hoops before an expected floor vote next week in the House. From there, the legislation would go to the Senate.

Biden is participated in a CNN town hall event in Wisconsin on Tuesday night to discuss the coronavirus, the economy and other issues. He used the opportunity to promote his relief plan, which includes a new round of $1,400 stimulus checks, as well as hundreds of billions of dollars for schools, city and state governments, coronavirus testing, and vaccine manufacture and distribution.

The proposal would increase emergency federal unemployment benefits from $300 to $400 a week and extend them into the fall. The benefits are set to expire March 14.

Despite divisions within the House Democratic caucus, Democrats have largely unified behind the legislation. Nine House committees passed their individual portions of the bill last week, fighting back GOP attempts to alter it with dozens of amendments targeting everything from abortion to the minimum wage to the Keystone XL pipeline.

Democrats defeated all the GOP amendments save for one, a relatively minor measure in the Agriculture Committee aimed at compensating farmers affected by derecho storms last year.

Republicans repeatedly said they were frustrated that their views weren’t being considered as Democrats pushed the legislation forward without GOP support. Democrats defended their approach, saying they need to act quickly to inject more money into the health-care system and stabilize the economy with millions still out of work.

Direct Aid Totals $4.55 Billion for Massachusetts in Biden Rescue Plan

FEB. 16, 2021…..With the U.S. House eyeing a vote on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package next week, as much as $8.275 billion in direct aid to state and local government in Massachusetts could be on the line as Beacon Hill lawmakers begin the process of building the next state budget.

Biden’s package includes $350 billion in support for state and local government, which Gov. Charlie Baker has described as “critical” to helping states like Massachusetts rebuild their economies as more of the public becomes vaccinated from COVID-19.

The funding would be in addition to other buckets of stimulus spending that would flow to schools, businesses, testing and vaccination programs, the unemployed and direct checks to families in Massachusetts.

Congress and former President Donald Trump excluded direct state aid from the most recent $900 billion federal stimulus bill, but governors have been pushing for more federal support for months. House Speaker Ron Mariano said over the weekend the federal stimulus could help lawmakers avoid cuts and replenish the state’s reserves, all while avoiding tax hikes.

Massachusetts would receive $4.55 billion in state aid, under the White House plan, and cities and towns would be eligible for an additional $3.73 billion, according to figures shared with the News Service by U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan’s office.

Trahan’s office said it expects the Budget Committee to release the final text of the bill this week, and the U.S. House is tentatively looking at next week to hold a vote.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who joined Baker at the State House last week to advocate for more federal funding, is working on another part of the relief package as chairman of Ways and Means that would provide direct checks of $1,400 to qualifying residents.

Mariano said over the weekend in an interview on WCVB’s “On the Record” that he was watching to see what happens in Washington “with a high degree of intensity.”

“If this $1.9 trillion package gets passed, I think we’ll be able to be alright with having to doing anything more than reallocate our funds and maybe put some money back into the rainy day fund,” Mariano said.

The federal government has sent about $68 billion in aid to Massachusetts since the pandemic began, but much of it has flowed directly to businesses, families, non-profits and public entities like regional transit authorities. The Paycheck Protection Program, for instance, delivered $38 billion for businesses impacted by the pandemic, according to state data, while nearly $930 million went schools and $18.4 billion was earmarked for unemployment assistance benefits.

The state received about $7 billion in funds over which it had some discretion, including $2.5 billion through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, according the Executive Office of Administration and Finance,

Of the $2.5 billion in the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the Baker administration made $502 million available to municipalities and has distributed $324 million. Cities and towns are eligible to request funding based on their population size to cover allowed pandemic-related expenses.

Nearly $100 million went to 258 municipalities in the first round administered by the state in May and June, and another $224 million was awarded to 267 cities and towns in October.

The application window for the third round of funding closes on Feb. 26.

The state has also leveraged Coronavirus Relief Fund aid to launch a $668 million state-run small business recovery program that is underway, and the Executive Office of Administration and Finance said Massachusetts has received nearly $750 million for testing and tracing since the pandemic began and over $510 million for vaccine support, $450 million in federal rental assistance and over $375 million for personal protective equipment, food and other priorities.

Deficit Deepens for State’s Unemployment Fund

CNHINNews.com – A deficit in the fund that pays out unemployment benefits has ballooned amid a crush of pandemic-related claims, and employers could be saddled with the cost of replenishing it.

The Unemployment Trust Fund, which totaled $1.1 billion a year ago, had a deficit of nearly $2.4 billion as of Dec. 31, according to the latest figures from the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. That’s $27 million higher than previous estimates.

The deficit is projected to grow up to nearly $5 billion by the end of the year, according to the agency.

Greg Sullivan, a senior analyst with Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank, said businesses will be hit with the cost of digging the state out of the hole.

“Unless Congress and the state Legislature does something about it, and soon, that deficit is going to have to be made up by small businesses owners who are already struggling to survive,” Sullivan said. “It’s going to be like throwing an anchor to a drowning man.”

The state paid out more than $5.9 billion in jobless benefits last year, and expects to pay another $4.8 billion this year amid the pandemic’s ongoing economic fallout.

The Baker administration has borrowed more than $2.2 billion from the federal government to continue paying claims. And employers already face a hike in unemployment insurance taxes of up to 60% this year to help replenish the fund that covers claims.

Gov. Charlie Baker has filed legislation to freeze planned increases in the contributions that employers make to the fund. The measure would authorize the state to issue special obligation bonds to pay off federal borrowing needed to supplement the fund.

Baker says the move will ensure the state has access to additional federal funds to keep benefits flowing to eligible workers.

Concerns about the solvency of the unemployment fund comes as the state’s labor market shows early signs of recovery.

Massachusetts’ unemployment rate was 7.4% in November — down from 16.1% in July, according to the state labor department.

Meanwhile, new jobless claims have been slowly receding for several weeks.

At least 19,684 unemployment claims were filed in Massachusetts for the week that ended Feb. 6, a decline of 808 claims over the previous week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s weekly jobless claims report.

But hundreds of thousands of jobless workers are still collecting regular state unemployment benefits and federal pandemic-related benefits, and that’s expected to put increasing pressure on state leaders to act.

The Baker administration says it expects to continue to have borrow from the federal government to supplement the trust fund through 2024.

February 4, 2021

Baker Administration Pushes Businesses to Vaccinate Employees

Boston Business Journal – The Baker administration has stepped up efforts in recent weeks to find Massachusetts businesses willing and able to administer COVID-19 vaccines to their employees, holding online briefings for interested employers and reaching out to executives directly.

At the moment, only a small percentage of residents can receive a COVID -19 vaccine, including health care workers, first responders and those 75 and older. As a result, many employers have few if any workers who are currently eligible for vaccination.

But many area executives are keen on protecting their workforces against the virus. With a much greater swath of the state’s population set to become eligible for vaccinations in the coming months, administration officials have started to engage business leaders.

The officials have laid out two primary options for employers to vaccinate workers, according to documents obtained by the Business Journal: partnering with a pharmacy or health care provider to host an on-site clinic, or giving out the vaccines themselves.

The first option is the best choice for most employers, according to a guidance document offered to businesses by the administration. Businesses can partner with the health care providers that administer their flu vaccines every year. That way, they do not have to enroll in the state’s COVID -19 Vaccine Program as a provider.

Vaccine Resources for Massachusetts Employers

Employers wanting to learn more about becoming a site for vaccinating employees can review the following AIM Resources and these state documents:

Biden and Drug Makers Look to Speed Coronavirus Vaccine Deliveries

New York Times – WASHINGTON — As President Biden winds up his second week in office, a flurry of developments in vaccine production and distribution could mean a bigger boost to coronavirus vaccine supplies than was expected even just days ago.

Moderna, one of two developers of federally authorized coronavirus vaccines, is asking U.S. regulators to approve what it says could be a remarkably simple proposal to speed up the immunization of Americans against the coronavirus: Fill empty space in its vials with as many as 50 percent more doses.

Moderna currently produces about half of the nation’s vaccine stock. If the change is approved — which could happen in weeks — it could ultimately add tens of millions of more doses to vaccine supplies.

At the same time, the White House announced on Tuesday that it was enlisting more retail pharmacies as a channel to distribute vaccines. Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said the federal government would send a million doses to around 6,500 retail pharmacies on Feb. 11, the beginning of a federal program that eventually is expected to deliver vaccines directly to 40,000 pharmacies.

The White House announcements were clearly intended to show that Mr. Biden was making rapid strides on the vaccine front amid huge frustration in the country over tight supplies and a chaotic, cobbled-together system for administrating the available shots. But the developments also indicated that the government was gradually expanding the way people can get their immunizations and the number of shots available.

Biden Administration Will Ship COVID-19 Vaccines Directly To Pharmacies

NPR – The Biden administration has announced that it will begin shipping about 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses a week directly to thousands of pharmacies in an attempt to address equity concerns and speed up the country’s crucial inoculation effort.

The vaccines sent to pharmacies will be in addition to the millions of doses sent weekly to states, territories and tribes and that are sometimes administered at local pharmacies.

The program will begin on Feb. 11 on a limited basis, with vaccines sent to about 6,500 stores nationwide, Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, told reporters on Tuesday. He said that the effort would then scale up and that eventually up to 40,000 retail pharmacies, including Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid locations, would receive doses directly from the federal government.

Once the program starts, Zients said, those wishing to get vaccinated should follow their state’s current eligibility requirements and, if eligible, then check with their local pharmacy to see if there is vaccine availability.

Study: Only 16 Percent of Massachusetts High School Students Prefer Remote Learning

Boston 25 News – The majority of Massachusetts high school students surveyed prefer in-person learning to remote or hybrid learning models according to a study by the Barr Foundation and Gallup. The study found just 16 percent of the 1,000 students who participated in the telephone survey would rather learn from home.

“I wish I could go,” said 17-year-old Nia Alves of Brockton.

“I don’t have that privilege,” she explained.

The Barr Foundation-Gallup study findings are based on surveys conducted between November 18 and December 9, 2020 and was carried out in both English and Spanish.

There were large discrepancies discovered between learning arrangements for students surveyed based on household income level.

According to the study, 66 percent of students with a household income of $120,000 or more were in school districts where hybrid or full-time in-person instruction was being done, compared to just 31 percent who were full-time remote. Fifty-seven percent of students with household incomes of $60,000 or less were exclusively remote during the time frame studied.

“Sometimes they take it for granted,” said Alves of friends she has in other districts with in-person or hybrid learning models.

Fragmented Health System Plagues Vaccine Rollout

Boston Globe – The snake bitten COVID-19 vaccine launch, beset by supply shortages, unused doses, and vexing technical complexity, has brutally exposed the weaknesses in the fragmented US and Massachusetts health care delivery systems.

Global data show the United States badly trailing the United Kingdom, which has a more centralized health care system, in getting people immunized. Relying on its vaunted National Health Service, which provides care for virtually the entire nation, the UK had vaccinated 13.7 percent of its population by Monday, while just 7.8 percent of Americans had received shots, according to the University of Oxford.

The problems plaguing the US vaccination drive — decentralization, lack of coordination, and consumer confusion — are especially stark in Massachusetts, which ranks 34th nationally in per-capita vaccinations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday.

Other populous states with similarly dispersed health systems, such as California, Illinois, and Texas, are also mired in the bottom half of the CDC rankings. Many distributed much of their early allotments through big hospitals and long-term-care facilities, leaving no central player in control of the process.

Cities Find Themselves on the Front Line of Vaccine Rollout

Commonwealth Magazine – In all the finger-pointing over the state’s shaky COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the criticism may have been aimed at Charlie Baker, but in Revere, the phone calls went to Brian Arrigo.

Local government is where people often turn first for help, and Revere’s mayor said they have looked to him and city government throughout the pandemic. That was no different last week when the state website was launched on Wednesday to allow residents 75 and older to begin signing up for coronavirus vaccine appointments for Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination plan, which began this Monday.

Revere’s 311 constituent service hotline usually fields 150 to 180 calls per day. “That day we got 400,” said the 40-year-old mayor. “It was really clear that we had to not wait for people to be calling us. We had to flip that.”

That meant reaching out proactively to senior citizens to try to help them with the confusing vaccine sign-up process, where there are multiple options for where to get immunized and, for those able to navigate the portal, the effort was often leading to a frustrating dead-end with no appointments available anywhere nearby.

Vaccination Sites Reschedule Appointments after Winter Storm

WWLP – Monday’s storm forced the state’s mass vaccination sites to close down early.

Many of the sites opened up early on Monday to try and get more people in before the start of the storm, but they weren’t able to get to everyone, which has state leaders planning for a backlog of appointments.

Mass vaccination sites like the one at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, posts available appointment times each Thursday. Residents who are in Phase 1 and those 75 and older can sign up for a time to receive their vaccines.

People who had appointments scheduled on Monday afternoon into Tuesday morning were given the option to reschedule, and Governor Charlie Baker’s hoping to see sites work through the backlog in a timely manner.

“Most of these folks are going to try and reschedule people this week and it’s going to depend on, some extent, on how much they can get done today and how much they need to reschedule later on,” Baker said on Monday.

The governor said he doesn’t believe the storm will affect is the number of appointments that will be posted this Thursday, but he said DPH will be keeping a close eye on our vaccine data over the next few days.

Governor Releases New Details on Vaccination Process

NBC Boston – Gov. Charlie Baker released new details Wednesday on the COVID-19 vaccination rollout in Massachusetts.

He said more than 654,000 residents have already been vaccinated, and about 120,000 new appointments are expected to be made available this week. About 55,000 new appointments will go live on Thursday at the state’s mass vaccination sites alone.

Massachusetts Surpasses Half a Million COVID-19 Cases

WBUR – The state’s daily coronavirus report on Monday confirmed that Massachusetts has crossed a brutal barrier, surpassing 500,000 cases of the coronavirus. The news comes exactly one year after the first case in the state was announced.

Half a million cases of the virus in a state with fewer than than 7 million residents. And most of those cases came during the second surge, which entered with the fall season. On Sept. 22, the first day of fall, there were 126,869 confirmed cases in Massachusetts. Over the last four months, that number nearly quadrupled, with daily cases far exceeding the worst of the spring surge.

Compounding the second wave were the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays. While many people stayed home and did not travel for the holidays, others could not give up on the annual allure of coming together, which this year served as an opportunity for the virus to spread. Cases surged in communities in the weeks following the holidays. Some prisons also experienced outbreaks.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and other public leaders re-imposed some restrictions on businesses and gatherings ahead of the holidays, and again after Christmas, but the measures were less stringent than those taken during the spring, and not nearly as strong as some epidemiologists and other public health experts recommended.

Democrats Speed Ahead on Economic Aid Package

New York Times – WASHINGTON — Democrats are taking steps to push through President Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan, using a budgetary maneuver that could eventually allow the measure to become law without Republican support.

The move advanced the two-track strategy that Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders are employing to speed the aid package through Congress: show Republicans that they have the votes to pass an ambitious spending bill with only Democratic backing, but offer to negotiate some details in hopes of gaining Republican support.

“We are not going to dilute, dither or delay,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said on the Senate floor. “There’s nothing about the process itself that prevents bipartisanship.”

The party-line vote of 50 to 49 set the stage for Democrats to advance Mr. Biden’s plan through budget reconciliation, which would allow it to pass with a simple majority vote, bypassing the need for Republican support. (Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, was absent and did not vote because he was delayed by snow.)

The vote came the day after 10 Republican senators met at the White House with Mr. Biden seeking a smaller, $618 billion package they said could win bipartisan backing.

Mr. Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen met virtually with Senate Democrats at their lunch on Tuesday afternoon.

On the call, Mr. Biden “spoke about the need for Congress to respond boldly and quickly,” Mr. Schumer said afterward. “He was very strong in emphasizing the need for a big bold package. He said he told Senate Republicans that the $600 billion that they propose was way too small.”

While Mr. Biden said he told Republicans he was willing to make some modifications to his proposal, he and Ms. Yellen told the group that if the Senate embraced the Republican plan, “we’d be mired in the COVID crisis for years,” according to Mr. Schumer.

Senate Democrats could approve the budget resolution as soon as Friday. On Tuesday, a key Democratic senator announced he would support it: Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who is a crucial swing vote, said he would agree to move forward with the budget process “because we must address the urgency of the Covid-19 crisis.”

Women Edged out of Workforce Eye Promise of Biden Stimulus Package

Boston Globe – President Biden’s sweeping stimulus proposal, his most ambitious proposal to turn the country around, puts an extraordinary focus on getting women back to work, acknowledging the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on working mothers.

COVID-19 targeted the industries where women dominated — travel, leisure, hospitality, service. At the same time, it kept children home from schools and child-care centers, forcing parents — often mothers — to multitask.

By the end of 2020, 4.3 million fewer women were working than had been in February, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Nearly half of those women — 2.1 million — have given up looking for work, compared to about 1.7 million men.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan specifically aims to help women reenter the workforce by steering unprecedented resources to the child-care system. It also features a national vaccination program and a massive expansion of COVID testing for schools.

The expensive proposal’s odds are uncertain in a fractured Congress — Republicans have already put forward a much cheaper counterproposal — but it signals a paradigm shift long sought by advocates for women and early education.

“The president isn’t describing this as some individual problem,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “He’s understanding that it is key to the recovery, addressing this care crisis.”

The “invisible burden” of caregiving was made glaringly obvious by the conditions caused by the pandemic.

Pandemic’s Uneven Jobs Impact Creates Challenges

State House News – Lost jobs in the leisure and hospitality sectors are likely not coming back anytime soon and the job market may look particularly different after the state recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, a top official in the region’s workforce development industry said.

“Nothing came even close to the devastating job losses in leisure and hospitality, as travel was just simply shut down,” JVS President and CEO Jerry Rubin said at a virtual forum on Tuesday.

“Because of the uneven impact of the COVID recession across different industry sectors, the pain of this recession was not spread evenly. Here in Massachusetts, the leisure and hospitality sector is dominated by immigrants, women, and other workers of color.”

Christine Abrams, Commonwealth Corporation president and CEO, echoed Rubin’s comments adding that minority-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, and communities of color were hit the hardest during the pandemic-spurred recession.

Prior to the pandemic, Abrams said, one of the foremost concerns employers would describe to the quasi-public workforce development agency was the difficulty in finding enough talent. And that challenge still remains true today, she said.

“It will require focusing on priority occupations that are hiring and using real-time information to achieve success,” Abrams said. “The public sector must take a leadership role in convening organizations and businesses, and providing the support and training for unemployed and underemployed as there is no easy fix, and it will take all of us working together to achieve success.”

Industries that were decimated as a result of the pandemic were by and large made up of lower-income workers, SkillWorks Executive Director Andre Green said, and recovery strategies moving forward must center on women and communities of color.

“Racial inequities in the workforce here in Boston cost the Boston region $45 billion a year in lost GDP. I found that numbers that big are hard for people to wrap their head around. So that’s roughly the GDP of the entire state of Alaska,” Green said. “If we were to add that kind of money to our economy, everyone would be better off.”

Rubin said five industries are projected to grow during and after the pandemic: e-commerce, health care, online purchasing and related logistics, educational technology, and robotics, pharmaceutical, and on-shoring manufacturing.

For Rick Laferriere, director of workforce initiatives at CVS Health, Amazon is adding corporate and warehouse jobs and “absolutely crushing it right now.” The online retailer recently signed a lease for more office space in the Seaport District.

“Amazon is growing like crazy because we’re all sitting at home, ordering things online and having them delivered,” Laferriere said.

Laferriere said CVS Health has partnered with a number of large employers in the service and hospitality industry to bring in furloughed workers for temporary assignments. The goal, Laferriere said, was to help mitigate the effects on employees in the two sectors while filling positions within CVS.

The health care and retail company mobilized more than 34,000 pharmacists and 60,000 pharmacy technicians to help with testing and vaccination efforts, Laferriere said. CVS Health had to both add positions to assist immunization efforts and backfill positions in their brick-and-mortar stores.

“It’s really generated a need for talent for us, and talent that is really nimble, and flexible and creative to respond to the situation at hand,” Laferriere said. “And so for us to be able to survive and thrive during this, we had to work together with the public sector, work together with other private employers to seek talent.”

Immunizations have not traditionally been a part of a pharmacy technician’s job description and CVS Health has had to work with regulators to add the skill to their particular license, Laferriere said.

“I think that’s a critical piece that’s coming out of this pandemic and will allow us to react more quickly, more efficiently … should this arise again, hopefully, it won’t.”

Remote Work Growth Adds Dimension to Tax Debate

State House News – The combination of new remote working opportunities made popular during the COVID-19 pandemic and higher income taxes on wealthy residents could land like a one-two punch on the chin of the Massachusetts economy and state finances, the author of a new study said.

Greg Sullivan, the state’s former inspector general and the research director at the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, said the ongoing exodus of wealth from Massachusetts to low-tax states like Florida and New Hampshire could be amplified in coming years.

The popularity of new work arrangements that no longer tether workers, or their employers, to geographic location could make it easier for workers to seek housing or lifestyle changes elsewhere, he said.

The outcome of a proposed surtax on income over $1 million and a Supreme Court case in which New Hampshire is challenging Gov. Charlie Baker’s right to tax the income of workers living in New Hampshire, but working remotely for Massachusetts companies, could also become factors.

“My concern has to do with the competitiveness of the state,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan and the Pioneer Institute published a report this week that found between 1993 and 2018 a total of $20.7 billion in adjusted gross income left Massachusetts, with 46.5 percent of that wealth going to Florida and 26 percent to New Hampshire.

Both Florida and New Hampshire have no income taxes, and in Florida residents do not pay capital gains or estate taxes. The average taxpayer who left Massachusetts for Florida in 2018 earned $120,325, while those leaving for New Hampshire earned less, or about $64,992.

The state Legislature will decide, potentially by the spring, whether to put a question on the 2022 ballot that would impose a 4 percent surtax on all income above $1 million. The tax on wealthier residents has been pitched by proponents as a revenue generator for education and transportation, worth up to $2 billion a year.

But critics have long said it could prompt employers to steer clear of Massachusetts and wealthy residents to move out of state.

“I think that there’s no question that the post-COVID continued growth of work from home arrangements creates a real risk for a state like Massachusetts just because there are so many reasons why someone would want to move to New Hampshire,” Sullivan said.

“The proposed surtax could exacerbate that,” Sullivan said.

Gov. Baker has not taken a position on the surtax, but in his State of the Commonwealth address last week he talked about the importance of adapting smartly to “the future of work” after the COVID-19 pandemic is under control.

The wealth tax will need to be advanced again at a Constitutional Convention in the 2021-2022 session in order to go before voters on the statewide November ballot in 2022. While there was some turnover on Beacon Hill this session, the Legislature easily advanced the proposal 147-48 in June of 2019 and new Speaker Ron Mariano supported the measure two years ago, after initially voting against it.

Neither Rep. Jim O’Day nor Sen. Jason Lewis, the principal sponsors of the Constitutional amendment in both branches, could be reached for comment Tuesday to discuss if and how the pandemic has impacted their views on wealth taxes.

Sullivan said tax policy alone is not necessarily driving wealth out of the state. He also cited the high cost of living, density and weather as contributing factors.

While Florida has seen more than 70 percent its wealth migration into the state come from taxpayers earning $200,000 or more, Pioneer’s research found that less than 40 percent of taxpayers leaving Massachusetts fell in that same income bracket.

Immigration has also helped to offset population decline in Massachusetts, according the Pioneer report, but on average an immigrant moving to Massachusetts earned $36,809 in 2018 compared to an average adjusted gross income of $87,628 for taxpayers who left Massachusetts for other states.

After Florida and New Hampshire, the remaining 27 percent of the income leaving Massachusetts went to a mix of warm or lower cost-of-living states like California, Maine, North Carolina and Texas.

The greatest influx of wealth to Massachusetts over the same 15-year period came from New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois, according to Pioneer.

“The big picture takeaway is that Massachusetts and New England states, really, has been in pattern of losing large amounts of income to other states,” Sullivan said.

Baker Says Proposed Drug Overcharging Penalties Would Total $70 Million

Commonwealth Magazine – It’s Baker versus drug companies, take two.

Gov. Charlie Baker, in his fiscal 2022 budget proposal, is reviving a controversial plan to penalize drug companies for charging too much for their drugs. The budget estimates that $70 million in overcharging penalties would be collected in the fiscal year beginning July 1, with $47.5 million earmarked for a trust fund that supports community health centers and community hospitals and the rest going to the general fund.

Baker’s proposal addresses a long-standing problem: the high cost of pharmaceutical drugs. But pushing for it during a pandemic, over the strong objection of drug companies, may also be politically risky at a time when the world is looking to the pharma industry to vanquish COVID-19. The industry is pounding home that theme in its fight against the proposal.

“As the industry continues to focus on developing vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, we need policies that support America’s collaborative research ecosystem, not hinder it,” the pharmaceutical industry trade association PhRMA said in a statement.

“Gov. Baker’s shortsighted proposal could limit the availability of medicines to patients in the Commonwealth, and could have long-term harmful effects on innovation and the development of new, life-saving therapies.”

The proposal is identical to one Baker proposed in his health care reform bill in late 2019 and in his fiscal 2021 budget proposal. But legislators released their own versions of the health care bill, and as the focus shifted to COVID-19, Baker’s drug proposal was dropped.

February 2, 2021

Rep. Trahan to Headline Feb. 2 Commonwealth Conversation

AIM is pleased to welcome Rep. Lori Trahan, Congresswoman from the 3rd Massachusetts Congressional District, for the first Commonwealth Conversations virtual discussion of 2021.

The event will be an opportunity for AIM members to connect with a member of our federal delegation regarding efforts to restore and regrow the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the recent presidential transition and the convening of the 117th United States Congress, the congresswoman will discuss her priorities for 2021 as well as Congressional efforts towards economic recovery for the state and the nation.

Register

Republicans Pitch Biden on Smaller Stimulus Plan

New York Times – A coalition of 10 Republican senators took a stimulus counterproposal to the White House on Monday evening, urging President Biden to scale back his ambitions for a sweeping $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package in favor of a plan less than one-third the size that they argued could garner the bipartisan consensus the new president has said he is seeking.

After a two-hour meeting, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the leader of the Republican group, said the discussion had been excellent, though “I wouldn’t say that we came together on a package tonight.” She said Mr. Biden and the senators had agreed to continue their talks.

The discussions took place as Democrats prepared to push forward on Mr. Biden’s plan with or without Republican backing, and as the president faced a test of whether he would opt to pursue a scaled-back measure that could fulfill his pledge to foster broad compromise, or use his majority in Congress to reach for a more robust relief effort enacted over stiff Republican opposition.

Mr. Biden appeared eager to signal an openness to negotiating, telling Ms. Collins that he was “anxious” to hear what the senators had to say as they chatted in the Oval Office before the meeting began, and spending much of the evening behind closed doors in what both sides described as a cordial and productive session.

“All of us are concerned about struggling families, teetering small businesses, an overwhelmed health care system, getting vaccines out and into people’s arms, and strengthening our economy and addressing the public health crisis that we face,” Ms. Collins said.

Even so, despite all the talk of comity and common ground, the White House came back with its bottom line after all had gone home.

The GOP moderates’ proposal includes several elements of the Biden plan:

  • resources for vaccine distribution;
  • an extension of unemployment/food aid benefits;
  • direct payments to individuals (smaller and more targeted than Biden’s);
  • money for schools and childcare.

Unlike the Biden proposal, the GOP moderates’ plan has additional money for small business aid (PPP and EIDL), but it does not have money for state/local fiscal aid (its omission probably is meant to respect McConnell’s linkage of fiscal aid to liability relief).

Fenway Park and Reggie Lewis Center on the Front Lines against COVID-19

Boston Globe – Two Boston institutions — Fenway Park and the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center — are on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus as they are transformed into vaccination centers in the coming days, while the state launches the second phase of its vaccination effort and makes vital doses available to residents 75 and older.

The disease has killed 14,287 people in Massachusetts and caused nearly a half-million infectionsand the need to inoculate against it grows more urgent with the rise of dangerous variants of the virus. The sports arenas — one longtime home to dreams of glory, the other honoring the legacy of a basketball hero — will cradle hope that the tide will soon turn against COVID-19.

“It’s critical that we vaccinate as quickly, safely, and in as orderly fashion as possible,” said Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University. “Even setting the variants aside, the current version of COVID that we are dealing with is plenty devastating.”

On Sunday, the state reported 46 new deaths, and more than 2,500 additional infections. Nearly 72,000 active cases were reported, and 1,676 people were hospitalized for COVID-19.

Fenway Park, which had a soft opening Friday, opened as a state mass vaccination site at 8 a.m.

Officials made the call around 10 p.m. Sunday not to open the vaccination site at the Lewis Center Monday because of the approaching nor’easter, according to Caitlin McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Boston Public Health Commission. The storm is expected to dump perhaps a foot of snow on Boston, according to the National Weather Service.

Appointments scheduled for Monday will be rebooked for Monday, Feb. 8, McLaughlin said. Officials will contact those people to reschedule their visits.

Officials expect the Reggie Lewis Center to be open Tuesday, McLaughlin said Sunday night.

The center will operate as a smaller-scale site run by the City of Boston before it is taken over by the state and expanded later this month, according to Marty Martinez who leads health and human services for the city.

“It’s clear that we know COVID has an inequitable impact on communities of color,” Martinez said. “And we in the city have been laser-like focused on the fact that [it] has disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities.”

The state has had problems getting enough vaccine doses from the federal government. The Baker administration also faces criticism over the pace of distribution with the doses that have come in and the rollout of a state website that has frustrated thousands of people who have tried to schedule appointments for shots.

Meanwhile, state Senator Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, said in an e-mail Sunday that constituents continue to tell her the sign-up process is “persistently painful.”

One woman worked for four hours before she was able to get her parents signed up for vaccinations, which Rausch said was representative of the reaction she got.

“The volume of e-mails has decreased, but I do not believe that to be indicative of anything working better,” Rausch said.

The website, which is not a centralized registration system but a portal connecting people to other sign-up sites, carried a notice Sunday warning of delays.

“Due to high demand and severely limited vaccine supply, COVID-19 vaccination appointments may take several weeks to schedule,” the notice said. “More appointments will be available based on supply from the federal government.”

Massachusetts Vaccine Sites Searchable by Zip Code

CDC Data Shows Stark Disparities in Coronavirus Shots

Politico – Black and Hispanic people are getting vaccinated against coronavirus at much lower rates than white people, despite being disproportionately hit by the pandemic, according to preliminary CDC data.

Initial CDC data released Monday shows stark disparities among those inoculated, while highlighting severe gaps across communities.

The agency released demographic data from the first month of the country’s vaccination campaign. But race and ethnicity was only known for about half of the 12.9 million Americans receiving a vaccine between Dec. 14 and Jan. 14, underscoring the need for more complete data reporting, the agency wrote.

More than 60 percent of those vaccinated were white. More than 14 percent reported they were of multiple or other races or ethnicities; 11.5 percent were Hispanic; 6 percent were Asian; just over 5 percent were Black; and 2 percent were American Indian or Alaska Native.

“I’m worried about how behind we are,” said Marcella Nunez-Smith, the leader of the Biden administration’s Health Equity Task Force, at a Monday press conference. “We must address these insufficient data points as an urgent priority.”

Additionally, about 63 percent of those vaccinated were women and about 55 percent were age 50 or older.

A second CDC report out Monday confirmed anecdotal reports that coronavirus vaccination uptake is high among nursing home residents but low among staff.

Nearly 11,500 nursing homes had at least one vaccination clinic through a federal pharmacy partnership between Dec. 18 and Jan. 17. A median of nearly 78 percent of residents received the vaccine, while a median of only 37 percent of staff members per facility decided to get vaccinated.

President Joe Biden wants an equitable distribution of the coronavirus vaccine, but preliminary reports showcase just how much ground will need to be made up

Policy Agenda Pitched to Health Equity Panel

State House News – East Boston resident Jessenia Espinoza, a Spanish speaker, lost her job at a restaurant last year after the COVID-19 crisis struck and fell into debt, borrowing money to pay rent and buy essentials for herself and her child.

Sharing her story with members of the Legislature’s Health Equity Task Force during a public hearing Monday, Espinoza said she struggled to fill out forms for pandemic unemployment assistance when she could not get help in Spanish and missed out on three months of benefits.

“So, I felt pressured to find work,” Espinoza said, through an English translation provided by Rep. Adrian Madaro’s legislative aide Gloribel Rivas. “I went to a factory to ask if they were hiring in Chelsea. I spent a lot of time looking for work in factories in Chelsea, and that’s where I became sick with COVID-19. I have had to borrow money from third parties in order to survive so far.”

Espinoza and Madaro were among the more than 60 people scheduled to speak before the task force in a videoconference hearing Monday. The panel, created under a June 2020 data collection law aimed at addressing COVID-19 health disparities, plans another hearing Feb. 8 as it works toward producing its final report.

Some lawmakers who spoke during the hearing pitched the task force on bills they plan to file this session.

Madaro, an East Boston Democrat, said he represents “a vibrant immigrant community” and has seen many instances where language has been a barrier for families seeking relief during the pandemic, despite efforts the state has made to address the issues.

“If we want to encourage residents to stay home when they are sick, we should not make it this hard for them to get the resources they need for them to do so,” he said. “Language barriers in essential services to recovery make it so that immigrant communities bear a disproportionate burden of sickness and financial hardship during the pandemic.”

Madaro said he plans to “introduce legislation to mandate, standardize and enforce language access requirements for state-funded programs.” The bill, he said, would establish a language access advisory board and require state agencies to translate their websites and documents and provide oral interpretation services.

Rep. Marjorie Decker highlighted a bill she is filing with Sen. Sal DiDomenico that would increase cash assistance benefit levels for low-income families.

Like legislation the lawmakers filed last session, the bill will seek to boost cash assistance grants until reaching 50 percent of the federal poverty level, and Decker said this year’s bill will propose a faster timeline than the pre-pandemic version.

She said the $45.6 billion fiscal 2022 budget Gov. Charlie Baker proposed last week rolls back a 10 percent increase in Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children grant amounts that was included in this year’s budget.

Baker’s spending plan recommends funding the TAFDC line item at $254.6 million, with $83.4 million for EAEDC.

“I’m asking you to take a principled stand in this task force and say that when we are crafting budgets that we do no further harm,” said Decker, a Cambridge Democrat. “Removing cash from families who have the least is harmful.”

Worcester’s Restaurant Row Hoping for Light at the End of COVID Tunnel

Worcester Telegram – Before 2020, Shrewsbury Street’s Restaurant Row was usually a bustling part of town. Now, the streets have quieted and restaurants are doing their best to hold on in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pano Georgiadis, owner of Meze Estiatorio, a Greek restaurant on Restaurant Row, has felt the loss of traffic financially. In January Meze Estiatorio went on a winter hiatus that may last until at least March or April. Georgiadis said the restaurants on Shrewsbury Street are particularly ill-positioned to deal with a loss of sit-down eating.

“The style of Restaurant Row is being able to go out on a Friday night not sure of where to go, driving up and down, and you know there’s a handful of nice sit-down restaurants,” Georgiadis said, “If everything continues going the way that it goes, I don’t see how anyone can really survive.”

US Rep. Lynch Tests Positive for COVID Despite Receiving Vaccine

MassLive – U.S. Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, D-Boston., has tested positive for COVID-19, despite receiving two doses of the coronavirus vaccine.

Lynch, who received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine before attending President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, received his positive test result on Friday afternoon.

He was tested after a staff member was found to have the novel coronavirus.

A statement from the South Boson congressman’s office says Lynch isn’t displaying any symptoms of COVID-19. He will self-quarantine and vote by proxy in Congress in the coming week.

Lynch is not the first person to test positive for COVID despite receiving the vaccine.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ”it typically takes a few weeks for the body to build immunity (protection against the virus that causes COVID-19) after vaccination. That means it’s possible a person could be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 just before or just after vaccination and still get sick. This is because the vaccine has not had enough time to provide protection.”

Lynch is the second member of the Massachusetts delegation to test positive within a week.

U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Lowell, announced Thursday that she has tested positive for COVID-19.

School Districts Wrestle with Testing

Metro West Daily News – School districts face many questions when it comes to figuring out what makes the most sense for testing students and staff for COVID-19. What test is best? Is there enough money in the budget to pay for it?

Many districts are considering what’s called COVID-19 “pool” testing, now that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is offering a free, six-week pilot program.

Pool testing is batching samples for testing in a lab. It saves money because “pooling” the samples together is cheaper than testing each sample individually. However, if a batch returns a positive result, then each sample must be tested individually, driving up costs.

Supporters say it’s one way to keep close tabs on COVID-19 infection numbers, contain spread and help keep communities safe.

Some say a better option is an antigen rapid test, because results come back faster. Those infected can quarantine immediately, lowering the risk of spreading the virus.

The Northborough-Southborough Regional School District is committed to pool-testing, but it’s not going with the state’s pilot program. Instead, the district has contracted JCM Analytics in Durham, North Carolina, to test samples that participants take themselves in the comfort of their homes.

January 28, 2021

Rep. Trahan to Headline Feb. 2 Commonwealth Conversation

AIM is pleased to welcome Rep. Lori Trahan, Congresswoman from the 3rd Massachusetts Congressional District, for the first Commonwealth Conversations virtual discussion of 2021.

The event will be an opportunity for AIM members to connect with a member of our federal delegation regarding efforts to restore and regrow the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the recent presidential transition and the convening of the 117th United States Congress, the congresswoman will discuss her priorities for 2021 as well as Congressional efforts towards economic recovery for the state and the nation.

Register

Baker Proposes Spending Cut in Pandemic Recovery Budget

State House News – Eyeing the state’s post-pandemic future, Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday proposed a $45.6 billion state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 that he said would make key investments and support the ongoing public health response to COVID-19, but would actually cut total state spending.

The proposed fiscal year 2022 budget does not include any tax increases on residents and would trim state spending by about $300 million or 0.7 percent while state tax revenue is expected to rise 3.5 percent over the current budget year.

“The budget fully funds the first year of the landmark Student Opportunity Act, provides substantial resources to promote economic growth and development as we work to recover, and helps ensure that public health during a pandemic continues to be there for us, all without raising taxes,” Baker said. “We don’t believe raising taxes on the residents of the commonwealth, especially in the midst of all that’s going on, is the right thing to do.”

The budget bill is built on a base of $30.12 billion in state revenue (roughly 3.5 percent growth over fiscal 2021), supplemented by an estimated $12.47 billion in federal revenue (down from $13.77 billion estimated for the current budget year), revenue generated by state departments and agencies, fees and other sources.

As Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito had previously announced, the fiscal 2022 spending plan (H 1) recommends increasing the state’s $1.13 billion general local aid account by $39.5 million and seeks to fully fund the 2019 school finance reform law that aims to steer $1.5 billion to K-12 schools over seven years.

The proposed reduction in overall state spending is due largely to slower-than-expected growth in MassHealth enrollment, officials at the Executive Office of Administration and Finance said. The administration had been expecting MassHealth enrollment to grow by about 1.5 percent each month during the pandemic, but it has actually come in at just under 1 percent growth per month.

Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan said Wednesday that he is not concerned that the rating agencies might frown upon the state’s use of its rainy day fund this time around given how different the overall economic picture is.

“It is still raining, COVID is still very much here, the response is still very much here. We want to get kids back in school, we have over 300,000 people on unemployment. This is a time when the state is needed the most. And so we’re budgeting, as I said, from a response to recovery to make sure that we have the right resources in the right place at the right time,” he said. Heffernan added, “I think this is exactly what the stabilization fund is made for.”

Boston to Move into Phase 3 of Re-Opening

Boston Globe – Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Tuesday that Boston on Feb. 1 will move into Phase 3, Step 1, of the reopening process amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with his health and human services chief citing “some improvement” in new case numbers and hospitalizations.

Walsh, speaking during a City Hall press conference, said the list of businesses and industries permitted to reopen Feb. 1 includes indoor fitness centers and health clubs as well as gyms that use alternative spaces; movie theaters; aquariums; museums; indoor recreational athletic facilities; indoor recreational venues with the potential for low-contact use such as batting cages, driving ranges, bowling alleys, and rock climbing facilities; sightseeing and other organized tours such as duck boat tours, bus tours, and harbor cruises; whale watches; and indoor historical spaces and sites.

The following can open with 25 percent capacity. It’s a start as the city sees better coronavirus metrics:

  • Indoor fitness centers and health clubs, including gyms using alternative spaces
  • Movie theaters
  • Museums
  • Aquariums
  • Indoor recreational and athletic facilities
  • Indoor recreational venues with potential for low-contact (batting cages, driving ranges, bowling alleys, rock-climbing)
  • Sightseeing and other organized tours (bus tours, duck tours, harbor cruises, whale watching)
  • Indoor historical spaces and sites
  • Indoor event spaces such as meeting rooms, ballrooms, private party rooms and social clubs (limited to 10 people)
  • Indoor and outdoor gaming arcades associated with gaming devices

AIM Marketplace Adds Listings for COVID-19 Testing

Companies offering COVID-19 testing have been added to the AIM Marketplace page listing member companies that provide pandemic-related products and services. More than two dozen Massachusetts companies have stepped forward to say they can meet the need of fellow employers for protective gear, cleaning services and hand sanitizer.

VISIT THE PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT/RE-OPENING SERVICES PAGE
Add My Company to the Protective Equipment/Re-Opening Services Page

State Shares Details for Employers on Vaccine Distribution

AIM on Friday learned details from the state about the next steps for vaccine distribution, the role of the employer community and the designation of “critical workers” by the state Vaccine Task Force.  The information begins to answer questions that AIM members have been asking about where their employees fall in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. The volume and availability of the vaccine remains a key factor in the timing for distribution.
Learn More

  • How to get a vaccine: (Visit gov/COVIDvaccine to find your phase and priority group; If you are eligible: use mass.gov/COVIDVaccineMap to find a vaccine clinic near you; Make an appointment online and fill out the attestation form)
  • Vaccine sites – 103 vaccine sites by end of week that can ramp up 240,000 shots per week. Ramping up in coming weeks with more sites to increase to 305,000 vaccines by mid February.

Biden Administration Orders Additional 200 million Doses of Covid-19 Vaccine

CNBC – The Biden administration is working to purchase an additional 200 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, a move that could provide enough doses for nearly every American to get fully inoculated by the end of the summer, President Joe Biden said Tuesday.

The government is seeking 100 million doses from Pfizer and 100 million from Moderna, an order that would be made available over the summer. This is in addition to the 400 million combined doses the companies had already committed to providing to the U.S., Biden said. He said he expects to be able to confirm the purchase soon.

“It will be enough to fully vaccinate 300 million Americans to beat the pandemic,” Biden said.

The agreement will lessen the country’s reliance on getting additional vaccines on the market from other manufacturers. The Trump administration had passed up on purchasing more vaccine doses from Pfizer and Moderna and was instead relying on additional vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca coming to market. Johnson & Johnson said it will release data for its single-dose vaccine in the coming days.

“We can’t speak to the Trump administration, but what we can say is it is our philosophy, given the nature of this emergency and the speed with which the virus needs to be addressed, to procure enough supply as we need to vaccinate Americans and to give Americans the confidence we can do that,” a senior administration official said.

In the near term, the supply of vaccines being shipped to states is set to increase by about 20 percent to 10 million doses per week for the next three weeks, the official said. The federal government will also begin letting states know how many doses they will be receiving at least three weeks in advance — addressing complaints by governors that they aren’t able to plan and schedule appointments.

The Biden administration has begun using the Defense Production Act to buy more of a specialty syringe that can extract more doses per vaccine vial and plans to use the war-time law for other raw materials, like lipid nanoparticles and bioreactor bags, if necessary, the official said.

But the supply chain for those relatively rare materials is already “somewhat fragile” and there is a risk of disrupting production of other healthcare products, the official said. The U.S. is also having to compete with other countries for the same scarce resources.

The official said the administration isn’t holding back doses aside from a small emergency reserve, but states have been holding back the doses they receive at different levels to ensure there is enough available for people to receive their second dose.

State and local officials have been complaining in recent weeks that while they have the ability to give more vaccinations and there is high demand from the public, they lack the supply of vaccines.

As of Jan. 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 23.5 million doses were administered and more than 3.4 million were people fully vaccinated. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on MSNBC Tuesday that the city has the capacity to administer 500,000 doses a week but hasn’t been able to because it is waiting on more vaccines from the federal government.

Companies May Now Use PPP Loans for COVID-Related Renovations, Upgrades

Boston Business Journal – Small-business owners facing mounting costs from operating throughout a global pandemic can tap their Paycheck Protection Program loans to pay for a host of COVID-19-related renovations, upgrades and costs.

The change in the forgivable loan program came as part of the stimulus bill signed into law in December and added a host of expenses that small businesses can use their loan proceeds for and still get full forgiveness. Under the first round of PPP loans, which ran from April 3 to Aug. 8, personal protective equipment and other COVID-19 costs were not covered.

“The ability to spend PPP funds on PPE is an obvious ‘win-win’ because it encourages a small business to do the right thing by purchasing the PPE despite the added expense to their small business — which, in turn, helps to protect both their employees and the general public,” said Tenley Carp, a partner at law firm Arnall Golden Gregory LLP and a PPP expert. “I’m guessing that PPE was not an authorized use for PPP funds in the first round is because no one on Capital Hill had ever heard of the term ‘PPE’ in March of 2020 when legislators were drafting the first Covid-19 relief bills. It’s hard to believe how fast PPE has become a commonly recognized term.”

Baker: State Must ‘Lean Into’ Post-Pandemic Business Changes

Boston Business Journal – Massachusetts remains in a strong position despite the pandemic, Gov. Charlie Baker said in his State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday night, while he acknowledged that offices and business districts that look much different than they did before Covid-19.

Like so much else this past year, the governor’s annual speech looked a lot different. He spoke by himself, from his office, rather than before a crowd of lawmakers in the State House — yet another change forced by a virus that has killed nearly 14,000 Massachusetts residents and disrupted businesses, schools and nearly everyone’s lives.

Still, the second-term governor stuck with the traditional line that the “state of our Commonwealth is strong,” pointing to the resilience and creativity displayed by its residents during the crisis.

Baker addressed the economic damage wrought by Covid-19, saying the state economy had been “humming” in February before “COVID hammered it.”

Fauci Discusses COVID Mutations in Radio Interview

WBUR – “Thankfully, it is now beginning to plateau and the cases are starting to come down a bit, but they’re still in a zone that’s very troublesome. I mean, where you’re having a couple of hundred thousand or between one and two hundred thousand new cases a day, which will always lead to hospitalizations and deaths.

“So, in that respect, that’s some reasonably good news. But the thing that counters it that is more sobering is that we’re now have to deal with mutants, some of which are already in the country. The U.K. has a mutant that looks like it transmits more efficiently. Therefore, more people would get infected.

“And recently they’ve come out saying that it is even a bit more deadly in the sense of a greater degree of virulence, which means it can harm you, make you sick or even kill you. We have 22 states in the United States that already have this mutant, and it likely will become dominant in some respects over the next couple of months …”

Slow Start to Vaccine Rollout in Massachusetts Frustrates Local Leaders

NBC Boston – The development of several vaccines for COVID-19 brought hope that the pandemic could be under control sooner. But fewer people are getting inoculated and there is no national plan to distribute the vaccine.

Massachusetts has fallen behind every other New England state in vaccinations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone says a short supply is making it harder.

“The new CDC director, who we’re all familiar with in the region, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, stated yesterday they’re not sure how much supply they have, and that’s something we should be concerned about,” Curtatone said.

The federal government supplies the states with doses, and the state passes them on to cities and towns.

“We’ve worked to create local access as needed and will continue to do that in partnership with the state to ensure that we can meet people where they are at,” said Marty Martinez, the chief of Health and Human Services in Boston.

That means taking the vaccine to those in gravest danger.

“If our most vulnerable in our communities, like someone who is a senior citizen, who doesn’t have a laptop, who can’t make an appointment or drive to Gillette Stadium or Fenway Park in February when that’s open,” Curtatone said. “We can do better than that.”

Fed Holds Policy Steady as Economy Stumbles

Wall Street Journal – The Federal Reserve acknowledged the economy has softened in recent weeks but kept policy on hold while it watches the effects of a COVID-19 vaccine rollout on business activity and hiring.

The Fed has set short-term interest rates near zero, launched a bond-purchase program of $120 billion a month, and said it would keep stimulative measures in place until its goals of lower unemployment and 2 percent inflation are achieved.

Last month marked a setback, because the virus resurged and many states in response resumed business shutdowns. Employment and retail sales fell in December and the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits has been rising since November.

The Fed said as much in a policy statement released after a two-day meeting, saying, “The pace of the recovery in economic activity and employment has moderated in recent months, with weakness concentrated in the sectors most adversely affected by the pandemic.”

However, Fed officials have said they believe the setback is temporary.

They think the economy will bounce back later this year as vaccines are more widely distributed and begin to bring the deadly coronavirus pandemic under control. That, in their estimation, would allow restaurants, hotels, airlines and other businesses to begin moving back toward operating at full capacity.

For now, the slow rollout of the vaccine has left Fed officials cautious about the outlook for the next few months. “We think it’s going to be a struggle,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said in a press conference after the meeting. “The pandemic still provides considerable downside risks to the economy.”

Moreover, rebuilding the economy fully, after the permanent loss of many businesses and jobs, will take additional time, officials have said.

“There are people out there who have lost their jobs,” Mr. Powell said. “It is essential that we get them back to work as quickly as possible.”

Even talking about pulling back from easy money policies now would be premature, he said.

Congress and the White House in December approved $900 billion in new spending measures to address the pandemic and its economic effects, including sending $600 checks to many Americans. The money could pad household savings and lead to additional consumer spending.

The Biden administration has proposed $1.9 trillion in additional measures, including sending $1,400 checks to many households.

Fed officials are effectively waiting and watching to see the effects of these measures and whether their projections for the economy prove correct.

The Fed estimates U.S. economic output will grow 4.2% in 2021 and the unemployment rate will drop to 5% by year’s end from 6.7% in December. It sees the jobless rate falling further to 4.2% by the end of 2022.

“The Federal Reserve is committed to using its full range of tools to support the U.S. economy in this challenging time, thereby promoting its maximum employment and price stability goals,” it said in its policy statement.

Baystate Medical Center Nurse Practitioner Highlighted in Governor’s Address

MassLive – In his annual address to Massachusetts’ more than six million residents delivered Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker thanked the thousands of health care workers, police and firefighters and other essential employees who have banded together during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his remarks, he highlighted the inspiring story of a Western Massachusetts health care worker.

“A young woman from Western Mass. who refused to quit completed her ten-year journey from custodian to nurse practitioner at Baystate Medical Center – in the middle of a pandemic – so she could do more to take care of the sick,” Baker said Tuesday evening.

She joined the custodial staff of Baystate Health a decade earlier “just to get my foot in the door, to see what the nurses did and what it was like in the hospital,” she told The Republican.

“I was able to interact with the nurses, and I would see patients coming and going from the operating room,” Andrades said, thinking back. “It was my first time seeing what it really is to be a nurse, and it piqued my interest. I was excited to learn more.”

State Launches Free COVID Testing for Child-Care Providers

CBS Boston –  Starting next week, free COVID testing will be available for child care providers in Massachusetts.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced that the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) is launching the pilot program for providers, staff and families.

Eight rotating drive-thru sites will offer PCR testing in Athol, Braintree, Billerica, Dalton, Franklin, Plymouth, Sturbridge, and Westfield.

The testing will be available for child care employees and children enrolled in the programs. Family members who have COVID-19 symptoms, have had close contact or possible exposure will also be eligible.

In addition, EEC is also dedicating $8 million in state and federal funding to set up a personal protective equipment website for providers to order supplies at no cost.

Facilities can order one month’s supply, including gloves, masks, bleach, spray bottles, hand sanitizer and wipes.

January 26, 2021

Baker Administration Announces Expansion of Vaccination Sites, Updates to Phase Two

The Baker Administration on Monday announced an expansion of COVID-19 vaccination sites in all parts of the commonwealth, including new mass vaccination sites, pharmacy locations and local sites. The administration expects there will be 165 vaccination sites in the commonwealth by mid-February.

The administration also announced updates to plans for Phase Two of the commonwealth’s distribution plan. Individuals 75 years or older will now be the priority group in Phase Two. Individuals 65 years and older and individuals with two co-morbidities have been moved into the second priority group. Individuals age 75 or older can be vaccinated as of February 1.

As of this week, Massachusetts plans to have 103 publicly available vaccination sites. Those sites and other vaccination clinic sites (e.g. congregate care, health systems) give the commonwealth the capacity to administer 242,000 doses of vaccine per week. This capacity is significantly more than the 173,175 first and second doses that the commonwealth expects to receive from the federal government this week.

By mid-February, the commonwealth will have capacity to administer 305,000 vaccinations per week. This capacity is significantly more than the 189,640 doses that the commonwealth expects to receive from the federal government that week.

It is important to note that the state’s capacity to vaccinate is not the same as the number of shots administered. Vaccine capacity is determined by the state’s plan to establish sites, staff and logistics in place to do 305,000 doses by mid-February. But, the actual number of vaccinations administered to residents depends on several variables, including the availability of doses from the federal government.

The Administration also announced new mass vaccinations sites in Springfield, Danvers and Boston:

The Springfield site at Eastfield Mall will open on January 29.

The Danvers sites at the Double Tree Hilton Hotel will open on February 3.

In collaboration with the City of Boston, a site at the Reggie Lewis Center will open the first week of February.

These are in addition to sites already announced at Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park. By mid-February, the commonwealth’s mass vaccination sites will have the capacity to vaccinate 76,000 people each week.

The Administration expects to open at least seven mass vaccination sites as vaccine distribution continues. These mass vaccination sites have the ability to significantly and rapidly scale up operations if vaccine supply from the federal government increases.

In addition to the mass vaccination sites, the administration is establishing public vaccination sites at pharmacies, community clinics, and other providers and organizations that have experience administering vaccines efficiently and safely. This week, 44 new public vaccination sites will open. These include new pharmacy and retail locations such as Big Y, Wegmans, Price Chopper, Retail Business Services at Hannaford and Stop and Shop Pharmacies, and CVS Health.

While many sites across the Commonwealth are open to all eligible individuals, some sites will be operated by local communities specifically for the residents in their community or the residents in their region. This week, 11 new restricted vaccination sites will open.

Later this month, individuals age 65 or older and individuals with two or more comorbidities will be eligible to get the vaccine. The exact date will depend on the vaccine supply from the federal government and the uptake and demand for vaccine appointments.

Along with the addition of individuals age 65 and older into part 2 of Phase Two, the commonwealth updated the listing to no longer specifically list Public and Private low income and affordable senior housing as its own category, as all individuals over the age of 65 will be eligible to receive vaccine by part 2 of Phase Two regardless of where they live.

The order of Phase Two will now be:

  • Individuals 75+
  • Individuals 65+ or with 2+ comorbidities
  • Early education and K-12 workers, transit, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works, and public health workers, and
  • Individuals with one comorbidity.

All Phase One eligible priority groups are now eligible for vaccinations, which includes all health care workers, residents and staff of long term care facilities, and congregate care facilities, home health care workers and non-COVID-facing health care workers and first responders.

The Administration will announce further updates on timing for other priority groups as the Commonwealth gets more information on vaccine shipments from the federal government. To learn more about the eligible groups, visit mass.gov/COVIDvaccine.

Individuals with questions about how to get a vaccine should follow these steps:

  • Visit mass.gov/COVIDvaccine to find your phase and priority group
  • If you are eligible: use mass.gov/COVIDVaccineMap to find a vaccine clinic near you
  • Make an appointment online and fill out the attestation form

Here for the 30 Second Vaccine Update

Click here for AIM’s recent COVID rule changes

Click here for key updates on AIM’s COVID-19 Resource Page 

Senate President Outlines Legislative Priorities for ‘New Normal’

Boston Herald – Expanded access to coronavirus vaccines tops the agenda for the new legislative session, but Senate President Karen Spilka is laying out an expansive list of priorities for forging a “new normal” as the world and Massachusetts emerge from the pandemic.

“Are people going to continue working from home and remotely? What is commuting going to look like? How will that impact our roads and bridges and public transportation system? Our childcare — I have been fighting for more childcare — how is this going to change?” Spilka said during an appearance on WCVB’s “On the Record” on Sunday.

While COVID-19 and the resulting economic recession are still “front and center,” Spilka said she intends to “get experts together” to find answers to these questions that will shape life after coronavirus in the commonwealth.

“We need to look at going forward through a new lens, we can’t go back and should not go back to the old normal — whatever that is — for any situation. This is an opportunity to reimagine our future, to look at what do we want for a new normal,” the Ashland Democrat said.

Emergency paid leave is another immediate priority for Spilka, who said it is crucial for “low-income residents, women, people of color, Latinas that … do not have it and are severely impacted by COVID-19.”

Spilka reiterated that she was “disappointed” by Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto last week of a wide-ranging climate bill passed late last session that would have required the state to become carbon neutral by 2050 and would have set some of the strictest benchmarks in the nation.

Democratic lawmakers refiled the bill last week, setting the stage for an early session showdown with the governor as both chambers are likely to garner the numbers needed to override another Baker veto.

“We intend to get this done very quickly and expeditiously,” Spilka said.

Biden Executive Order Seeks to Boost Manufacturing 

President Joe Biden signed an executive order Monday aimed at boosting American manufacturing, setting in motion a process to fulfill his campaign pledge to strengthen the federal government’s Buy American rules.

Similar executive orders signed by former President Donald Trump had little effect because his administration waited to formalize changes until his second to last day in office. By contrast, Biden has set a 180-day deadline to deliver on fundamental change to the process, according to an administration official.

The order is part of the “Made in America” plan Biden campaigned on, which he said will create at least 5 million new manufacturing jobs. If realized, that would boost manufacturing jobs to around 17 million, a level not seen in the United States since the early 2000s.

It’s the latest in a spate of executive actions the president has taken since his inauguration Wednesday. Other orders include:

Worker safety: Biden on Thursday directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue stronger guidance on how to protect employees from COVID-19 in the workplace and, along with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, to consider whether it’s necessary to establish a national emergency temporary standard for all businesses to follow. If the agency determines that such a standard is essential, it must issue one by March 15.

Unemployment insurance: Biden on Friday asked the Labor Department to clarify workers’ right to “refuse employment that will jeopardize their health” amid the pandemic and still qualify for unemployment insurance.

Business Groups Press Legislature to Stop State Income Tax on Federal Stimulus Aid

Boston Globe – Add this to the to-do list that business groups want the Massachusetts Legislature to tackle ASAP: a tweak to state law that could protect thousands of small-business owners from getting hit with a tax for accepting federal stimulus funds.

The issue involves the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided more than $14 billion in loans to nearly 120,000 small businesses in Massachusetts last year to help them through the COVID-19 pandemic. Recipients can have some or all of those loans forgiven, essentially turning them into grants, if they meet certain criteria. Those grants wouldn’t be subject to federal taxes.

It’s a different story for state taxes. Without a change in law, small businesses whose income passes through to individual owners — and are taxed at their personal income rate instead of the corporate rate — still will face a state tax on those PPP grants. That’s because of a mismatch in how the state tax code lines up with the federal one. For general corporate income, state tax rules automatically keep pace with federal changes. But state law needs to be tweaked to align it with shifts in federal personal income tax rules.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce estimates that at least a third of the state’s PPP recipients, or nearly 40,000 businesses, are structured in a way that could subject them to state income taxes on forgiven PPP loan funds. The chamber sent a letter to state lawmakers on Thursday, urging quick passage of a bill filed by Senator Eric Lesser that would prevent these funds from being treated as taxable income for so-called pass-through entities.

“When you’re struggling to just stay in business and stay open, removing that uncertainty would be helpful,” said Jim Rooney, chief executive of the chamber. “It’s the right and fair thing to do.”

The “fix” had been included in the Senate version of a wide-ranging economic development bill. But it did not survive House-Senate negotiations before the bill was sent to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk earlier this month, in the final moments of the previous two-year legislative session. Lesser, the lead negotiator for the Senate on that bill, thought it was important to quickly revive the issue in the new two-year session.

“I do hope it’s accelerated,” Lesser said. “Frankly it has to be, given that tax season is already upon us. … This tax treatment would put our small businesses at a significant disadvantage and … hold back our recovery from the COVID-19 recession.”

Lesser filed it as a stand-alone bill. But the Massachusetts Society of CPAs also suggested another route in a letter to legislative leaders last week: attaching it to a broader bill aimed at curbing an upcoming increase in unemployment insurance rates. This unemployment rate relief measure, filed by Baker, is seen as “fast-moving legislation,” in MSCPA president Amy Pitter’s words, because it is expected to pass within the next several weeks, before the next round of bills go out. In an e-mail, Pitter said she knows similar legislation is being considered in at least six states, and as many as 19 may need it to bring their tax codes into conformity with federal law.

Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said the issue came up on a conference call that Mike Kennealy, Baker’s economic development secretary, held with various business groups on Friday. “He understood the urgency,” Luz said.

The National Federation of Independent Business also sent a letter on Wednesday to all state lawmakers, asking for this relief, and the Associated of Industries of Massachusetts is in the process of writing a similar request.

“It’s certainly going to be a surprise to a lot of small businesses [if it isn’t fixed],” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “It sends the wrong message that these struggling small businesses are getting help from the feds and the state is taking advantage of that with tax dollars.”

Supreme Court Asks Solicitor General Input in Remote Worker Tax Suit

Taxnotes.com – The U.S. Supreme Court has asked the U.S. Solicitor General to chime in on New Hampshire’s challenge to Massachusetts’s taxation of nonresident remote workers.

In a January 25 order, the Court invited the acting solicitor general to file a brief expressing the views of the United States regarding New Hampshire’s motion for leave to file a bill of complaint in New Hampshire v. Massachusetts.

New Hampshire urged the Court to exercise its original jurisdiction and weigh in after Massachusetts issued a final regulation clarifying that nonresidents who worked in the state but are now working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue paying the Massachusetts income tax. New Hampshire asked the Court to preliminarily and permanently enjoin Massachusetts from enforcing the regulation and require Massachusetts to refund the payments it collected from nonresidents under the regulation, along with interest.

Baker Will Propose Implementing COVID-Delayed School Funding Formula

Commonwealth Magazine – Governor Charlie Baker will propose fully funding the first year of the recently updated school funding formula when he releases his fiscal 2022 budget proposal next week – a commitment that was delayed by a year due to COVID-19.

Baker made the announcement on Friday at the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s annual meeting, which was conducted virtually due to COVID-19.

Baker did not go into details other than to say the administration will “keep our commitment to local school districts by fully funding the first year of the Student Opportunity Act.”

The governor did not give an exact dollar figure for how much additional money he will put into education aid. But based on past estimates, it will likely be more than $300 million.

The Legislature passed and Baker signed the Student Opportunity Act in November 2019. The law rewrites the state’s Chapter 70 education funding formula to put more money into low-income districts, schools with English-language learners, special education costs, and employee health benefits. By the time it is fully funded, Massachusetts will be spending an additional $1.5 billion annually on education.

When he introduced his fiscal 2021 budget proposal in January 2020, Baker proposed allocating $303.8 million in new Chapter 70 state education aid to fully fund the first year of the seven-year implementation of the new formula. (Some advocates said the number should have been even higher, at $377 million.)

But after COVID-19 hit, causing a major recession and threatening to limit available state resources, Baker said in July that the state planned to defer implementing the new law and level fund education aid. In the final fiscal 2021 budget that lawmakers sent Baker in December, Chapter 70 aid increased by $108 million, just enough to cover inflation under the old formula.

Biden Plan to Re-Open Schools ‘Promising,’ but Timeline is ‘Very Unlikely’

Boston Herald – President Biden’s push to increase coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment in schools is bringing new hope to pandemic-weary Massachusetts educators, but some teachers and advocates say his pledge to reopen the majority of K-8 schools in less than 100 days is ‘very unlikely’ to succeed.

Rep. Trahan to Headline Feb. 2 Commonwealth Conversation

AIM is pleased to welcome Rep. Lori Trahan, Congresswoman from the 3rd Massachusetts Congressional District, for the first Commonwealth Conversations virtual discussion of 2021.

The event will be an opportunity for AIM members to connect with a member of our federal delegation regarding efforts to restore and regrow the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the recent presidential transition and the convening of the 117th United States Congress, the congresswoman will discuss her priorities for 2021 as well as Congressional efforts towards economic recovery for the state and the nation.

RegisterJanuary 21, 2021

Vaccination Programs in Massachusetts Expand

The Baker Administration announced the expansion of vaccine locations in each region of the commonwealth at pharmacies, health-care providers and a second mass vaccination site to boost the capacity to administer vaccines by the thousands per week. The commonwealth will continue to add vaccination sites. Information on available sites will be available on a rolling basis here.

Massachusetts will become one of the first states in the nation to launch the COVID-19 CDC Pharmacy Partnership – Phase 1 with CVS Health and Walgreens pharmacies located throughout the commonwealth. Starting this week, this program will deliver 10,000 doses to at least 15 CVS Health and Walgreens pharmacies a week for eligible residents in the Phase One priority groups.

Fenway Park will become the state’s second mass vaccination site, joining Gillette Stadium. The ballpark will open on February 1 to start administering up to 500 vaccines per day to eligible residents in the Phase One priority groups.

UMass Amherst will expand its vaccination site to provide inoculations for eligible residents in Phase One priority groups. UMass Amherst has been providing vaccines to first responders and plans to now offer vaccines to all eligible residents in Phase One priority groups immediately.

The administration is also launching the Hospital Depot Initiative. This new program will facilitate access to COVID-19 vaccine for independent physician practices prioritized under Phase 1.

Current eligible groups under Phase 1 include: Clinical and non-clinical health care workers doing direct and COVID-facing care; Long-term care facilities, rest homes and assisted living facilities; first responders (EMS, Fire, Police); and congregate care settings (including corrections and shelters).

CDC Pharmacy Partnership – Phase 1

Massachusetts will be among the first states to activate retail pharmacy vaccination at scale through select CVS Health and Walgreens, which will start inoculating eligible residents in Phase One priority groups by appointment.

Starting this week, at least 15 CVS Health and Walgreens, located in areas of the state where there is currently less access to convenient vaccine sites, will receive a total of 10,000 vaccines to administer. The first 15 locations are located in Greenfield, Fall River, Salem, South Yarmouth, Pittsfield, Lee, Holden, Gardner, Hyannis, Mashpee, Somerset, Fairhaven, Haverhill, Saugus and Danvers. Eligible residents in Phase One priority groups can view sites and book an appointment today by clicking here.

Approximately 40 vaccination sites will be added the week of 1/25 through current partners and collaboration with additional partners (Wegmans, Big Y, Price Chopper, Stop & Shop, Hannaford). Massachusetts expects to increase vaccine volume through retail pharmacies in the coming weeks. The Command Center will provide more details as pharmacy partners and sites come online.

Fenway Park Named as Second Mass Vaccination Site

Fenway Park will be the state’s second mass vaccination site and will open on February 1.  Initially, the ballpark is scheduled to administer 500 vaccines per day by appointment and will ramp up to providing 1,000 vaccines per day soon to eligible residents in Phase One priority groups. CIC Health will operate the site, with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, part of Beth Israel Lahey Health, as the medical director.

The site is expected to stay open through the beginning of baseball season in early April. The Command Center is also working with the City of Boston to identify and set up a longer-term vaccine site in Boston.

Last week, the administration announced Gillette Stadium as the first mass vaccination site, which opened for eligible Phase One groups yesterday. This week, the site is expected to work up to administering over 1,000 vaccinations per day, and soon after, 5,000 vaccinations per day. Eligible residents in Phase 1 priority groups can book an appointment at Gillette Stadium by clicking here.

The Command Center is finalizing plans for several other mass vaccination sites.

UMass Vaccination Site Expansion

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has expanded its role to administer COVID-19 vaccines, providing vaccinations for all eligible groups in Phase One of the state’s distribution plan. This high capacity site will serve eligible groups in the Western Mass area.

Appointments for the UMass Amherst vaccination site can be booked here.

Hospital Depot Initiative

This new program will facilitate access to COVID-19 vaccines for independent COVID-facing physician practices prioritized under Phase 1. The Massachusetts COVID-19 Command Center and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) and Mass General Brigham (MGB), is managing this initiative starting with COVID-facing health care workers.

Hospitals serving each region of the state have been identified as a depot to assist the commonwealth with its vaccination distribution efforts. For clinical practices that are unable, due to their staff size and storage capacity, to receive larger, direct allocations of vaccine, a depot hospital will receive doses on their behalf and redistribute vaccine and all ancillary materials for office-based vaccination. In some cases, the hospital will provide direct vaccination to health-care workers. The Massachusetts Medical Society is managing communications and coordination with physician practices.

Participating hospitals include:

Mass General Brigham, Lawrence General Hospital, Signature Brockton Hospital, UMass Memorial Medical Center, Baystate Medical Center and Berkshire Medical Center. To learn more about this program, click here.

Medical Professionals Back Access for Black and Immigrant Communities

Boston Globe – On the day the state’s first mass vaccination site launched at Gillette Stadium, community activists and medical professionals Sunday called on Governor Charlie Baker and state public health officials to prioritize access to the COVID-19 vaccine to the Black and immigrant communities in Massachusetts.”

Retirement Residents Receive First Dose of COVID-19 Vaccine

EASTHAMPTON — As residents of the Lathrop Retirement Communities approached the common area Monday, they were met with a long-awaited message.

“Vaccine Clinic Day!” a sign outside of the building said. “Hope is here!”

Over the course of eight hours on Monday, pharmacists from Walgreens administered the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to nearly all residents and staff members at the retirement community, which has locations in Easthampton and Northampton.

Most residents and staff members eagerly welcomed the vaccine.

Beverly Bowman, who lives at Lathrop’s Northampton location, had been “anxiously awaiting the clinic” and was “elated” to receive her vaccine on Monday, she said.

For now, Bowman recognizes that the vaccine won’t result in immediate changes to her lifestyle. She will continue to wear a face mask, social distance and receive her second of the two doses in three weeks, though it will likely be months before Lathrop eases policies around visiting, group activities and mask wearing.

Although life won’t go fully back to normal after the second shot, Bowman said she still looks forward to the simple but meaningful ways that protection from the virus will impact her life.

“After the second vaccination, I look forward to giving my son a big hug,” she said.

Jack Hjelt, co-president of the Lathrop Residents Association of Northampton, had similar hopes. Among residents of the Lathrop Communities, Hjelt thinks that the vaccines will “bring down the anxiety a little bit, make people more comfortable.

“Personally, maybe with getting these shots, I’ll be able to visit my grandkids again,” Hjelt said. He hasn’t seen them in person since March when they went to a UConn women’s basketball game together, just before the virus took hold in the U.S.

As Pandemic Rages, Some Signs of Improvement

State House News – Although public health officials confirmed the first case of the new COVID-19 variant on Sunday, Massachusetts notched some improvement in its overall pandemic outlook over the long weekend.

The Department of Public Health (DPH) reported a total of 8,172 new coronavirus cases over the three-day weekend alongside 251,214 new tests, pushing the average positive test rate down from 6.45 percent on Friday to 5.91 percent on Monday. Since peaking at 8.7 percent on New Year’s Day, the rolling average positivity rate in Massachusetts has dropped more than 2.5 percentage points, which could be a sign that spread is gradually slowing in parallel with the first phase of vaccine rollout.

However, the number of COVID cases deemed active continued to climb over the weekend to 98,750 on Monday, more than the population of Brockton, the state’s sixth-largest city. Hospitalizations fluctuated slightly day-to-day, and five more patients in hospitals had COVID on Monday than did on Friday.

DPH reported 193 new confirmed deaths and another three probable deaths across Saturday, Sunday and Monday, pushing the cumulative death toll counting both confirmed and probable cases to 13,705.

The impact of the new COVID-19 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom, is not yet clear. The U.S. Centers for Disease Controls warns that the new strand, B.1.1.7, “spreads more easily and quickly than other variants,” and state health officials had said it might have been present in Massachusetts before the first confirmed case on Sunday.

Fiscal Damage from Pandemic Not as Severe as Feared

State House News – State budget writers have agreed to build fiscal 2022 spending plans on the assumption that state tax revenues will grow by 3.5 percent over upgraded projections for the current fiscal year, signaling that the damage done to the state’s finances by the COVID-19 pandemic may not be as severe as once thought.

The estimate of $30.12 billion in state revenue for the budget year that starts July 1 amounts to about $1.03 billion more in revenue than the updated projection for the current fiscal year, roughly 3.5 percent growth. But the forecast announced on Friday is still $1.03 billion less than the $31.15 billion pre-pandemic estimate the same group of officials made for fiscal year 2021 revenue a year ago.

The so-called “consensus revenue estimate” for fiscal 2022 was announced by Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues and House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz.

“After a tumultuous budget cycle over the last few months, this consensus revenue agreement for Fiscal Year 2022 is a modest and responsible forecast that will allow the commonwealth to continue to provide the services our constituents deserve, while at the same time preserving our fiscal health,” Michlewitz said.

“Despite the pandemic, our revenue intake continues to be better than anticipated, proving the continued resiliency of the commonwealth’s economy.”

In conjunction with the FY22 revenue accord announcement, Heffernan on Friday revised the fiscal 2021 revenue estimate upward by $700 million after revenues over the first half of the fiscal year increased by $372 million or 2.7 percent from what was collected during the first six months of fiscal 2020 that were entirely unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

When combined with a $459 million markup the administration announced Dec. 11, the Baker administration in the last month has boosted its estimate of available revenues this fiscal year by $1.16 billion. The administration is now projecting total fiscal 2021 revenue of $29.09 billion.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Jan. 27 is expected to file his annual budget proposal for fiscal 2022 based on the new revenue estimate of $30.12 billion. The House and Senate will redraft Baker’s spending blueprint and debate their own versions, likely in April and May. Fiscal year 2022 begins on July 1.

“As we develop a budget for Fiscal Year 2022, we will continue to closely monitor tax collections, weigh the fiscal implications of COVID-19, and strive to put forward a budget that maintains fiscal responsibility and protects core essential services for our most vulnerable populations, while building an equitable economic recovery for all,” Rodrigues said.

At a hearing in December, economic and budget experts told legislative leaders and Baker administration officials to expect tax collections to climb in fiscal year 2022 but said that whether they grow modestly or significantly will depend on the coronavirus and Congress. At the time, the Department of Revenue’s forecast predicted that tax collections would fall within a range of $27.83 billion to $30.61 billion in fiscal 2022, and the agreement announced Friday shows that key budget officials lean towards the higher end of that range.

“The consensus revenue forecast for Fiscal Year 2022 is consistent with the expert testimony offered in December and importantly accounts for updated revenue trends in the current fiscal year,” Heffernan said.

“We appreciate the consistent and thoughtful collaboration of our colleagues in the House and Senate Ways and Means Offices and look forward to developing spending plans for Fiscal Year 2022 which continue to protect essential government services, fund critical priorities, and maintain financial discipline and responsibility.”

Heffernan, Michlewitz and Rodrigues also agreed Friday on a transfer of $1.174 billion to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, a $1.014 billion transfer to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, and $25 million to the Workforce Training Fund.

There will also be a $3.415 billion transfer to the state pension fund – an increase of $300 million over the fiscal 2021 contribution – which is expected to keep Massachusetts on track to fully fund its pension liability by 2036.

After a total of $5.628 billion in transfers, the maximum amount of tax revenue available for the fiscal 2022 budget will be $24.327 billion, the officials agreed. The state budget, which totals $45.9 billion for fiscal 2021, is supplemented by substantial federal revenues along with non-tax revenues like fees.

Halfway into fiscal year 2021, state government has collected $372 million more in taxes from people and businesses than it did during the same six pre-pandemic months of fiscal year 2020. Even with the mark-up announced Friday, the Baker administration does not appear to expect the cushion that’s been accumulated to last, however.

Based on the new expectation of $29.09 billion, the administration now expects that fiscal 2021 tax collections will end up about $506 million or 1.7 percent below actual fiscal year 2020 collections of $29.596 billion.

Massachusetts will also see billions in federal funds this fiscal year – at least $9 billion from the pandemic relief and economic stimulus package Congress passed late last month, according to an estimate from Baker’s budget office. President-elect Joe Biden has signaled an interest in additional relief packages. On Thursday night, Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion package that would include $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, which could further benefit Massachusetts.

Heffernan, Michlewitz and Rodrigues also agreed Friday to a 3.6 percent rate of potential gross state product growth for calendar year 2021, the same figure that has been used the last six years to set up a health care cost growth benchmark under the 2012 cost containment law.

Baker has aimed to enable unrestricted local aid to cities and towns to rise by the rate of tax revenue growth each year, which means cities and towns may see a 3.5 percent increase in that aid category next fiscal year.

Biden Executive Orders

The New York Times – In 17 executive orders, memorandums, and proclamations signed hours after his inauguration, President Biden moved swiftly on Wednesday to dismantle Trump administration policies that his aides said have caused the “greatest damage” to the nation.

Despite an inaugural address that called for unity and compromise, Biden’s first actions as president are sharply aimed at sweeping aside former president Donald Trump’s pandemic response, reversing his environmental agenda, tearing down his anti-immigration policies, bolstering the teetering economic recovery, and restoring federal efforts to promote diversity.

Here’s a look at what the measures aim to accomplish.

Pandemic

Biden signed an executive order appointing Jeffrey D. Zients as the COVID-19 response coordinator who will report to the president, in an effort to “aggressively” gear up the nation’s response to the pandemic. The order also restores the directorate for global health security and biodefense at the National Security Council, a group Trump had disbanded.

Though it is not a national mask mandate, which would most likely fall to a legal challenge, Biden is requiring social distancing and the wearing of masks on all federal property and by all federal employees. He is also starting a “100 days masking challenge” urging all Americans to wear masks and state and local officials to implement public measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

He is also reinstating ties with the World Health Organization after the Trump administration chose to withdraw the nation’s membership and funding last year. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci will be the head of the US delegation to the organization’s executive board and will jump into the role with a meeting this week.

Economy

Biden is moving to extend a federal moratorium on evictions and has asked agencies, including the Agriculture, Veterans Affairs, and Housing and Urban Development departments, to prolong a moratorium on foreclosures on federally guaranteed mortgages that was enacted in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The extensions all run through at least the end of March.

The president is also moving to continue a pause on federal student loan interest and principal payments through the end of September, although progressive groups and some congressional Democrats have pushed Biden to go much further and cancel up to $50,000 in student debt per person.

Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Stimulus: 8 Key Details of Plan

The New York Times – The incoming Biden administration unveiled a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan on Thursday that offered a wish list of spending measures meant to help both people and the economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic, from state and local aid and more generous unemployment benefits to mass vaccinations.

Below, we run through a few of the biggest provisions, how they would work and what they might mean for the United States economy as it struggles through a winter of surging coronavirus cases and partial state and local lockdowns.

Let’s put that headline number in context.

That $1.9 trillion figure is a lot of money, to put it mildly. Congress passed a $900 billion relief program in December, and its package in March was also about $2 trillion. By way of comparison, the major financial crisis spending package — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — clocked in around $800 billion.

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Biden COVID Package Includes Stimulus Payments, Tax Credits, Paid Leave Mandate

Deloitte – President-elect Joe Biden unveiled an expansive new COVID relief package that, on the tax side, calls for providing additional economic impact payments, expanding several refundable tax credits for individuals, extending the refundable tax credits for businesses that provide paid sick and family leave, and renewing the requirement for businesses to provide paid emergency leave to their employees.

PPP forgiveness and expenses: State Tax Implications

RSM – One of the largest relief measures in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) is the Payroll Protection Program (PPP).

The intent of the PPP is to assist both for-profit and nonprofit employers in maintaining their payroll during the COVID-19 crisis.

Under the program, the Small Business Administration providing 100% federally insured loans for certain covered expenses. Generally, these loans are forgivable in full if employers retain employees at salary levels comparable to those before the crisis.

Under normal circumstances, forgiven loan amounts are generally taxable for federal income tax purposes, but the CARES Act, under section 1106(i) of the act, expressly excludes the forgiveness of PPP loans from federal gross income, and thus federal income tax.Learn More

Consolidated Appropriations Act Includes Key COVID Provisions

Sullivan Law – On December 27, 2020, Sullivan Law – The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 was signed into law on December 27, 2020. The 2,100-page measure includes the COVID-related Tax Relief Act of 2020 and the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act. Here is a high-level summary of the items that most directly affect businesses, individuals and benefit plans.

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Massachusetts Changes Timeline, Allowing Visiting Nurses to Get COVID-19 Vaccines

WGBH – Visiting nurses, many of whom are providing care inside the homes of COVID-19 positive patients, will now be able to get vaccinated in Massachusetts.

That’s a change in state policy, which had initially excluded visiting nurses from the phase-1 category of “COVID-facing” healthcare workers who were given first priority for the vaccine.

“These patients in the home are pretty sick, especially the ones with COVID,” said Patricia Joyce, a registered nurse with the VNA Care network. “And we see a great deal of COVID patients.”

VNA Care says its nurses have cared for about 570 COVID-19 positive patients, and Joyce said she’s currently caring for about 10 of them — doing everything from taking care of IVs to educating patients about their diabetes or heart failure.

“Our goal is to prevent them from going back in the hospital,” she said.

Visiting nurses are at a greater risk for contracting COVID-19, she said, because providing care inside people’s homes means entering an uncontrolled environment. Unlike hospitals, there’s little control of who’s coming and going and what precautions are taken.

Fraud Continues to Bog Down Massachusetts Unemployment System

Boston 25 NewsMichael Gens was falling further behind with every week that passed.

He was broke. The phone company had turned off his cell. He was almost two months behind in rent.

“There’s nothing. It’s zero,” Gens said about his bank account.

Gens is a cook at Encore Boston Harbor. He was furloughed twice because of the pandemic and hasn’t been able to earn a paycheck since June.

He was receiving unemployment benefits from the state but was told two days before Thanksgiving his payments were on hold.

“I got a notice saying my benefits were on hold due to a phishing scam and fraud. That was seven weeks ago,” Gens said.

25 Investigates first reported on this problem in October, when hundreds of state and city workers had bogus unemployment claims filed in their name.

In December, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said her office was working with the FBI to investigate thousands of claims, many of them phishing scams from outside Massachusetts.

Because of the widespread fraud, the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) was forced to go back and verify thousands of identities.

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First case of COVID-19 Variant Confirmed in Massachusetts

Massinsider – The Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced that the first case of the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 has been detected in Massachusetts. This is the same variant initially discovered in the United Kingdom.

The individual developed symptoms in early January and tested positive for COVID-19. A genetic sample was sent to an out-of-state laboratory as part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) established surveillance process to identify COVID-19 variants. The State Public Health Laboratory was notified of the results.

The individual is a Boston resident, a female in her 20’s.  She had traveled to the United Kingdom and became ill the day after she returned. She had tested negative prior to leaving the UK. The individual was interviewed by contact tracers at the time the initial positive result was received, and close contacts were identified. She is being re-interviewed by public health officials now that the variant has been identified as the cause of illness.

Surveillance testing for the B.1.1.7 variant has been ongoing at the Massachusetts State Public Health Laboratory in collaboration with clinical diagnostic laboratories and academic partners. Surveillance consists of genomic sequencing on portions of COVID-19 positive specimens.

To date, the CDC has reported 88 cases from 14 states in the United States.

Given the increased transmissibility of this variant and the number of states and other countries that have found infected cases, the Department expected the variant to arrive in Massachusetts eventually. The public health risk reduction measures remain the same. Individuals must continue to wear masks or face coverings while out in public, maintain 6-foot social distancing, stay home when you are sick, and get tested if you have symptoms or are identified as a close contact.

January 14, 2021

Governor Will Re-Introduce Unemployment Rate Relief for Businesses

Governor Charlie Baker plans to refile a proposal to freeze pending increases in unemployment insurance rates for employers.

The governor proposed the freeze during the just-concluded 2019-2020 session but lawmakers did not pass it.

The proposed legislation seeks to sustain unemployment benefits and provide an estimated $1.3 billion in unemployment insurance relief to the commonwealth’s employers over two years. In addition to a two-year unemployment insurance tax schedule freeze, the legislation proposes financing measures designed to ensure the solvency of the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and that federal borrowing that has occurred is repaid in a responsible and affordable manner.

The main provisions of this legislation include:

  • Short Term Employer Tax Relief through a two-year tax schedule freeze. Current Massachusetts unemployment legislative statute requires the employer tax schedule to increase from schedule E to schedule G. This would cause an average per employee tax increase from $539 to $866 – a nearly 60% increase over the previous year. Remaining on schedule E for 2021 and 2022 slows annual employer contribution growth from $539 average per employee costs in 2020 to $635 in 2021 and $665 in 2022.
  • Authorization for the issuance of special obligation bonds for the purposes of repaying federal advances. In order to fund the unprecedented increases in demand on the unemployment system in Massachusetts as a result of COVID-19, the Commonwealth has received federal cash advances. Through the issuance of bonds, the Commonwealth will be able to ensure positive trust fund solvency to enable the continued payment of benefits. The utilization of capital markets also allows Massachusetts to avoid paying punitive federal tax increases on employers regardless of their experience rating if federal advances are not repaid by November of 2022. Bonds issued will be supported by an unemployment obligation assessment and will not be general obligations of the Commonwealth.
  • Establishes an employer surcharge on contributory employers. In 2020 all federal advances taken to pay benefits are interest free. However, interest on federal advances will begin to be charged beginning in January of 2021. The first interest payment is due in the Fall of 2021 and it cannot be paid from the state unemployment trust fund, per federal law. To fund interest payments on repayable advances, the legislation also establishes a separate fund to house surcharge proceeds. The passage of this provision authorizes the Department of Unemployment Assistance to make this assessment but does not require the surcharge if interest is waived through future federal legislation.

AIM Advocacy on behalf of this legislation included:

  • Statement to entire legislature– includes a packet of all federal-level advocacy AIM has done requesting additional aid to state and local governments and direct relief to state unemployment trust funds.
  • AIM Member Blog
  • Testimony in Supportto Labor and Workforce Development CommitteeAIM plans on re-engaging with the legislature on the importance of this bill and continuing our efforts encourage its passage before initial UI bills are due from employers at the end of Q1/March 2021.

Vaccine Distribution Update & COVID Resources

Vaccine Distribution Status: We are in Phase One with health-care providers and first responders.  Next week begins congregate care and related a- risk communities.

As of today, the Baker Administration is planning that Phase Two would start around the same time as originally planned for February.

COVID-19 Infection Rate(s) Status:  Key metrics relative to rate of transmission and hospitalization remain closely watched metrics. For a weekly report, click here for new vaccination data dashboard.

COVID-19 Business Regulation Status: Temporary Capacity Restrictions remain in effect.  Click here for more details (direct link) or click here to read the Temporary Capacity Order or here for the overview.

Vaccine Finder Interactive Map – Find a location in the commonwealth to receive a vaccine.

When can my employees receive vaccine?  The Department of Public Health changed the Phase 2 Group 1 based distributions related to residents age 75 and older to conform with CDC guidance – See full distribution plan here.

How can I find out where my employees fall in the distribution plan or how can I advocate that my employees fall within a certain phase?   For companies to inquire with the MassDPH regarding vaccination prioritization see email: COVID-19-Vaccine-Plan-MA@mass.gov

Essential Workers:  The Massachusetts distribution plan considers and prioritizes “critical employees” instead of essential workers.

EEOC guidance – see directly below for recent guidance.

Other States:  Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine distribution by state – Ballotpedia and State COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans: Links to all 50 (usatoday.com) and State COVID-19 Vaccine Resources – National Governors Association (nga.org)

AIM Webinar | Pins and Needles: Should Employers Require COVID-19 Vaccines?

Today, January 14 | 11-11:30 am.

Join us as Andrew P. Botti, a Director at McLane Middleton and member of the firm’s Employment Law Practices Group, discusses the implications of the recently issued Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advisory on requiring employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Such a requirement may implicate provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act concerning religious freedoms.

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AIM HR Solutions Offers Resources on Leaves

With the Massachusetts Paid Family Medical Leave now effective and COVID cases still on the rise, the AIM HR Solutions team has put together new resources and training opportunities to help employers ensure they understand managing leaves through 2021 and beyond.

Listen to our first podcast featuring AIM HR Solutions PFML experts Mary McNally and employment lawyer and VP, Tom Jones. They will discuss the recent updates to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and provide further clarity on the new guidance.

AIM Members can also download the Leaves of Absence Guide at no-cost.

EEOC Provides COVID-Related Information to Employers

EEOC Information

The FAQs, which address all COVID-related issues, are here.

The EEOC added a new section to the FAQs, Section K, in mid December.  Here it is:

  1. Vaccinations

The availability of COVID-19 vaccinations may raise questions about the applicability of various equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws, including the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, GINA, and Title VII, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (see Section J, EEO rights relating to pregnancy).  The EEO laws do not interfere with or prevent employers from following CDC or other federal, state, and local public health authorities’ guidelines and suggestions.

ADA and Vaccinations

K.1. For any COVID-19 vaccine that has been approved or authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine to an employee by an employer (or by a third party with whom the employer contracts to administer a vaccine) a “medical examination” for purposes of the ADA? (12/16/20)

No.  The vaccination itself is not a medical examination.  As the Commission explained in guidance on disability-related inquiries and medical examinations, a medical examination is “a procedure or test usually given by a health care professional or in a medical setting that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health.”  Examples include “vision tests; blood, urine, and breath analyses; blood pressure screening and cholesterol testing; and diagnostic procedures, such as x-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs.”  If a vaccine is administered to an employee by an employer for protection against contracting COVID-19, the employer is not seeking information about an individual’s impairments or current health status and, therefore, it is not a medical examination.

Although the administration of a vaccination is not a medical examination, pre-screening vaccination questions may implicate the ADA’s provision on disability-related inquiries, which are inquiries likely to elicit information about a disability.  If the employer administers the vaccine, it must show that such pre-screening questions it asks employees are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  See Question K.2.

K.2. According to the CDC, health care providers should ask certain questions before administering a vaccine to ensure that there is no medical reason that would prevent the person from receiving the vaccination. If the employer requires an employee to receive the vaccination from the employer (or a third party with whom the employer contracts to administer a vaccine) and asks these screening questions, are these questions subject to the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries? (12/16/20)

Yes.  Pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about a disability.  This means that such questions, if asked by the employer or a contractor on the employer’s behalf, are “disability-related” under the ADA.  Thus, if the employer requires an employee to receive the vaccination, administered by the employer, the employer must show that these disability-related screening inquiries are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  To meet this standard, an employer would need to have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the questions and, therefore, does not receive a vaccination, will pose a direct threat to the health or safety of her or himself or others.  See Question K.5. below for a discussion of direct threat.

By contrast, there are two circumstances in which disability-related screening questions can be asked without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” requirement.  First, if an employer has offered a vaccination to employees on a voluntary basis (i.e. employees choose whether to be vaccinated), the ADA requires that the employee’s decision to answer pre-screening, disability-related questions also must be voluntary.  42 U.S.C. 12112(d)(4)(B)29 C.F.R. 1630.14(d).  If an employee chooses not to answer these questions, the employer may decline to administer the vaccine but may not retaliate against, intimidate, or threaten the employee for refusing to answer any questions.  Second, if an employee receives an employer-required vaccination from a third party that does not have a contract with the employer, such as a pharmacy or other health care provider, the ADA “job-related and consistent with business necessity” restrictions on disability-related inquiries would not apply to the pre-vaccination medical screening questions.

The ADA requires employers to keep any employee medical information obtained in the course of the vaccination program confidential.

K.3. Is asking or requiring an employee to show proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination a disability-related inquiry? (12/16/20)

No.  There are many reasons that may explain why an employee has not been vaccinated, which may or may not be disability-related.  Simply requesting proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, therefore, is not a disability-related inquiry.  However, subsequent employer questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that they be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA.

ADA and Title VII Issues Regarding Mandatory Vaccinations

K.4. Where can employers learn more about Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA) of COVID-19 vaccines? (12/16/20)

Some COVID-19 vaccines may only be available to the public for the foreseeable future under EUA granted by the FDA, which is different than approval under FDA vaccine licensure. The FDA has an obligation to:

[E]nsure that recipients of the vaccine under an EUA are informed, to the extent practicable under the applicable circumstances, that FDA has authorized the emergency use of the vaccine, of the known and potential benefits and risks, the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown, that they have the option to accept or refuse the vaccine, and of any available alternatives to the product.

The FDA says that this information is typically conveyed in a patient fact sheet that is provided at the time of the vaccine administration and that it posts the fact sheets on its website.  More information about EUA vaccines is available on the FDA’s EUA page.

K.5. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability? (12/16/20)

The ADA allows an employer to have a qualification standard that includes “a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.”

However, if a safety-based qualification standard, such as a vaccination requirement, screens out or tends to screen out an individual with a disability, the employer must show that an unvaccinated employee would pose a direct threat due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”  29 C.F.R. 1630.2(r).

Employers should conduct an individualized assessment of four factors in determining whether a direct threat exists: the duration of the risk; the nature and severity of the potential harm; the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and the imminence of the potential harm.  A conclusion that there is a direct threat would include a determination that an unvaccinated individual will expose others to the virus at the worksite.

If an employer determines that an individual who cannot be vaccinated due to disability poses a direct threat at the worksite, the employer cannot exclude the employee from the workplace—or take any other action—unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce this risk so the unvaccinated employee does not pose a direct threat.

If there is a direct threat that cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, the employer can exclude the employee from physically entering the workplace, but this does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker.  Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities.  For example, if an employer excludes an employee based on an inability to accommodate a request to be exempt from a vaccination requirement, the employee may be entitled to accommodations such as performing the current position remotely. This is the same step that employers take when physically excluding employees from a worksite due to a current COVID-19 diagnosis or symptoms; some workers may be entitled to telework or, if not, may be eligible to take leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, under the FMLA, or under the employer’s policies. See also Section J, EEO rights relating to pregnancy.

Managers and supervisors responsible for communicating with employees about compliance with the employer’s vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an accommodation request from an employee with a disability and know to whom the request should be referred for consideration.  Employers and employees should engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify workplace accommodation options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense).  This process should include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting documentation about the employee’s disability and considering the possible options for accommodation given the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position.

The prevalence in the workplace of employees who already have received a COVID-19 vaccination and the amount of contact with others, whose vaccination status could be unknown, may impact the undue hardship consideration.  In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees also may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website as a resource for different types of accommodations, www.askjan.org.  JAN’s materials specific to COVID-19 are at https://askjan.org/topics/COVID-19.cfm.

Employers may rely on CDC recommendations when deciding whether an effective accommodation that would not pose an undue hardship is available, but as explained further in Question K.7., there may be situations where an accommodation is not possible.  When an employer makes this decision, the facts about particular job duties and workplaces may be relevant.  Employers also should consult applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards and guidance.  Employers can find OSHA COVID-specific resources at: www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/.

Managers and supervisors are reminded that it is unlawful to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation or retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation.

K.6. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)

Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from receiving the vaccination, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for the religious belief, practice, or observance unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Courts have defined “undue hardship” under Title VII as having more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer. EEOC guidance explains that because the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief.  If, however, an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information.

K.7. What happens if an employer cannot exempt or provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee who cannot comply with a mandatory vaccine policy because of a disability or sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)

If an employee cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19 because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, and there is no reasonable accommodation possible, then it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace.  This does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker.  Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities.

Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and Vaccinations

K.8. Is Title II of GINA implicated when an employer administers a COVID-19 vaccine to employees or requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination? (12/16/20)

No. Administering a COVID-19 vaccination to employees or requiring employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination does not implicate Title II of GINA because it does not involve the use of genetic information to make employment decisions, or the acquisition or disclosure of “genetic information” as defined by the statute. This includes vaccinations that use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which will be discussed more below.  As noted in Question K.9. however, if administration of the vaccine requires pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, the inquiries seeking genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories, may violate GINA.

Under Title II of GINA, employers may not (1) use genetic information to make decisions related to the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, (2) acquire genetic information except in six narrow circumstances, or (3) disclose genetic information except in six narrow circumstances.

Certain COVID-19 vaccines use mRNA technology. This raises questions about genetics and, specifically, about whether such vaccines modify a recipient’s genetic makeup and, therefore, whether requiring an employee to get the vaccine as a condition of employment is an unlawful use of genetic information.  The CDC has explained that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “do not interact with our DNA in any way” and “mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.” (See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mrna.html for a detailed discussion about how mRNA vaccines work).  Thus, requiring employees to get the vaccine, whether it uses mRNA technology or not, does not violate GINA’s prohibitions on using, acquiring, or disclosing genetic information.

K.9. Does asking an employee the pre-vaccination screening questions before administering a COVID-19 vaccine implicate Title II of GINA? (12/16/20)

Pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about disability, as discussed in Question K.2., and may elicit information about genetic information, such as questions regarding the immune systems of family members.  It is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations.

GINA defines “genetic information” to mean:

Information about an individual’s genetic tests;

Information about the genetic tests of a family member;

Information about the manifestation of disease or disorder in a family member (i.e., family medical history);

Information about requests for, or receipt of, genetic services or the participation in clinical research that includes genetic services by the an individual or a family member of the individual; and

Genetic information about a fetus carried by an individual or family member or of an embryo legally held by an individual or family member using assisted reproductive technology.

29 C.F.R. § 1635.3(c).  If the pre-vaccination questions do not include any questions about genetic information (including family medical history), then asking them does not implicate GINA.  However, if the pre-vaccination questions do include questions about genetic information, then employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves.

GINA does not prohibit an individual employee’s own health care provider from asking questions about genetic information, but it does prohibit an employer or a doctor working for the employer from asking questions about genetic information.  If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide genetic information as part of the proof.  As long as this warning is provided, any genetic information the employer receives in response to its request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and therefore not unlawful under GINA.  See 29 CFR 1635.8(b)(1)(i) for model language that can be used for this warning.

Helpful Resources for the Paycheck Protection Program

Top-line-Overview-of-Second-Draw-PPP.pdf (treasury.gov)

KLR – Registration (gotowebinar.com)

SBA Posts Interim Final Rules Implementing Changes to First Draw and Second Draw Loans under the Paycheck Protection Program | Seyfarth Shaw LLP

The Small Business Administration recently released new guidance governing the reopening of the Paycheck Protection Program. This guidance comes in the form of an Interim Final RuleInterim Final Rule on Second Draw PPP Loans,  and Guidance on Accessing Capital for Minority, Underserved, Veteran, and Women-Owned Business Concerns. In addition, see the press release for highlights of the programmatic changes made to PPP via the recently-passed federal stimulus.

Several key program changes include:

  • Allows past recipients to receive a “Second Draw” from PPP
  • Makes 501(c)6 nonprofits (like Chambers of Commerce) eligible applicants, among other types of organizations
  • Allows borrowers to set their covered loan period to any length from 8-24 weeks to allow additional flexibility
  • Expands what is an eligible forgivable expense to include costs, including adaptive operations expenditures, property damage costs, technology operations, supplier costs, and worker protection expenditures
  • Clarifies that PPP loans are tax-free and eligible expenses paid with PPP proceeds are tax-deductible
  • Caps First Draw loans at $10 million and Second Draw loans at $2 million
  • Allows Accommodations and Food Service businesses to obtain loans calculated at 3.5x average monthly payroll

As with prior implementations of PPP, businesses can apply for a forgivable loan via SBA lenders and should speak to their lender to discuss an application. Effective today, community lenders (community development financial institutions, minority depository institutions, certified development companies, and microloan intermediaries, more here) are able to offer PPP loans to applicants that have not yet received a loan; on January 13th, these lenders will be able to offer loans to “Second Draw” applicants. All lenders will be authorized to offer the program shortly; the date has not yet been announced. For additional information on PPP, forms and other information, visit www.sba.gov/ppp.

When Will People be able to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

The Boston Globe – The slow rollout of coronavirus vaccines has raised a host of questions about how state residents will know when it’s their turn to be immunized. With limited vaccines available and fewer shots being administered than promised, the Globe asked Dr. Paul Biddinger, medical director for emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital and chair of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine advisory group, to explain what residents should expect in the coming weeks and months.

When will people know it’s their turn to get the vaccine?

Biddinger referred to a state website that officials frequently update with the status of different phases of the vaccine rollout. Phase 1, which is ongoing, prioritizes health care workers, those living in long-term-care facilities, and first responders. Phase 2, which is slated to begin in February, focuses on individuals 75 and older and younger people with at least two or more medical conditions that put them at elevated risk of severe illness from COVID-19. The general public will be immunized in Stage 3, slated to begin in April.

“Many physicians’ practices are also building mechanisms to inform patients when they become eligible, either through e-mail, texts, or phone calls,” he said. “Everyone understands that it’s not reasonable to expect people to continually monitor the website, so local and state leaders are also discussing other communications strategies to make sure people are aware.”

What about people who don’t have a primary care physician?

Biddinger said commercial pharmacies will be administering vaccines, and that residents should seek information about the eligibility for the vaccine from local public health departments.

“We believe there will be several large-scale vaccination clinics set up, in places like conference spaces, gyms, or armories. Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, and other large areas have been mentioned as well and are being looked at,” he said. “If a resident doesn’t have a primary care physician, they’ll need to look at state messaging, the state’s website, and the media to know when they are eligible for vaccination.”

Will residents have to make an appointment with their doctor, clinic, or pharmacy to get vaccinated?

In most cases, they likely will, he said. That’s because there’s a mandatory 15-minute waiting period after someone gets the vaccine, so medical staff can observe if they have an adverse reaction. Appointments also reduce the need for waiting spaces.

“There could be real queuing problems if everyone came at the same time, and we want to avoid long lines for physical distancing,” he said. “There may be some walk-in options, but for the most part, people will need to schedule an appointment.”

At the end of a given day, there may be extra doses of vaccine, because some might not show up for their appointments. So some clinics may make last-minute contingency plans for the end of the day, so doses aren’t wasted. Vaccines must be used within six hours once a vial has been punctured. The vials have five doses in them.

When should residents contact their doctors about getting the vaccine? Is this something they should do soon?

Physicians’ offices are not scheduling vaccinations now, because Massachusetts remains in the first phase of its plan, limiting vaccines to first responders, nursing home residents, and others considered “critical” personnel. “When the state announces that it is moving into Phase 2 or 3, patients who believe that they are eligible should contact their doctors, if they have not already received outreach from those practices,” Biddinger said.

He said the state has plans for drive-through vaccination locations and other mass vaccination sites.

“No one in the state wants to have vaccination vials sitting on shelves, so efforts are focused on administering the vaccine as soon as it arrives to those eligible,” he said. “Everyone wants to vaccinate the public as quickly as we have supply, so we can move into the next phases.”

Who determines if a resident has sufficient “comorbidities,” such as heart conditions and obesity, to make them eligible to receive the vaccine in the second phase?

“The medical systems are searching medical records to help identify patients with those comorbidities, hopefully making it easier to identify eligible patients,” he said. People are unlikely to have to show evidence they have a comorbidity, he said. “Obviously, it’s really important for patients and for systems to honestly follow the rules,” he said. “More information on how this will be assured is likely to come soon.”

Will residents have a choice of vaccines?

Probably not, given how limited the supply remains. “There’s so much complexity in administering, there’s no real option to provide a choice at this point,” he said. Biddinger said he wouldn’t have a preference between the two. “They’re equally effective and equally safe,” he said. “There are only limited differences.”

The Moderna vaccine, for example, is approved for those age 18 and older, while the Pfizer vaccine is for those ages 16 and up. There are also rare allergies associated with each that may affect a small number of people.

Other vaccines, if approved, could increase supply and potentially give residents more of a choice.

When will children be eligible for the vaccine?

It will be at least several months, as clinical trials must be conducted before federal regulators would sanction their use in children, he said. The trials have to enroll large numbers of young patients. Pfizer and Moderna started testing the vaccine in children ages 12 and older in November and December.

“I expect it won’t be until late spring before children could be eligible, at the earliest,” Biddinger said. “For younger children, it’s unclear when they will be eligible.”

Will those who get an initial dose be assured of getting the second dose?

As soon as a dose is administered, the second dose is automatically assigned to that person, he said. They will be scheduled to receive their second doses while getting their first dose. Doses, however, aren’t left on a shelf for them, they’re automatically ordered and accounted for later when they’re needed. “That’s the way it has happened so far, and we’ve been receiving our second doses, as promised,” he said.

As of Thursday, the federal government had shipped more than 21 million vaccine doses, but only 5.9 million people had received a dose. On Friday, President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team said his administration plans to release nearly all available doses “to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible.” Biden has promised to administer 100 million doses by his 100th day in office.

How long will the vaccines provide immunity?

“There are hints that we’ll have durable immunity for at least three months, but at this point, because we don’t have the data yet, there’s no way to say whether it’s a year or longer,” he said.

When will the average person expect to get a vaccine?

Biddinger said the timing still looks like April for when most people will be eligible. That depends on the stability of the supply chain and assumes that at least one or two other vaccines also receive emergency approval from federal regulators. “There’s so much unknown that we cannot predict this with certainty,” he said.

Trump Administration Urges States to Vaccinate People 65 and Older

NPR – The Trump administration is making several big changes to its COVID-19 vaccine distribution strategy, officials announced Tuesday, in a bid to jump-start the rollout and get more Americans vaccinated quickly.

The first change is to call on states to expand immediately the pool of people eligible to receive vaccines to those 65 and older, and those with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

“We’re telling states today that they should open vaccinations to all of their most vulnerable people. That is the most effective way to save lives now,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a press briefing Tuesday.

The call is accompanied by a change in how vaccine doses are allocated to states. Currently, doses are given to states based on their total adult populations. Starting in two weeks, vaccines will be distributed to states based on the number of over 65-year-olds who live there — and by the pace of vaccine administration reported by states.

“[This new allocation system] gives states a strong incentive to ensure doses are going to work, protecting people rather than sitting on shelves or in freezers,” Azar said at the press briefing, “We need doses going to where they’ll be administered quickly and where they’ll protect the most vulnerable.”

The administration is also urging states to expand vaccination to more venues, such as convention center “mega-sites,” pharmacies and community health centers.

In addition, senior officials announced they would stop holding second doses of the vaccines in reserve and instead ship more doses to states right away.

“Because we now have a consistent pace of production, we can now ship all of the doses that had been held in physical reserve,” Azar said. “We’re now making the full reserve of doses we have available for order, [and] we are 100% committed to ensuring a second dose is available for every American who receives the first dose.”

The change in releasing more of the previously reserved doses of vaccine preempts a policy change the Biden team announced last week. Officials from the Biden team declined to comment on Tuesday’s policy announcements.

State Awards Another $78.5 Million in Grants to 1,595 Businesses

The Baker Administration announced $78.5 million in awards to 1,595 additional small businesses in the third round of grants through the COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program administered by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation.

To date, the administration has awarded close to $195 million in direct financial support to 4,119 small businesses out of a $668 million fund set up to support small businesses across the Commonwealth.

Additional grants will be announced in the coming weeks for thousands of additional businesses.

“Our administration set up a $668 million grant program to support small businesses statewide that are struggling from COVID-19 impacts,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “Today, we are awarding our third round of grants, for a total of $195 million in direct financial support for over 4,000 small businesses, with more yet to come. Supporting small businesses is vital to our economic recovery, and we’ll continue to expedite this grant process to send out funds to provide some much-needed financial relief.”

“Understanding how significant the need for financial assistance is, we’ve taken important steps to ensure these resources are directed toward the businesses that have historically been at a disadvantage even before the pandemic, or are located in communities, especially Gateway Cities, that have suffered disproportionately because of this virus,” said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito. “I’m grateful for the partnership with MGCC to provide this important assistance, and I look forward to the coming weeks when we can award even more support for the economic sectors that are most in need.”

State Department of Unemployment Assistance Implements Federal Stimulus

The state is currently implementing unemployment-related provisions from the most recent federal stimulus. Key details on these programs can be found here to assist claimants with questions about their continuation of benefits.

Boston Fed Chief Sees Tailwinds Beyond Slow Vaccine Rollout

State House News – While the development and approval of two effective COVID-19 vaccines offer great promise that the public health crisis inflicted by COVID-19 will soon fade, the sputtering rollout of the vaccines is bogging down the economic recovery, the leader of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston said Tuesday.

Many of the uncertainties that clouded the view when Boston Fed President and CEO Eric Rosengren spoke to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce more than eight months ago — Can we develop a vaccine for this virus? How will federal policymakers respond? — “have been resolved in a positive way,” he said in an address to the chamber Tuesday. But an underlying truth remains: a public health recovery is a precondition for an economic recovery.

“So, in the near term, we have to be very concerned about how we solve the public health problem. First of all, by trying to make sure that infections remain as small as possible. And second, trying to get as many people vaccinated as possible in the shortest amount of time,” he said.

Rosengren later added, “Unfortunately the inoculation rate at least to date has been relatively disappointing. Hopefully over the next several months, we’ll see some additional efficiencies in getting the vaccine not only distributed to the states but actually getting it into the arms of people.”

“Until that happens, we’re not going to have a full recovery,” he said.

About 27.7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been distributed nationwide and about 9.33 million people have received at least the first of two doses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In Massachusetts, just more than 476,000 doses have been distributed and just more than 204,000 people here have received the first shot, the CDC said.

Mass Vaccination Site at Gillette Stadium

State House News – Gillette Stadium has been home to a near-undefeated football season, two outdoor hockey games, a Major League Soccer final, dozens of concerts, and next week, it will host another landmark event: the first mass vaccination site in Massachusetts.

In six days, Gillette will open its doors to hundreds of first responders per day who can receive COVID-19 vaccinations, then continue to scale up capacity to serve more people as they become eligible, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday.

After touring the Worcester Senior Center that started vaccinating first responders on Monday, Baker said the stadium will become the first of several locations to host large-scale immunization efforts in the state.

“These vaccines are safe and effective, and millions of doctors, nurses and health care workers are getting vaccinated across our country,” Baker said. “This is a huge step forward in our fight.”

Massachusetts started making COVID-19 vaccines available to police, firefighters, EMTs and other emergency personnel on Monday at more than 100 local sites and individual departments.

The Worcester Senior Center alone surpassed its initial capacity and hosted 376 vaccinations on Monday, Baker said, citing an “overwhelmingly positive response from first responders to get vaccinated.”

When Baker unveiled a plan last week to vaccinate the more than 45,000 first responders in the state, he said mass vaccination sites would serve as a key pillar to support the effort and then expand to other populations.

Tuesday’s announcement puts a clear timeline on the start of that segment: on Thursday, staff who will administer the vaccinations will receive their own vaccines, and then Gillette will open to first responders on Monday. Those eligible can schedule appointments at mass.gov/covidvaccine.

CIC Health will operate the site, while Brigham and Women’s Hospital will serve as medical director and Fallon Ambulance will support clinical staff.