Road to Recovery News 2022
Health Care Costs
HR & Employment Law
| November 30, 2021
By: Chris Geehern
State and federal governments continue to address the medical and economic consequences 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.
January 19, 2022
Wednesday January 19
- Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy-Home Rule Petitions and Bills Recently Discharged to TUE-10:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4169
- Joint Committee on Election Laws-Local Election Laws-1:00pm-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4171
- Joint Committee on Transportation-Accessibility, local matters, motorcycles, school transportation and electric vehicles-3:00pm-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4162
Friday January 21
- Joint Committee on Revenue-Environment/Farming-10:00am-Virutal Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4138
Tuesday January 25
- Joint Committee on Revenue-Veterans and Misc-10:00am-Virutal Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4139
Wednesday January 26
- Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security-Miscellaneous and Late Files-11:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4154
Friday January 28
- Joint Committee on Revenue-Property Tax and Misc.-10:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4164
Supreme Court Blocks Biden’s Virus Mandate for Large Employers
New York Times – WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a vaccine-or-testing mandate for large employers, dealing a blow to a key element of the White House’s plan to address the pandemic as coronavirus cases resulting from the Omicron variant are on the rise.
But in a modest victory for President Biden, the court allowed a more limited mandate requiring health-care workers at facilities receiving federal money to be vaccinated.
The vote in the employer mandate case was 6 to 3, with the liberal justices in dissent. The vote in the health care case was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh joining the liberal justices to form a majority.
The employer decision undercut one of President Biden’s most significant attempts to tame the virus and left the country with a patchwork of state laws and policies, largely leaving companies and businesses on their own.
The president welcomed the ruling in his favor, saying in a statement that it would save the lives of health care workers and patients. But he said he was disappointed that the court had overturned the employer mandate, which he said was “grounded squarely in both science and the law.”
In both the employer and health worker cases, the justices explored whether Congress had authorized the executive branch to take sweeping actions to address the health care crisis.
Vaccine Mandate Begins in Boston Amid Demonstrations by Opponents
Boston Globe – As the city’s new COVID-19 vaccine mandate took effect Saturday, some 500 protesters marched through the Fenway to show their opposition to the policy, and Mayor Michelle Wu spoke out about how early morning demonstrations at her Roslindale home have impacted her neighbors and family.
During a news conference at Whittier Street Health Center, Wu said she is accustomed to public criticism but said the disruptions are unfair to her neighbors, including a 96-year-old veteran who lives next to her and families with young children.
The protests, she said, are a byproduct of widespread misinformation that the city seeks to neutralize with its vaccine mandates.
House Preparing $55 Million COVID-19 Bill
State House News – The state primary would be set for Sept. 6 and $55 million would be appropriated for COVID-19 needs, under a bill that began moving in the House on Tuesday.
The House Ways and Means Committee gave its members until 10:30 a.m. to weigh in on its redrafted COVID-19 bill, which creates a $30 million reserve to establish and expand COVID testing sites, with at least $5 million of that money dedicated to expanding vaccination rates among kids ages 5 to 11. Another $25 million reserve would be created “for the acquisition and distribution of high-quality personal protective masks for children and faculty in elementary and secondary public-school districts.”
Addressing an issue on which Secretary of State William Galvin has called for lawmakers to act, the bill (H 3922) also sets the 2022 state primary for Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day. Unless new legislation is passed, the primary would statutorily fall on Sept. 20, a date Galvin said cuts it too close for a federal law that requires ballots be ready for military and overseas voters 45 days before Election Day — or by Sept. 24, 2022.
State Gives Hospitals Flexibility to Ensure Beds Will be Available
State House News – Citing a “critical staffing shortage” that has contributed to the loss of around 700 hospital beds since the start of 2021, the Department of Public Health (DPH) on Friday issued a series of orders aimed at helping acute-care hospitals preserve their capacity.
The DPH is also advising people not to seek care at emergency rooms for “routine” needs, including COVID-19 testing and vaccines.
The orders from Acting Public Health Commissioner Margret Cooke, according to the Baker administration, allow qualified physician assistants to practice independently without a doctor’s supervision, enable expedited licensure for doctors trained in other countries, require DPH-licensed facilities to expedite credentialing and facilitate staff transfers across and between hospitals, and give resident physicians flexibility to engage in “internal moonlighting,” or providing patient care outside their specialized training program.
Another order allows out-of-hospital dialysis providers to relax staffing requirement levels.
Massachusetts Seeks to Claw Back at Least $2.7 Billion in Jobless Benefits it Says Were Incorrectly Paid
Boston Globe – In the early months of the pandemic, when nearly 700,000 local jobs disappeared in a flash, the Baker administration was caught in a bind: There was a massive backlog of unemployment claims, but laid-off workers needed money fast or an economic crisis would only get worse.
The Department of Unemployment Assistance rushed to get benefit checks out the door, even as vetting applicants was made more complicated by the sheer volume of work and confusing eligibility rules for new federal relief programs. While delays persisted, the DUA says it ultimately delivered $33 billion in state and federal jobless payments in 2020 and 2021 to almost 4 million people.
But the state’s efforts have been marred by costly mistakes.
At least $2.7 billion in benefits went to claimants who, the DUA later determined, received too much money or weren’t eligible for unemployment in the first place. That’s according to a tally of state filings with the US Labor Department by attorney Rory MacAneney of Community Legal Aid, which provides free legal help in Western Massachusetts.
The DUA issued what are called overpayments on 719,000 jobless claims from March 2020 through September 2021, according MacAneney’s data. The department says that the number of claims still unresolved stood at 383,000 last month and that individuals may have more than one claim.
To be clear, we’re not talking about the gangs of scammers who took Massachusetts — and other states — for billions of dollars by filing fraudulent claims with stolen personal information. That’s an entirely different problem.
No, these folks run the gamut from minimum-wage workers to white-collar professionals, and most applied for relief in good faith. They never dreamed the state might come back months later and say, “Sorry, we made a mistake. Pay up.”
Report Says Proposed Surtax Would Raise $1.3 Billion
The number is lower than some previous estimates and assumes that around 500 high-income families would move out of state.
The report, written by Evan Horowitz of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, said the new revenue would be raised in “a highly progressive way likely to advance racial and economic equity.”
It provides an independent look at a debate that has already produced volumes of competing research from players on both sides of the argument. It comes as advocates and lawmakers are expected to take the final steps necessary to put the question on the November 2022 ballot.
COVID Testing Shortages a Burden for Marginalized Groups
Boston Globe – Take-home rapid tests and PCR testing appointments are hard to come by for everyone amid the surge in coronavirus cases. But for marginalized groups statewide, the scavenger hunt for COVID testing is tougher to navigate.
A lack of reliable transportation, jobs with little flexibility, and language barriers make the search for tests more grueling in low-income, immigrant, and BIPOC communities, advocates and public health specialists say. Even weather variables, such as the extreme cold last week that closed some outdoor tent sites, add another challenge to the mix.
“The inequities have continued to plague communities of color and low-income communities across the state,” said Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association. “They continue to be the hardest hit.”
Senate President Outlines Priorities
State House News – Senate President Karen Spilka added climate-change legislation to her policy list for 2022 in an interview Thursday, and remained resolutely noncommittal on sports betting legalization.
The Ashland Democrat tagged climate change as “an area that we want to take a look at” in the new year. One of the Legislature’s first major acts in 2021 was re-approval of a sweeping climate policy roadmap, and Spilka said a focus of this year’s action could include “making sure that we meet our goals that we set.”
Early education and care topped Spilka’s list of goals Thursday, as it did in a statement released last week by her office.
“It’s no surprise that one of the things to me would be reforming our early education and care system, just like I fought hard to change the K-12 system and reform that, looking towards reforming early education and care,” the president said, “and making it much more sustainable for families and better for our children and the providers and the teachers and looking at that.”
Tax Revenue Estimate Kicks Off Budget Cycle
State House News – Legislative and Baker administration budget writers are projecting that state tax revenue will grow by 2.7 percent next fiscal year from the $35.948 billion they are now expecting the state to collect in fiscal 2022.
Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan and Ways and Means Committee chairs Sen. Michael Rodrigues and Rep. Aaron Michlewitz are required to jointly develop a revenue forecast each year, which lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker use in crafting their spending plans. Baker, who makes the first volley in the annual budgeting process, is due to file his bill by Jan. 26.
The trio on Friday announced a consensus revenue forecast of $36.915 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1, which would make a maximum of $29.783 billion in tax revenue available for the fiscal 2023 budget after accounting for statutorily required transfers. In conjunction with the announcement, Heffernan said he is revising this year’s revenue projection upward by $1.548 billion based on year-to-date collections and economic data. As of December, the state had collected more than $17.8 billion in taxes in the fiscal year.
Baker Files $5 Billion Bond Bill for Workforce Development, Cybersecurity
Boston Herald – Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation seeking almost $5 billion for investments in long-term priorities including public safety equipment upgrades, local infrastructure grants and information technology modernization.
“This bill supports essential capital investments that will deliver long-lasting benefits to Massachusetts residents for years to come, with a focus on safety, resiliency and opportunity,” Governor Charlie Baker said.
The bulk of the bill, $2.4 billion, is allocated to existing maintenance projects through the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which maintains nearly 1,700 buildings across the state, including higher education buildings, trial courts and public safety facilities. The bill also earmarks $400 million in energy efficiency initiatives at several facilities statewide.
The bill also allocates $1.8 million to mitigate future risks of these buildings, including “an increased focus on incorporating lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic related to the physical space and layout of facilities,” a statement from the Baker administration says.
Sullivan Launches Campaign for Secretary of State
State House News – Promising to make public records accessible and expand voting rights, attorney and life sciences executive Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, launched her campaign for secretary of state Tuesday morning.
A University of Virginia alumna who earned graduate degrees in law and business from Boston College, Sullivan spent most of her legal career representing life sciences companies. As a volunteer, she has focused on improving opportunities for workers, small business owners, and communities, according to her campaign. She took the volunteer job leading the local NAACP chapter in 2017, helming an organization committed to eliminating systemic racism and discrimination.
“We are at an inflection point in our democracy, and the challenges before us demand urgent, collective action,” Sullivan, 47, of Hyde Park, said in a statement. “In light of obstructionism that continues to stand in the way of federal action on voting rights, it falls to state leaders to protect and expand the right of every Massachusetts resident to participate in our government, and to show what a truly inclusive, representative democracy looks like.”
Secretary of State William Galvin hasn’t said if he plans to seek reelection this year, telling people to “draw their own conclusions” but also saying he enjoys his job.
Labor Unions top PAC Fundraising
Commonwealth Magazine – Organized labor, always a powerful force in Democratic-dominated Massachusetts, continues to hold sway heading into the 2022 election season – and nowhere is that clearer than in fundraising.
The Office of Campaign and Political Finance put out a newsletter Thursday listing the 10 political action committees with the largest bank accounts at the end of 2021, and eight of them were union affiliates.
Number one was the powerful health care workers’ union 1199 SEIU, which has more than $3 million in the bank. Health care workforce issues have become prominent in the State House as state health care facilities struggle with a lack of staffing amid the COVID surge. Both the House and the Senate are considering major health-care bills – a Senate bill shoring up mental health coverage and a House bill addressing hospital consolidations.
The union is also gearing up to participate in a ballot campaign opposing an effort by Uber and Lyft to classify their workers as independent contractors, not employees, while guaranteeing them certain benefits. One of 1199 SEIU’s biggest expenditures last year was $50,000 donated to the Coalition to Protect Workers Rights, a ballot committee formed to oppose the Uber/Lyft ballot question.
Web Site to Order Free COVID-19 Tests is Up and Running
CNN – The federal government has quietly launched its web site to sign up for free COVID-19 tests, allowing people to order a maximum of four tests shipped directly to their household.
Given that the formal launch wasn’t expected until Wednesday, a White House official said this is only the beta phase to ensure the site works seamlessly.
“In alignment with web-site launch best practices, covidtests.gov is currently in its beta phase, which means that the website is operating at limited capacity ahead of its official launch,” a White House official told CNN. “This is standard practice to address troubleshooting and ensure as smooth of an official launch tomorrow as possible. We expect the website to officially launch mid-morning tomorrow.”
Though the official said the site was only operating at a limited capacity, it’s unclear how the initial phase of the site is limited. Once shipping information was entered online, the site instructed people that tests would begin shipping in “late January” and the United States Postal Service, which is handling the deliveries, “will only send one set of 4 free at-home COVID-19 tests to valid residential addresses.”
Senate is Set to Debate Voting Rights. Here’s What the Bills Do
NPR – Canceling a planned recess for this week, the Senate is set to debate two measures on Tuesday that Democrats say would make it easier for all Americans to vote and reverse efforts by several states to limit ballot access.
Versions of both measures, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, have been approved by the House but face an uphill battle in the Senate.
While all senators who caucus with the Democrats have expressed support for these two bills, under current Senate rules it takes 60 senators to end debate and proceed to a vote. That’s not a number likely to be achieved in the evenly divided Senate on an issue that has grown increasingly partisan over the years.
In recent weeks, Democratic leaders from President Biden to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have called for the Senate to change its rules to pass these bills. But two Democrats, Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona, and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have said they do not support eliminating the filibuster, a position they reiterated last week when Biden met with Senate Democrats.
January 11, 2022
Tuesday January 11
- Joint Committee on Housing-Landlord-Tenant-11:00am-Virutal Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4155
- Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy-Consumer Protection, EJ, Siting, Late File Registration-11:30am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4158
- Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management-Oversight on Current Response to COVID-19-12:45pm-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4160
Wednesday January 12
- Joint Committee on Revenue-Estate Law-10:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4137
Tuesday January 18
- Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities-Commissions-1:00pm-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4159
Friday January 21
- Joint Committee on Revenue-Environment/Farming-10:00am-Virutal Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4138
Massachusetts, Other States to Create Electronic Vaccine Records
WCVB – Massachusetts is partnering with as many as 20 other states in an effort to create a shared digital system through which residents can prove their COVID-19 vaccination status.
Gov. Charlie Baker spoke about the development effort Monday during a radio interview. He explained the plan centers around a QR code — a digitally encoded pattern designed to be scanned from a device — that residents can display on a smartphone. Those codes could be scanned by businesses, venues or others to verify vaccination status.
“It’s a universal standard and we’ve been working with a bunch of other states,” Baker said during an interview on GBH’s Boston Public Radio. “There’s probably 15 or 20 of them, to try to create a single QR code that can be used for all sorts of things where people may choose to require a vaccine.”
The governor said Tuesday that just because this technology will be available he is against vaccine passport mandates and does not support requiring that businesses or other organizations restrict access based on vaccination status.
Massachusetts to Base Hospitalization Numbers on Reason for Admission
Berkshire Eagle – Beginning this week, Massachusetts hospitals will start to differentiate between patients they admit primarily for COVID-19 and those admitted to be treated for something else but who end up testing positive for COVID-19.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have surged over the last month as the omicron variant has become dominant and the patient count (2,426 patients hospitalized as of Tuesday) is now on par with the peak of the December 2020/January 2021 surge. Meanwhile, hospitals are dealing with staffing shortages that are further stressing the system and limiting bed capacity.
Berkshire Health Systems had 18 hospitalized patients with positive COVID-19 tests as of Wednesday.
The Department of Public Health said Thursday morning that hospitals will start reporting next week whether admissions are primary or incidental to COVID-19. The update could provide the public with a clearer sense of the severity of the omicron variant and how the record high numbers of new cases correlate to severe illness that requires hospitalization.
DPH’s daily COVID-19 updates provide the number of “patients hospitalized for COVID-19,” but the difference between patients with coronavirus infections serious enough to warrant hospital-level care and patients receiving non-COVID treatment who test positive as part of routine testing at hospitals has been on Gov. Charlie Baker’s mind for more than a year.
“When you call the hospitals and you talk to them one at a time, or the systems, a significant number of the people who they — who we — count as COVID positive are not in the hospital because they have COVID. They’re in the hospital for some other purpose and they got tested positive when they came in,” the governor said on Oct. 1, 2020.
Fate of Biden Vaccine Mandates in Supreme Court’s Hands
Axios – Most American businesses are holding back on requiring vaccines or testing for their employees. Now the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide whether the Biden administration can force their hand.
Omicron outbreaks are forcing business closures, flight cancellations and staffing shortages — a chaotic business environment that’s not great for the economy or employers already struggling to attract workers.
The Supreme Court heard arguments Friday over two of the Biden administration’s flagship COVID-19 policies: An emergency vaccinate-or-test rule covering an estimated 80 million employees at large companies, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and a vaccine mandate for health care workers at facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds.
Only about 18% of businesses require vaccinations, according to a November survey from Willis Towers Watson.
The recent rise in cases, and looming mandates, have pushed some to act: Starbucks this week announced all employees must either be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. The Mayo Clinic fired 700 of its employees (about 1% of staff) who refused to be vaccinated.
Plenty of others are waiting on the court, said Jeff Levin-Scherz, a population health leader at Willis Towers Watson: 32% of companies said they’d only require vaccination if it was a federal rule.
This case is a key front in the Republican war against Biden’s vaccine requirements; 183 GOP members of Congress, including 47 senators, filed an amicus brief at the court arguing against the vaccine mandates.
The federal vaccine rules were challenged by a coalition of Republican state attorneys general and conservative business and religious groups almost immediately after they were announced in November.
The Chamber of Commerce, which typically opposes workplace regulations, is not a party in the cases.
Mandate opponents say the requirements are executive overreach.
They claim COVID-19 is not a workplace hazard, per se, but something that’s all around us. Health care workers, in particular, should have an option other than vaccination, they argue.
Another argument is that mandates would push workers to quit, exacerbating labor shortages. That has happened here and there, Levin-Scherz said. But the costs of employing the unvaccinated — who face higher health risks and costs, and need to quarantine for longer — is the bigger issue, he tells Axios.
The administration, public health experts and former OSHA staff say the agency is explicitly authorized to take emergency measures to protect workplace safety.
Requiring masks, testing or vaccination is less intrusive than some other OSHA rules, they say.
“If you’re doing asbestos removal you’re going to be wearing a moon suit,” said David Vladeck, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, who’s argued several OSHA cases. “The idea you have to put an n95 mask on, oh boohoo. In many workplaces that’s the least employees have to do.”
Mandate proponents emphasize that from retail stores to meatpacking plants to jails and warehouses, workplaces have been major hotspots throughout the pandemic.
A lower court’s ruling upholding OSHA’s mandate notes that 80 of the 84 new COVID outbreaks reported in Washington state in December were in workplace settings, outside of health care.
The court is expected to move relatively fast, possibly issuing a ruling by month’s end. Observers say that the fate of the mandate rests with three of the justices: Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts.
Meanwhile, OSHA has moved the deadline for its workplace mandate to February.
Information Chaos in Public Health
Commonwealth Magazine – Scrolling through Facebook today, I came across a new website that helps people find and order in-stock home COVID tests on line. It’s updated to show current availability from a number of test suppliers. What a brilliant idea!
For the past few weeks, my neighborhood Facebook feed has been buzzing with variations on a theme: Does anyone know where I can find a COVID test for my kid/parent/self so I can go to school/hug my mom/travel? Followed by – yes! Just saw them at Walgreen’s in Arlington/CVS in Bedford/Walmart online. And inevitably the end of the story is – by the time I got there, the tests were gone. And sometimes a coda: Try logging on to the (pick a store) website at 5 a.m. or 7 p.m. or Thursdays.
It’s eerily reminiscent of the mad and frustrating scramble to find open slots when the vaccines first came out.
But that was nearly a year ago – and here we are. We’re still relying on individuals to figure out how to keep themselves and their families – and their communities – safe. And more than that, we are relying on luck.
I think about the chain of events and lucky breaks that led me to the test finder site today. I have a doctor friend who’s been writing weekly sensible and well-informed COVID updates since the pandemic began. She learned about the site through an email from a stranger that was buried in her spam folder. I happened to be taking a break when she posted it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know about it.
And we’re relying on more than individual luck. The chain of events that led me to find the site just isn’t universally available. I have time to surf social media. I am digitally literate and I have devices and Wi-Fi, and, if I didn’t, I could use minutes on my phone. I have the training to know whom I trust to provide reliable information about COVID.
School Mask Mandate Extended Through February 28
State House News – Masks will remain required indoors in Massachusetts public schools through at least the end of February, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced Monday.
School staff, students and parents had been awaiting a decision from Education Commissioner Jeff Riley on whether he would leave in place the mask mandate that was set to lapse this coming Saturday, January 15, unless Riley extended it for a third time. Riley in December said he was waiting to give the medical community more time to understand the omicron variant.
Omicron fueled a massive spike in COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, and the return to classrooms after winter break was marked at many schools by an abundance of virus-related absences that in some cases caused staffing shortages. Districts reported a total of more than 51,000 new student and staff COVID-19 cases from Dec. 23 to Jan. 5.
At Riley’s request, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in August granted him authority to mandate masks in schools for individuals age 5 and up through at least Oct. 1. Riley’s latest extension keeps the requirement in place through Feb. 28, 2022.
Masks are not required outdoors, while eating or drinking, or for students who cannot wear one for medical or behavioral reasons. Riley is electing to leave in place the option through which local officials can opt to lift the mandate for vaccinated individuals at a particular school if they first demonstrate to DESE a vaccination rate of at least 80 percent.
“The mask requirement remains an important measure to keep students, teachers and staff in school safely at this time,” the department said in a statement. “The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in consultation with medical experts and state health officials, will continue to evaluate public health data.”
$876 Million Tax Workaround Set in Motion
Commonwealth Magazine – A tax change designed to help some wealthy Massachusetts residents recover a portion of a lucrative federal tax break they lost four years ago kicked into gear in December, when a group of so-called pass-through businesses paid $876 million in excise taxes to the state.
The figure was disclosed in a Department of Revenue press release issued on Wednesday detailing the state’s tax take for December.
With pass-through businesses, including S corporations, limited liability companies, and some trusts, income flows through the company to the owner or shareholder, who traditionally paid income tax to Massachusetts on the money earned.
Up until four years ago, the business owners who itemized could deduct all of the Massachusetts income taxes they paid (as well as their property taxes) on their federal tax returns. But the so-called state and local tax deduction, or SALT deduction, was capped at $10,000 in 2017 to help pay for tax cuts sought by President Trump that benefited the wealthy and large corporations.
Massachusetts last year approved a work-around to restore the deduction for taxpayers associated with pass-through businesses. Instead of the owner or shareholder of the pass-through business making the tax payments, the new Massachusetts law allowed the pass-through companies themselves to pay an equivalent excise tax, which under federal law would be fully deductible on the company’s federal tax return.
Stuck in a Long Line for a COVID-19 Test? Here’s the Reason
WBUR – Images of people standing in line for testing have become so common in recent weeks that an explanation by CIC Health Chief Executive Tim Rowe may come as a surprise.
In many cases, he said, there’s not actually a shortage of testing equipment. There’s a shortage of sites and people to operate them.
“It’s really just the health-care logistics work to stand up testing sites and hire people and all of that,” Rowe said.
Rowe’s firm is one of several state contractors that has run vaccination and testing clinics across Massachusetts, but he expected to be winding down those operations by now — not ramping them back up.
In the fall, before the omicron variant emerged, demand at CIC Health’s testing centers had slowed to a trickle. The company reduced staff and let a lease expire in Cambridge.
Rowe said he understands why people might second guess the decision not to keep the region’s large-scale testing infrastructure in place.
“In retrospect, it’s super clear, right?” he said. “But if you asked, like in November, was anyone clamoring for that? Nobody was.”
Rowe said CIC Health is now suddenly “hiring like crazy” and considering new testing sites. But that process takes time.
In the meantime, some people are scrounging for tests wherever they can find them.
Boston’s New Year’s Eve bash last week doubled as a chance to get tested or vaccinated. And the Whittier Street Health Center’s mobile clinic was more popular, at times, than any food truck in Copley Square for First Night.
175 MBTA Communities Must Increase Multi-Family Zoning this Year
A year ago, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a new multi-family zoning requirement for the 175 communities serviced by or adjacent to MBTA public transportation. Now that the first draft of guidelines are here, advocates are celebrating the change — but warning that most municipalities will have to make changes to be in compliance.
“There’s going to be so much more zoning capacity for new homes in Massachusetts, which we really think is going to help people be able to live in the community of their choice,” said Eric Shupin of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association.
The new draft guidelines, released just before the end of the year, specify that an MBTA community must have “at least one zoning district of reasonable size in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right,” the policy states.
Timothy Reardon of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimated that only about a dozen communities, many of them in the dense inner ring near Boston, were already in compliance with these guidelines. He estimated that these zoning changes are the “appropriate scale to meet the next 10 to 15 years of demand,” he said, though he added that he’s already heard from some community leaders that they’re concerned constituents won’t be on board.
Specifically, the proposed policy stipulates that these zones have a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre, are no more than a half mile from an MBTA station in most cases, do not have age restrictions, and are suitable for families with children in the number and size of bedrooms, for example.
The zoning requirements would vary by the type of MBTA service available in that community. Communities with rapid transit need to have a minimum of 25% multi-family units as a percentage of total housing stock, while Commuter Rail communities need 15% multi-family units.
Boston would be exempt from this requirement, but next-door neighbor Cambridge would need to have 13,477 multi-family units out of 53,907 total, according to an online calculator from the state. Scituate, a less-urban community with Commuter Rail, would need 1,239 out of 8,260 total units.
Under the draft guidelines, communities must submit by the end of the year either a request to certify their existing infrastructure, or an “action plan” to get into compliance over the next few years.
“Just because the zoning might be in place, doesn’t mean that there’s going to be homes built there tomorrow, or that even homes will be built there at all,” Shupin, of CHAPA, said. “This only allows that zoning piece so it allows the opportunity for that.”
Stacy Thompson of the LivableStreets Alliance said the draft guidelines on the whole appear to do good, but she took issue with the fact that the plan doesn’t require a certain percentage of the units be affordable.
State Issues COVID-19 Booster Mandate for Nursing Home Workers
WBUR – More nursing home workers will be forced to roll up their sleeves and get a COVID-19 booster — or risk losing their jobs.
That’s thanks to a statewide booster mandate for all eligible nursing home staff handed down by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The state set a Feb. 28 deadline for receiving the additional vaccination.
Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, which represents nursing and long-term care facilities throughout the Commonwealth, said getting shots in arms has been a priority.
“We absolutely support any and all efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of our residents and their caregivers working in the Commonwealth’s nursing facilities,” she said. “We have been actively working towards increasing booster rates among our staff and residents and encouraging our visitors to also be vaccinated and boosted the right now.”
Supply, Labor Strains Continue Squeeze on Restaurants, Supermarkets
Boston Herald – Supermarkets are turning to different brands than they normally stock in order to fill empty shelves, and restaurants have pared back menus to cope with a limited pool of available ingredients as the omicron wave increasingly impacts the economy.
Welcome to the food industry during a time of supply chain struggles.
As the federal government takes aim at shipping bottlenecks and meat processing market shares, restaurant and grocery leaders in Massachusetts say they continue to struggle under the combined pressures of inflation, low stock and labor shortages.
“It’s a confluence of all of the events,” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “There’s a shortage of truckers, a shortage of warehouse workers, a shortage of pickers, a shortage of meat-cutters. It’s just wreaking havoc on the entire retail world.”
While supply chain struggles stretch back to the early days of the pandemic, the omicron variant and increasingly common labor shortages have thrust the issue back into the spotlight.
In October, the American Trucking Association estimated the nation was 80,000 drivers short of what it needed to meet freight demand.
Massachusetts Food Association Senior Vice President Brian Houghton, whose group represents supermarket and grocery store businesses, recounted the struggles of one MFA member whose bakery prepares bread for other companies.
Bakery staff complained they couldn’t get “any of the ingredients that they need to make the products,” Houghton said, which cut into the business and prevented other stores from stocking its bread.
Many grocers are now grappling with a choice as a result of the strained supply chain: allow some shelves to go empty or offer customers different brands and products than they have come to expect.
Pharmacists Face Pandemic Burnout, Too
Boston Herald – Everyone knows that doctors and nurses are burned out from COVID-19, facing staffing shortages, full emergency rooms and COVID exposures — but one group of health care workers has been overlooked and faces its own set of COVID-related difficulties: pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.
“Most pharmacists who’ve been in the field for a while, have been telling students ‘just stop, don’t go to pharmacy school, do something else, anything else,’” one clinical pharmacist in Boston said. “I’m hoping that the people who are going into pharmacy school are doing it because they truly have a passion for it and will fight for it and want to do nothing else with their lives.”
This pharmacist, who asked to remain anonymous for job security, said she’s faced challenges unique to the COVID era, including staffing shortages due to COVID outages and people leaving the industry. She’s even been asked to come into work while caring for her COVID-positive child, she said.
Mike Reppucci, who has owned Cambridge’s Inman Pharmacy since 1984, had three of seven pharmacists out this past week due to COVID and one on parental leave. He had to pick up 30 extra hours to fill the gaps, and other staffers have worked 10 to 20 hours extra. He even enlisted his son — an EMT who’s certified to do so — to administer COVID vaccines.
“It’s making everybody tired,” he said.
Another pharmacist, a who works at a specialty pharmacy outside of Boston, said she’s so tired at the end of the work day that she “can barely walk” after her shift. “I feel overworked and exhausted,” she said. “I’m in the call center, I’m in the lab. I’m just floating wherever I can, doing work that used to be done by like three different people.”
She added that the rapidly changing news around the pandemic has affected demand for certain drugs, especially ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug proved to be ineffective at treating COVID-19, but misinformation circulated last year, touting its benefits in fighting COVID-19.
Wu Calls for More Flexibility for Remote Learning
Mayor Michelle Wu made the rounds on Sunday morning television shows where she pressed the state for more flexibility around remote instruction in schools and defended her heightened vaccination policies as cases — fueled by the omicron variant — surge in Boston.
“As a mom with two young kids, I know that in-person learning is better for our young people,” Wu said on WCVB’s “On The Record” Sunday morning in which she appeared remotely, describing how her two sons’ “eyes light up” walking into the classroom.
The state Department of Education has barred school districts from using remote learning this school year — something teachers unions and education officials have pushed back on as case numbers have shot up amid a holiday surge.
Massachusetts public schools reported the highest-ever number of new cases this past week with 38,887 new cases among students and 12,213 among staff members. In Boston schools, that translated to more than 1,000 infected school employees, including more than 650 teachers, Wu said.
“When we’re at the point when staffing levels mean we are almost unable to keep certain schools open, we do have to then make that choice of whether we call it a snow day — and have no programming at all for our students, regardless of the weather — or we allow for some remote flexibility especially during this winter surge,” the mayor said.
The Roslindale Democrat said she’s “on board” with teachers’ demands for an in-school mask mandate through the end of the school year in June and noted it would “likely” be the policy in Boston Public Schools regardless of the state policy.
Educators Question Efficacy of State-Issued Masks
Greenfield Recorder – Western Massachusetts educators and the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) are criticizing the quality of masks that were recently provided to teachers.
“Statewide, we’re very concerned,” said Nellie Taylor, who serves on the MTA’s board of directors and is a member of the Easthampton Education Association.
In a statement released last week, the MTA blasted Gov. Charlie Baker and state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeffrey Riley for failures around the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Since the start of the pandemic, Gov. Baker and Commissioner Riley have demonstrated gross incompetence in their failure to take vital steps to keep students, educators and communities safe,” MTA President Merrie Najimy said in the statement.
A prominent issue the MTA mentioned was the distribution of masks that the union asserts are not up to par. The MTA has been critical of the Fujian Pageone non-medical KN95 masks that DESE has distributed to some educators.
Baker and DESE spokespeople assert the masks distributed are more than 87% effective, according to the union. However, the MTA said that conversations with Gregory Rutledge, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor, have confirmed that the Fujian Pageone non-medical KN95 masks were not tested by MIT for efficacy when the university assisted in efforts to test masks in 2020.
COVID-19 Surge Exposes Educational Inequities in Livestreaming Classes
WGBH – If you’re a student in suburban Needham who is sick or quarantining, you can still attend classes — remotely through livestreaming. The process is straightforward: the student asks the teacher and gets online from home.
For Boston Public School students who need to isolate or quarantine, there is no similar procedure. The district has what it calls a “Home & Hospital Process” that only applies to students sick for two weeks or longer. Those students and their families must embark on a bureaucratic and little-known six-stage process. It requires a physician to fill out a form, a parent to fill out a form and a nurse to approve those forms and submit them to the district’s team for a student to get approval to livestream classes.
This may explain why just 39 of nearly 50,000 Boston public school students are enrolled in livestreaming even as COVID-19 cases surge. And that underscores the persistent inequities in education depending on where a child in Massachusetts attends school in the pandemic.
“As much as the pandemic has exacerbated these inequalities, it’s also bringing to light very longstanding inequalities,” said MIT professor Justin Reich, director of its Teaching Systems Lab. “Long before March of 2020, kids in Needham had more opportunities to learn effectively with technology than kids in Boston did. It’s much more visible now. But it was … no less shameful in March of 2019 than it is in January of 2022.”
Massachusetts’ department of elementary and secondary education has maintained in the 2021-22 academic year that schools are not allowed to teach remotely, even in the midst of the latest COVID-19 surge, with education officials and Gov. Charlie Baker citing the student mental health crisis and the benefits of in-person learning last week. Not everyone agrees, with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu recently suggesting it’s too rigid, and a student petition circulating for remote learning with more than 3,500 signatures.
Moderna Plans to have Omicron Booster Ready for the Fall
Boston Business Journal – Moderna Inc. CEO Stéphane Bancel said on Monday that the company will have a new Covid-19 vaccine specifically targeted at the omicron variant ready for the fall.
The omicron-specific vaccine is currently in preclinical development. Moderna (Nasdaq: MRNA) plans to enter clinical trials with the shot early this year, with the expectation that it could be ready to be administered later this year.
“We think this is within reach, and we won’t stop until this goal is achieved,” Bancel told investors and attendees at the virtual J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference on Monday morning. He added that he expects that while new, more virulent variants are always a possibility — especially given how quickly and drastically omicron mutated from earlier versions of SARS-CoV-2 — it is likely that omicron will at minimum need to be factored into a multivalent Covid-19 vaccine.
Moderna also said it has signed about $18.5 billion in advance purchase agreements for its Covid-19 vaccine with delivery expected this year. That’s a $1.5 billion increase from the $17 billion it announced in November.
Bancel hinted that Moderna may increase the price of its Covid-19 vaccine for high-income countries soon. The company already raised the price in the European Union in August, by about one-tenth, the Financial Times reported.
Omicron Pushes Overstretched Staffs to the Brink
Boston Globe – As Omicron whips through the workforce, caregiving agencies are turning away new patients. Restaurants are shutting down. Construction jobs are being delayed. Retailers, including Macy’s, are limiting hours.
And some small business owners are at the breaking point.
The colossally contagious COVID-19 variant emerged at the worst possible time for employers, as workers — many of them vaccinated and eager to socialize — were gathering with family members over the holidays. Infections flattened entire families at once in some cases. And for organizations that don’t have the luxury of allowing people to work remotely, the surge in positive cases is exacerbating a long-simmering staffing crisis that has grown even more urgent in recent months as record numbers of people quit their jobs.
New Student Loan Ombudsman gets Nearly 400 Requests for Help
Commonwealth Magazine – In its first six months of existence, an ombudsman’s office tasked with addressing complaints about the student loan industry has gotten 393 complaints and requests for help.
The complaints came in despite the fact that the Biden administration has paused repayment of federal student loans during the pandemic.
“Considering how many complaints they are fielding, given the fact that there’s been a COVID-related suspension or lull, shows how important and necessary the law was,” said Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who sponsored the bill creating the ombudsman’s office.
A report filed with the Legislature this week by the ombudsman, who works in Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, provided a first glimpse into the brand new office, which was created in an economic development bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed last January. The report also provides insight into the problems with the student loan industry.
“In working with borrowers, the Ombudsman’s Student Loan Assistance Unit has consistently found that the existing federal loan repayment system is overly complex and plagued by servicing failures that have trapped borrowers in unaffordable debt,” ombudsman Arwen Thoman wrote. “Even with federal income-driven repayment plans, borrowers often face long-term and costly debt burdens.”
Borrowers who received private loans, rather than those offered by the federal government, fared worse, Thoman wrote, since they “typically have more costly loans and fewer options for managing repayment.”
Report Calls for State Oversight of Home-Care Services
Newburyport News – Massachusetts is among 20 states that don’t license home-care services that clean, cook and provide companionship for elderly and homebound individuals.
But a state commission is calling for such businesses to be integrated into the regulatory system by creating a process to license and oversee their operations.
In a report, the panel called for setting up a new licensing and oversight system similar to those in place in California and 30 other states that regulate the industry.
The report noted that while some home-care businesses are subject to state oversight through contractual agreements with regional elderly service boards, there are “gaps” in oversight. The panel concluded a licensing system is needed to “protect consumers, home care agencies and professionals.”
The report also calls for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services to create new regulations for the industry that will set standards for license approval and revocation, require regular state inspections, as well as criminal background checks for workers.
The 13-member commission, which includes state officials, elderly affairs representatives and consumers, met several times over the past year and heard testimony from experts, home care agencies and consumers. The recommendations will now be forwarded to the state Legislature.
The panel was unable to reach consensus on other regulatory issues, such as how many home-care licenses will be available, amid objections from some members.
Pittsfield Steps into Digital Age with $100,000 Grant for Public Wi-Fi Network
Berkshire Eagle – Mayor Linda Tyer asked the new City Council at its first meeting Tuesday to accept an almost $100,000 grant from the state’s Community Compact IT program.
What the city will gain in return: a free publicly accessible Wi-Fi network set to cover downtown and Morningside and West Side neighborhoods.
“At a time when so much of our lives — from work to school — requires access to the internet, this is more than a want,” Tyer said during a grant ceremony in City Hall late last month. “It is essentially a utility that we need to provide a thriving quality of life for every resident regardless of economic status.”
The project is the brainchild of Mike Steben, Pittsfield’s chief information officer. Steben said that the city plans to use the grant money to install a series of Wi-Fi hotspots throughout downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods to create a wireless network available to any resident, business or tourist in the area.
The boundaries of the network are still being formed. Steben said that — ironically — every wireless network needs “a wired network operating behind the scenes.” He said the locations of the hotspots will depend on where the city has the ability to tap into a wired internet infrastructure or create that wired connection.
Wu’s School Challenge: Put Black, Latino, and Low-Income Kids on Path to Success
Commonwealth Magazine – If Mayor Michelle Wu focuses her upcoming State of the City speech solely on the state of Boston Public Schools (BPS), she would need to convey difficult truths about how the city is failing its Black, Latino, and economically-disadvantaged children. Perhaps her greatest challenge as mayor will be the transformation of Boston Public Schools, a transformation that eluded her predecessors.
The pandemic continues to exacerbate existing inequities. Academic performance is suffering further and more of Boston’s children are falling through the cracks. The most recent common assessments (spring 2021 MCAS) showed that almost 80 percent of non-white students are not meeting expectations in English in grades 3-8; almost 90 percent in math. Among white students, 40 percent are not meeting expectations in English; 55 percent in math.
But, let’s be honest. Academic performance in the Boston Public Schools was abysmal prior to the pandemic, and the structural issues preventing progress existed long before it. More than 30 percent of BPS students (16,656 children) attend a school that ranks near the bottom of all public schools statewide. To understand the scale of the problem, it is worth noting that these students would make up the fourth largest district in Massachusetts if they were their own district.
A comprehensive state audit in March 2020 highlighted the district’s numerous shortcomings: growing achievement gaps, slowing graduation rates, and declining enrollment, while other performance measures were stagnant. The audit found no evidence of a plan to address these issues, and hinted at receivership as the cure.
In 2019, less than a quarter of non-white students in grades 3-8 met expectations in English or math. That’s three out of every four non-white students not performing at grade level. In grade 10, about one-third of these students did not perform up to grade level standards.
US Carbon Emissions Increased in 2021
Boston Globe – Scientists have made it clear that the world must urgently curb carbon emissions to avert climate catastrophe. But it looks like last year, the US moved in the wrong direction. The nation saw a 7 percent increase in greenhouse gas pollution from energy last year, according to new federal projections.
That increase came despite the US making big climate promises last year at the Glasgow climate talks and on the federal stage.
“These sobering figures demonstrate what climate activists have been saying for decades — tinkering around the edges won’t get the job done,” Collin Rees, senior campaigner at Oil Change International, said. “To meet the drastic emissions reductions we needed for global climate targets, we need drastic federal action to slash emissions, phase out oil and gas production, and end the fossil fuel era.”
Inpendent data show a similar trend. Research outfit the Rhodium Group estimated US emissions increased by 6.2 percent compared with the previous year in a preliminary estimate published Monday morning. According to Carbon Monitor, an international group of scholars who track emissions, the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution increased by more than 7 percent from January through October. Meanwhile, the Global Carbon Project, another academic organization that produces annual emission estimates, projects an 8 percent increase in emissions over the course of last year.
This increase follows a historic drop in US carbon pollution in 2020. (Global carbon pollution also fell sharply.) That plunge was linked to covid-19 lockdowns. Amid the pandemic, there were fewer cars on the roads and planes in the air, and entire industries came to a screeching halt. As a result, the country’s energy use plummeted. But now that restrictions are easing up, pollution levels are bouncing back.
“This year’s [emissions] increase shows that going back to normal cannot be the goal because normal was already a crisis,” Tim Donaghy, senior research specialist at Greenpeace USA, said in an email.
Pollution is still below 2019 levels according to all three new datasets, but they’re getting close. Carbon Monitor’s data shows in the first 10 months of 2021, they were only about 4% less than they were in the same months of 2019 before the spread of covid-19 began.
Steven J. Davis, a co-lead at Carbon Monitor and professor of Earth System Science at University of California Irvine, explained that different sectors’ emissions rebounded at different rates. For instance, while energy and transit-related emissions had the sharpest increase, pollution from air travel is rebounding more slowly.
“The main story is that emissions are recovering as US economic activities resume (e.g., offices reopen, people travel more), but that it’s not quite back to pre-pandemic levels, especially in the case of air travel,” he wrote in an email. “We can see persistent decreases in road transportation emissions in places like California and New York where people are apparently still not driving as much as they did prior to the pandemic.”
Experts are concerned that 2021′s rise in pollution could put emissions targets farther from reach. By the end of the decade, the Biden administration has pledged to halve carbon pollution from 2005 levels. With each passing year of increasing emissions, that goal will be harder to achieve, requiring steeper cuts.
“We are heading in the wrong direction during a critical window of time when the climate crisis has officially put us on the clock,” said Cabell Eames, political director of the state climate organization 350 Massachusetts.
Further, leading climate scientists say that to avert the worst impacts of climate change, the world must be on a path to reduce emissions by about 45 percent by 2030 and 100% by 2050. As the biggest historic carbon emitter, UN scientists and advocates alike say the US should lead the charge to curb global emissions and outpace the UN’s suggested timeline. Yet in 2020, the nation’s emissions growth outpaced the global average, according to Carbon Monitor. While the world emitted 5.97% more carbon, the US emitted 7.60% more.
Tim Cronin, Massachusetts state director at the climate education and advocacy nonprofit Climate XChange, said he wasn’t surprised by the increase.
“We didn’t have a climate-friendly national administration until 2021,” he said. “Even states like Massachusetts that are ahead, have only recently updated their climate goals to reflect new science.”
It’s not too late to change course. Donaghy said the US could begin to do so by passing the Build Back Better act — an ambitious spending package that would usher in historic climate investments — and by ending fossil fuel subsidies. Rees said Biden should also block the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure.
On the state level, Eames called on leaders to ensure federal funds are used in ways that will result in immediate emissions cuts.
“Every second that we waste will cost us more in the future, she said, “and by the looks of this data, tomorrow isn’t necessarily promised.”
January 4, 2022
Tuesday January 4
- Joint Committee on Revenue-COVID-19-10:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4136
- Joint Committee on Public Service-Local Matters-10:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4144
- Joint Committee on Education-Health and Misc-11:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4149
- Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons With Disabilities-DDS-3-1:00pm-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4146
- Joint Commitee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture-Fishing, Hunting, Trapping and Misc Matters-1:00pm-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4147
Friday January 7
- Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs-Veterans and Federal Affairs Legislation-11:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4150
Wednesday January 12
- Joint Committee on Revenue-Estate Law-10:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4137
Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund Reconciliation Report Released
Mass.gov – The Commonwealth of Massachusetts released a report from KPMG, LLP summarizing the findings of a reconciliation project that examined the finances of the Unemployment Insurance (UI) Trust Fund.
The Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development commissioned KPMG to conduct this independent assessment to determine the impact of federal pandemic relief programs and other effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the financial status of the Commonwealth’s unemployment system and the UI Trust Fund balance for the period from the beginning of the pandemic in March, 2020 through November 30, 2021.
The report outlines the steps KPMG took to evaluate the balance of the UI Trust Fund and provides an overview of the current status of the fund, including the effects of several outstanding financial obligations. These obligations include the necessary repayment of federal advances that ensured the Fund’s solvency in 2020 and currently outstanding employer credits resulting from a mid-2021 downward adjustment in UI rates. The report also identifies the need for a one-time transfer of approximately $300 million from funds currently held in the UI system to the federal government to reconcile state and federal accounts now that emergency programs implemented under federal authority in 2020 and 2021 have come to a close.
Report Indicates UI Trust Fund Warnings Overstated
Commonwealth Magazine – The Baker Administration released a long-awaited report on New Year’s Eve indicating the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund is in much better shape than expected.
After issuing warnings earlier this year about huge deficits that needed to be offset with an infusion of billions of dollars, the report said the actual deficit as of November 30 was $115 million.
“It’s better news than many people expected,” said Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville, co-chair of the Legislature’s Labor and Workforce Development Committee and co-chair of a commission evaluating the unemployment insurance trust fund.
The report, produced by KPMG LLC, arrived at the deficit figure by reconciling the fund’s existing $2.9 billion balance with the estimated $3.015 billion the fund owes. The resulting deficit of $115 million is not insignificant, but it’s nothing compared to what many had forecast, which may explain why the report was released on New Year’s Eve.
Supreme Court to Hold Special Hearing on Biden Vaccine Mandates
New York Times – The Supreme Court will hold a special hearing on Friday to assess the legality of two initiatives at the heart of the Biden administration’s efforts to address the coronavirus in the workplace.
The court said it would move with exceptional speed on the two measures, a vaccine-or-testing mandate aimed at large employers and a vaccination requirement for certain health care workers. The justices had not been scheduled to return to the bench until the following Monday.
Both sets of cases had been on what critics call the court’s shadow docket, in which the court decides emergency applications, sometimes on matters of great consequence, without full briefing and argument. The court’s decision to hear arguments on the applications may have been a response to mounting criticism of that practice.
The more sweeping of the two measures, directed at businesses with 100 or more employees, would affect more than 84 million workers and is central to the administration’s efforts to address the pandemic. The administration estimated that the measure would cause 22 million people to get vaccinated and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations.
Massachusetts’ Minimum Wage Goes Up Again. The Fate of Other Laws is Less Certain
Boston Globe – With the dawn of a new year, Massachusetts residents likely will have to navigate many of the things they already have in 2021: a resurgent global pandemic, economic inflation, a shortage of workers.
A slate of changes to state law could make that easier — or harder.
Thousands of low-income workers could saw a mandatory raise when the state minimum wage increased on January 1. For the fourth time in as many years, the minimum wage in Massachusetts increased, this time from $13.50 per hour to $14.25 per hour. It’s the second-to-last in a series of hikes that will push the state’s wage floor to $15 per hour by 2023.
Some employees who work Sundays may take home a little less per hour. And by the spring, some pandemic-era rules countless people have leaned on will end without action on Beacon Hill.
Many Boston City Workers Go Remote as Omicron Surges
Boston Herald – Many of Boston’s 18,000 city employees will shift to remote work for two weeks amid a surge in coronavirus cases as the omicron variant rages, Mayor Michelle Wu announced.
“With COVID-19 cases spiking in Boston and across the Commonwealth, we are taking these temporary measures to reduce the risk of transmission and protect our workforce and our communities,” Wu said in a statement on Sunday. “Our priority is to keep open the schools and city services that our residents count on every day. I thank all our city workers for their unwavering efforts to serve the public throughout the pandemic.”
In an email to city workers this weekend, Wu directed any workers who can perform their duties remotely to return to working from home from Tuesday, Jan. 4 through Jan. 18. A stricter vaccine mandate for all city workers takes effect on Jan. 15 when employees will be required to show proof of at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. All city workers must be fully vaccinated by Feb. 15.
“The City is temporarily decreasing the number of employees in City buildings to ensure that it can protect the health of its workforce and the public we serve. To do this, the City will be directing certain City employees, who can perform all of their essential work functions remotely, to begin working from home and to remain doing so until Tuesday, January 18, 2022,” she said in the email.
U.S. COVID Cases Skyrocket; Disruptions Abound as 2022 Begins
WBUR – In just a few weeks, the U.S. will mark two years since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country, and the number of new infections has never been higher.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 486,428 confirmed coronavirus cases on Wednesday, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began, according to agency data.
The spike — driven by the delta variant and the highly infectious but potentially milder omicron strain — snarled holiday plans for many and presented a big question mark at the start of the new year, now the country’s third in the pandemic.
One area that’s been walloped by the recent surge in COVID cases is airline travel, and those attempting to fly during the holidays continue to face an uphill battle to get off the tarmac.
Airlines canceled more than 2,400 U.S. flights by midday on Saturday, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware. Chicago, which is also under a winter storm warning, was experiencing hundreds of cancellations at its two main airports.
CDC Could Add Negative Test to New Isolation Guidelines
WBUR – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering altering its recommendations for people with COVID-19 after it got pushback on its new guidelines, Dr. Anthony Fauci said.
President Biden’s chief medical adviser said there was “some concern” that the CDC told people to isolate for five days but did not recommend that they get a negative test before leaving isolation.
“That is something that is now under consideration,” Fauci said Sunday during an interview on ABC’s This Week.
Last week the CDC cut the number of days it recommends COVID-positive people remain in isolation from 10 days to five if they are no longer showing symptoms. People are urged to wear masks for another five days after that to avoid infecting others.
The CDC said transmission generally occurs one or two days before symptoms begin and two to three days after. Health officials were also concerned that the high number of people testing positive with the virus and being forced to isolate — particularly essential workers — could cause major disruptions to the economy.
But the agency did not include anything in its guidance about testing negative for COVID before leaving isolation, something critics say should be included in the updated recommendations.
FDA Takes Multiple Actions to Expand Use of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine
FDA.gov – Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amended the emergency use authorization (EUA) for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine to:
- Expand the use of a single booster dose to include use in individuals 12 through 15 years of age.
- Shorten the time between the completion of primary vaccination of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine and a booster dose to at least five months.
- Allow for a third primary series dose for certain immunocompromised children 5 through 11 years of age.
“Throughout the pandemic, as the virus that causes COVID-19 has continuously evolved, the need for the FDA to quickly adapt has meant using the best available science to make informed decisions with the health and safety of the American public in mind,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D.
“With the current wave of the omicron variant, it’s critical that we continue to take effective, life-saving preventative measures such as primary vaccination and boosters, mask wearing and social distancing in order to effectively fight COVID-19.”
What you need to know:
Boosters are now authorized for people 12 years of age and older
Today’s action expands the use of a single booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine to include its use in individuals as young as 12 years of age.
The agency has determined that the protective health benefits of a single booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine to provide continued protection against COVID-19 and the associated serious consequences that can occur including hospitalization and death, outweigh the potential risks in individuals 12 through 15 years of age.
The FDA reviewed real-world data from Israel, including safety data from more than 6,300 individuals 12 through 15 years of age who received a booster dose of the vaccine at least 5 months following completion of the primary two-dose vaccination series.
These additional data enabled the FDA to reassess the benefits and risks of the use of a booster in the younger adolescent population in the setting of the current surge in COVID-19 cases.
The data shows there are no new safety concerns following a booster in this population. There were no new cases of myocarditis or pericarditis reported to date in these individuals.
Booster interval updated to five months for people 12 years of age and older.
The FDA is also authorizing the use of a single booster dose five months after completion of the primary vaccination series of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.
Since Pfizer initially submitted safety and effectiveness data on a single booster dose following primary vaccination, additional real-world data have become available on the increasing number of cases of COVID-19 with the omicron variant in the U.S.
No new safety concerns have emerged from a population of over 4.1 million individuals 16 years of age and older in Israel who received a booster dose at least five months following completion of the primary vaccination series.
Additionally, peer-reviewed data from multiple laboratories indicate that a booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine greatly improves an individual’s antibody response to be able to counter the omicron variant. Authorizing booster vaccination to take place at five months rather than six months may therefore provide better protection sooner for individuals against the highly transmissible omicron variant.
Given the demonstrated safety and effectiveness of a booster dose when administered five months after the primary vaccination series, and the fact that a booster dose may help provide better protection against the rapidly spreading omicron variant, the FDA has determined that the known and potential benefits of administering a booster to individuals ages 12 and older at least five months following completion of the primary vaccination series, outweighs the known and potential risks.
While today’s action applies to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, the FDA continues to review data concerning all available vaccines and will provide additional updates as appropriate.
A third primary series dose for certain immunocompromised children ages 5 through 11.
Children 5 through 11 years of age who have undergone solid organ transplantation, or who have been diagnosed with conditions that are considered to have an equivalent level of immunocompromise, may not respond adequately to the two-dose primary vaccination series. Thus, a third primary series dose has now been authorized for this group. This will now allow these children to receive the maximum potential benefit from vaccination.
The FDA previously authorized a third primary series dose for use as part of the primary immunization series in individuals 12 years and older. The potential effectiveness of an additional dose in children 5 through 11 years of age was extrapolated from data in adults.
The agency used prior analyses conducted as part of the authorization process for healthy children to inform safety in this population and determined that the potential benefits of the administration of a third primary series dose at least 28 days following the second dose of the two-dose regimen, outweighed the potential and known risks of the vaccine. To date, the FDA and CDC have seen no new safety signals in this age group.
Children 5 through 11 years of age who are fully vaccinated and are not immunocompromised do not need a third dose at this time, but the FDA will continue to review information and communicate with the public if data emerges suggesting booster doses are needed for this pediatric population.
“Based on the FDA’s assessment of currently available data, a booster dose of the currently authorized vaccines may help provide better protection against both the delta and omicron variants. In particular, the omicron variant appears to be more resistant to the antibody levels produced in response to the primary series doses from the current vaccines,” said Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “With this in mind, the FDA has extended the range of individuals eligible to receive a booster, shortened the length of time between the completion of the Pfizer primary series for individuals to receive a booster and is authorizing a third protective vaccine dose for some of our youngest and most vulnerable individuals.”
The fact sheets for recipients and caregivers and for healthcare providers contain information about the potential side effects, as well as the risks of myocarditis and pericarditis. The FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have several systems in place to continually monitor COVID-19 vaccine safety and allow for the rapid detection and investigation of potential safety concerns.
The most commonly reported side effects by individuals who received a booster dose or an additional dose as part of a primary series were pain, redness and swelling at the injection site, as well as fatigue, headache, muscle or joint pain and chills. Of note, swollen lymph nodes in the underarm were observed more frequently following the booster dose than after the second dose of a two-dose primary series.
The FDA will publicly post documents regarding the agency’s decision on its website following authorization.
The amendment to the EUA was granted to Pfizer Inc.
Locals Travel to COVID Testing Sites as Holiday Break Comes to an End
Western Mass News – People waited in line for hours for COVID-19 tests at the Eastfield Mall.
This, as many parents are sending their kids back to school Monday, following the holiday break.
“We’ve been waiting since 8 o’clock this morning,” said Shelley Dibona.
Dibona came to the Eastfield Mall at 8 Sunday morning. When we caught up with her, she was still waiting in line at 11 Sunday morning. It got to the point where AMR had to temporarily turn people away.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno is now asking Governor Charlie Baker for another regional testing site. He told Western Mass News in a statement in part:
“After being updated early Sunday morning that the Eastfield Mall regional testing site is being overwhelmed…With that I have once again reached out to Governor Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, requesting another regional testing site be opened and National Guard assistance as soon as possible to alleviate this log jam.
State Contracts to Make Rapid Tests Available to Municipalities
NBC Boston – Massachusetts cities and towns, school districts, libraries, public hospitals and other entities will be able to purchase rapid COVID-19 test kits for $5 to $26 per test under a new state contract, the Baker administration announced Wednesday.
The administration signed contracts with Ellume Limited, iHealth and Intrivo to make at-home antigen tests available to municipalities and a range of other public bodies at state-negotiated prices, the latest step in ongoing efforts to boost access to the sometimes hard-to-find tools and limit the virus’s spread.
Entities eligible to use the ordering system include cities and towns, counties, the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government, schools, early childhood centers, public state-owned hospitals, colleges and universities, non-profit human and social service providers with state contracts, and public purchasing cooperatives.
It was not clear from the administration’s announcement how many tests will be available from each of the three manufacturers or how long it would take for the kits to arrive once ordered. A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services could not be reached for immediate clarification Wednesday afternoon.
“While the Administration has assurances from each manufacturer that there is significant supply, given the high demand across the country, and the level of interest from a wide range of organizations and entities in purchasing these test kits, municipalities and eligible entities should review their options and take steps toward making orders should they be interested in purchasing these products,” officials wrote in a press release.
Free At-Home Rapid Tests Distributed Quickly; High Demand Persists
WGBH – Just over two weeks after Gov. Charlie Baker announced the state would be distributing free at-home COVID tests to vulnerable municipalities, many towns and cities are already running low.
On Dec. 13, Baker announced that the Massachusetts Emergency Management Administration, or MEMA, would distribute 2.1 million rapid at-home tests to the 102 cities and towns with the highest percentage of families living below the poverty line.
All 2.1 million tests have been delivered, a spokesperson for MEMA told GBH News Tuesday. In some of the municipalities that received them, most if not all of the tests have already been handed out, both directly to residents and to community organizations making separate distribution efforts.
“Things were looking great. We had 38,000 kits that were supplied, [or] 76,000 tests. But they did go very quickly,” said Lawrence public health director Michael Armano. “We’ve distributed, I believe, all of them.”
The availability of free tests in hard-hit communities was a boon, Armano said. They arrived just as residents were struggling to find tests on pharmacy shelves, or to afford them in the first place, with a two-test kit often costing $25. With the delivery coming right before the holidays, Armano said many used the tests to check if they were infected before getting together with a large group.
Lieutenant Governor May be the Hottest Race in Massachusetts Politics
Boston Globe – Massachusetts’ lieutenant governor has little formal responsibility beyond leading an obscure eight-person council. A gubernatorial candidate once dismissed it as a “useless job.” The title doesn’t exist in some states.
It also may be the most sought-after seat in Massachusetts politics right now.
In the weeks since Governor Charlie Baker and his lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, said they would not seek reelection, it’s her office — not the top statewide seat — that has stirred a surge of interest among the Democratic Party’s state bench.
At least 10 Democrats are running for or are considering seeking state government’s number two post in 2022, an unusual number for a down-ballot seat that typically draws a smattering of green or lesser-known political candidates.
Worcester Requiring Booster Shots for all City Employees; Returns to Virtual Meetings
Worcester Telegram – The city is updating its vaccination requirement for employees, limiting capacity of municipal buildings and turning to virtual options after a surge in COVID-19 cases brought on by the omicron variant.
As of Wednesday, Worcester has had 34,829 confirmed positive cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
“That represents an increase of 2,040 cases from last week and that number is not reflective of the folks testing positive with the at-home kits. So that number could be 50% to 100% higher,” City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said. “Our totals just from yesterday went up 923 cases in one day.”
Augustus and other city officials outlined the latest COVID-19 changes during a news conference Wednesday morning inside the Worcester Public Library.
Effective Feb. 1, all city employees will need to be vaccinated against COVID-19, including booster shots within 14 days of becoming eligible. Those who are not boosted as per the requirement will have to provide a negative test weekly.
Worcester Public Schools will also be implementing this change, according to Augustus.
New Vaccine Sites to Bolster Booster Effort
Boston Herald – About 2,500 additional COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot appointments will open up next week when state-sponsored sites in Lynn, Taunton and Boston’s Roxbury and Fenway neighborhoods open, the Baker administration announced Tuesday.
Vaccine and booster clinics will launch next Wednesday at the Melnea Cass Recreation Complex in Roxbury and at North Shore Community College’s Modular Building in Lynn, each capable of administering 400 shots a day.
Next Thursday, Fenway Park will reopen as a vaccine/booster site with the capacity to administer 1,300 shots each day.
In Taunton, a new clinic at 2005 Bay St. will go live with the ability to give 400 shots a day.
Gov. Charlie Baker said earlier this month that the most significant challenge to booster clinics is finding available staff, which is “part of the reason why some of this might happen a little bit after the holidays as opposed to before.”
The Baker Administration has been pushing vaccinations and boosters as the best defenses against serious illness from the surging omicron variant.
The four new sites opening next week are in addition to a vaccine and booster clinic already open at the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said in its announcement. That clinic has 500 doses available each day.
Experts Sound Alarm as Schools Open Amid Surge
Boston Herald – K-12 students are heading back to the classroom after the holidays as the omicron variant rages across the region, sparking major concerns from infectious disease experts.
One of those epidemiologists is Michael Siegel, who urged a local school district to delay in-person classes for a couple of weeks to let the coronavirus surge pass. As omicron cases continue to spike, the Tufts researcher warned that students returning to school would be “disastrous” for the community and already packed hospitals.
Because of the extraordinarily contagious variant, students would be a vector for the virus, leading to family members and others getting sick, he said.
“I’m concerned because looking at the number of cases, it’s literally just a straight line upwards, and that’s not going to come down for probably another two weeks,” Siegel told the Herald on Sunday.
“We’re looking at a literal humanitarian disaster because our hospitals are not equipped to deal with this number of patients,” he said. “Our health care system will not be able to handle it.”
A dashboard tracking hospital capacity across the country shows Massachusetts is on an “unsustainable” path as COVID-19 cases spike to record-breaking levels. More than 20,000 cases were reported on the final two days of the year, and COVID-19 hospitalizations approached 2,000 patients.
Some School Districts Cancel, Delay Monday Classes to Allow for COVID Testing
School districts around the commonwealth are taking different steps — with some closing, others delaying Monday’s re-opening — as they struggle with how to come back from the holiday break amid a surge in coronavirus cases.
Massachusetts’ largest teachers union said decisions to delay or cancel school to give students and teachers more time to take COVID-19 tests are being put on the backs of individual districts after state officials rejected the union’s calls for a delayed start or remote start coming back from the New Year’s holiday.
“This debacle in getting tests out to districts is even worse than we knew,” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy told the Herald on Sunday, referencing a one-day delay in getting 227,000 state-provided rapid coronavirus tests to staff and faculty this weekend. “There are not enough tests to go around.”
Gov. Charlie Baker stood firm in the state’s push for in-person learning.
“There was all kinds of talk last week about how school wouldn’t open in Massachusetts today. School did pretty much across the Commonwealth,” Baker said.
“There are very small number of districts that aren’t in school, some started late, but the vast majority of school districts in Massachusetts — thanks to the hard work of so many people who were part of those school districts — are open today.”
Baker visited the Saltonstall School in Salem along with Mayor Kim Driscoll at 7:30 a.m. to highlight the school’s return to in-person learning after winter break.
“The most important thing we want to stress to our students and our families is the need for our students to be in person. Someone described to me virtual school is like playing basketball underwater. And I think that really sums it up,” Driscoll said. “It doesn’t work well for our students and families.”
Even if students wanted to learn online, remote learning simply is not an option for school districts in most cases. Superintendents across Massachusetts can’t offer remote learning as an alternative option because state education officials do not count those days toward school credit.
Nearly 1,000 State Workers Left Over Vaccine Mandate
Boston Herald – Just fewer than 1,000 executive branch employees have left their jobs because they did or would not comply with Gov. Charlie Baker’s vaccine mandate for public employees, including 656 people whose departures were “involuntary,” the governor’s office said.
The update on state worker compliance with the requirement comes as Baker and his team continue to push vaccination and booster shots as the best way to defend against the persistent coronavirus. About an hour after the compliance update was released, public health officials reported yet another record-setting number of daily new COVID-19 cases — 21,137.
Of the 41,629 employees who are subject to the mandate, 40,441 of them, or just more than 97%, are in compliance with the mandate either because they submitted proof of vaccination by the Oct. 17 deadline, were approved for an exemption or had their vaccination status verified by their agency, Baker’s office said.
At the other end of the spectrum, 988 employees are no longer in their jobs due to their non-compliance with the mandate. There were 656 “involuntary resignations,” including 160 part-time contract employees from the Municipal Police Training Committee, and 332 voluntary resignations, the governor’s office reported Thursday.
Baker on Aug. 19 signed an executive order requiring all executive branch employees to provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 17 or face disciplinary action, including possible termination.
There are another 128 executive branch workers whose compliance is considered “in progress,” including people who have pending exemption requests or who are on approved unpaid leave.
Seventy-two employees are on what the governor’s office referred to as the “discipline track,” meaning they are currently on a five- or 10-day suspension as a result of non-compliance with the vaccine mandate.
Experts See ‘Bright Spots’ for the Economy in 2022, Despite Uncertainty
Hospitalizations have spiked in Massachusetts as well as nationwide. Although the commonwealth has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, it remains unclear how this new wave of infections might impact hospitals, residents, workers and businesses.
As we head into the new year, WBUR spoke to several experts about the economic trends they’ve been following in Massachusetts and their predictions for 2022.
According to The Associated Industries of Massachusetts, employers are more confident than they were a year ago. Business confidence was at 57.9 in November 2021 compared to 49.3 for the same period in 2020. AIM’s measurement is based on a 100-point scale. Anything above 50 is considered optimistic.
Monthly Child-Tax-Credit Payments Cease, Ending Cushion for Family Budgets
Wall Street Journal – Families are bracing for bank balances to suffer when the middle of January comes and the monthly child-tax-credit payment doesn’t.
More than 30 million households started getting up to $300 per child in July after Congress temporarily transformed an annual tax break into a near-universal monthly benefit. The full expanded credit went to households with incomes up to $75,000 for individuals, $112,500 for many single parents and $150,000 for married couples. Families spent the money on essentials like groceries and stashed it as emergency savings, researchers found.
Democrats hailed the expansion as a simple yet groundbreaking policy that sharply cut child poverty and confidently proclaimed the credit would prove so popular and beneficial that Congress wouldn’t let it lapse. It just lapsed.
The House-passed version of Democrats’ $2 trillion education, healthcare and climate bill would have extended payments through 2022, but Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) effectively killed that proposal last month. Though some Republicans support some child tax-credit expansion, they oppose the broader bill for its expansion of government assistance and tax increases.
New Report Says Mass General Brigham’s Expansion Plans Won’t Raise Costs
Boston Globe – Mass General Brigham’s controversial plan to build three outpatient surgery centers would help Massachusetts control health-care costs, according to a new report commissioned by the hospital system and made public Tuesday.
The analysis from Sean May, a health-care consultant at Charles River Associates, said the surgery centers would not increase Mass General Brigham’s market share enough to “meaningfully change the system’s bargaining leverage with health insurers.”
May’s report also said health-care spending would drop for patients who switch from receiving higher-priced care at hospitals to MGB’s outpatient centers.
The new analysis contradicts a tough assessment issued last month by Attorney General Maura Healey. She said in a report that the project is likely to increase health-care costs by drawing patients away from lower-priced health-care providers and that such a shift could destabilize community hospitals that depend on patients with private insurance.
Mass General Brigham, the state’s biggest and most expensive health system, has encountered opposition from competitors, consumer advocates and other groups as it plans to build new facilities in Westborough, Westwood, and Woburn.
From Cambridge to Medford, More Office Buildings Bound for Lab Space
Boston Globe – The week between Christmas and New Year’s is usually a pretty quiet time in Boston’s business world. But lately, the business of developing lab space takes no days off.
Davis Cos. closed last week on the sale of three office buildings in the area — fetching nearly $1.1 billion in all — with the vast majority of the space destined for conversion to labs. The deals, and the size of the transaction, speak to the intense demand for space by the Boston-area biotech industry — which is exploding in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — to the point that even buildings that house well-known tech companies are seen as better used for life science firms.
“The prospects for scientific discovery over the next decade are just incredibly promising,” said Davis Cos. CEO Jonathan Davis. “Boston is so fortunate to be at the forefront of that.”
The most prominent of the three projects is Charles Park, a two-building, 400,000-square-foot complex in East Cambridge that Davis picked up last year for $467 million.
Earlier this year, Davis reached a deal with Alexandria Real Estate Equities, a heavyweight developer in neighboring Kendall Square, to sell it for $815 million, with a plan for Alexandria to convert it to life science use. That sale closed last week.
December 21, 2021
Wednesday December 22
- Joint Committee on Revenue-Corporate Tax-10:00am-Virtual Hearing- https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4134
Wednesday December 28
- Joint Committee on Revenue-Persons with Disabilities-10:00am-Virtual Hearing- https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4135
OSHA Vaccine and Testing Regulations Are Back
- 6thCircuit Appeals court reinstates Biden Administration vaccine-or-test mandate.
- OSHA extends compliance deadline
- Issue likely headed to US Supreme Court
Please see the AIM Blog for more details on how it applies to your business
Mayor Wu Announces Vaccine Requirements for Some Indoor Businesses
Boston Globe – In an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Monday announced new vaccine requirements for some indoor spaces in the city, as well as a new vaccine mandate for the city’s 18,000-person workforce.
Beginning Jan. 15, patrons of affected businesses, including indoor dining, fitness, and entertainment establishments, will be required to show proof of vaccination upon entering the premises.
Additionally, the city is requiring vaccination of all city employees, and eliminating an option for city workers to be regularly tested instead of being vaccinated. Under the new mandate, city workers will have until Jan. 15 for a first vaccine dose and until Feb.15 for the second dose, unless they are granted an accommodation for medical or religious reasons.
Starting March 1, kids ages 5 to 11 will have to show proof of at least one dose, and that age group will have to show proof of full vaccination to get into the businesses starting May 1.
“Vaccines are the most powerful tool we have to fight this pandemic,” said Wu in a statement. “Vaccination saves lives and closing vaccination gaps is the best way to support and protect our communities.”
She praised front-line workers in a Monday morning briefing on the new policy at City Hall, which was briefly drowned out at one point by a group of anti-vax demonstrators chanting “Shame on Wu” and singing the national anthem. Chanting, yelling, and whistling continued throughout the briefing from the few dozen protesters who stood near the 3rd floor entrance to City Hall.
Some carried signs. One read “My mayor is not my doctor.” Others carried American and “blue lives matter” flags. At one point someone yelled out, “This is communism!”
There was also pushback to the policy from organized labor. Jim Durkin, legislative director for AFSCME Council 93, which represents about 2,000 city employees, said such a mandate should be negotiated with unions, something that has yet to happen. He added that a testing option should remain for workers.
Lawmakers Reach Deal to Set New Standards for Egg Industry
Boston Globe – State legislative leaders on Sunday reached an 11th-hour deal that would set new standards for the egg industry in Massachusetts, potentially averting what industry experts warn would be a catastrophic supply shortage come Jan. 1.
House and Senate leaders announced Sunday night they agreed on language that would reshape key parts of a 2016 voter-approved animal welfare law scheduled to take effect in the new year. Both chambers are expected to take up the compromise Monday, when lawmakers could ship it to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk as long as no lawmakers oppose it.
The timing is key. Without legislative action, eggs born of hens that have less than 1.5 square feet of space could not be sold in the state. It’s a standard that industry leaders warn is strict enough to effectively destroy the market: Up to 90 percent of the eggs currently being supplied to the state will disappear from shelves in January, they said, unless the Legislature changes the standard.
The agreement announced Sunday tweaked the requirements, including pushing back the implementation date for new standards on pork sold in the state. The deal will “ensure a stable and affordable egg and pork supply in the Commonwealth that honors the will of the voters,” state Senator Jason M. Lewis and Representative Carolyn C. Dykema, who led the talks between the branches, said in a joint statement.
Legislative leaders had spent more than two months in closed-door negotiations reconciling different versions of the bill, even though the chambers had both already supported the central change affecting the standards for egg-laying hens.
As Employers Keep Delaying Return to Office, Will We Ever Go Back?
Boston Globe – Heading into the new year, as COVID-19 cases surge, office employers are yet again wrestling with return-to-work plans.
There’s a new wrinkle: Breakthrough cases among employees are expected to become common, so companies are figuring out how to deal with that risk once they reopen.
But in the past week, several large companies in Greater Boston have closed their offices, which had been open on a voluntary basis, or have delayed their return timelines. The situation mirrors the response to the Delta variant, which led to a slew of reopening delays around Labor Day.
Now, it is rising cases and the Omicron variant that are wreaking havoc on plans for 2022.
Public health experts say the situation is much different from nearly two years ago, when COVID-19 first emerged in the United States. Back then, the closure of private businesses was a precursor to government-mandated lockdowns. They say we’re in a much better place, armed with the knowledge and tools to reopen safely, even as cases continue to surge.
What Happens When Students Remove Masks? These Massachusetts Schools are Finding Out
Boston Globe – By lunchtime Thursday, word had spread through Hopkinton High School about a slew of basketball players testing positive for COVID-19. Already far more students had begun wearing face-coverings in the school, which in November became the first in Massachusetts to allow vaccinated students to go mask-less.
Over lunch, five senior boys expressed anxiety. They hoped the school board that night would temporarily reinstate the school’s mask mandate.
But other students wanted the relaxed mask policies, which they didn’t believe caused the outbreak, to continue. Two sophomore girls in the library studied without masks, happy to see each other’s smiles. They felt the mask-choice policy gave them something elusive in the past two years: a typical high school experience.
“Last year, it felt like you couldn’t talk to anyone who wasn’t your friend,” said Sophie Weeden, 15. “This year, it’s gotten back to a little more normal — it’s so much better.”
Markets Sink on Omicron Fears and Setback on the US Spending Plan
New York Times – Markets sank on Monday, and Wall Street was headed to extend last week’s losses, as investors took in the latest grim forecasts about the sudden surge in the Omicron variant and the critical setback in President Biden’s efforts to pass a comprehensive domestic policy bill.
The S&P 500 fell about 1.7 percent. The index fell nearly 2 percent last week.
“For the first time since Omicron appeared, we have reason to be nervous about the variant having an impact on the growth trajectory of the economy,” said Lindsey Bell, the chief money and markets strategist at Ally Invest, a foreign exchange company. “A slowdown could mean inflation sticks around a bit longer given supply chain constraints.”
Despite its recent wobbles, the S&P 500 is still up 21 percent this year.
Whiplash on U.S Vaccine Mandate Leaves Employers ‘Totally Confused”
New York Times – The marching orders from the Biden administration in November had seemed clear — large employers were to get their workers fully vaccinated by early next year, or make sure the workers were tested weekly.
But a little over a month later, the Labor Department’s vaccine rule has been swept into confusion and uncertainty by legal battles, shifting deadlines and rising COVID case counts that throw the very definition of fully vaccinated into question.
The spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has seemingly bolstered the government’s argument, at the heart of its legal battle over the rule, that the virus remains a grave threat to workers. But the recent surge in cases has raised the issue of whether the government will take its requirements further — even as the original rule remains contentious — and ask employers to mandate booster shots, too.
The country’s testing capacity has also been strained, adding to concerns that companies will be unable to meet the rule’s testing requirements.
“My clients are totally confused as, quite frankly, am I,” Erin McLaughlin, a labor and employment lawyer at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, said on Saturday. “My sense is that there are a lot of employers scrambling to try and put their mandate programs in place.”
No company has been spared the whirlwind of changes in the last week, set off by the spike in COVID cases that have, in some instances, cut into their work forces. Then on Friday, an appeals court lifted the legal block on the vaccine rule, though appeals to the ruling were immediately filed, leaving the rule’s legal status up in the air.
On Saturday, hours after the appeals court ruling, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration urged employers to start working to get in compliance. But OSHA also gave employers some leeway, pushing back full enforcement of the rule until February, recognizing that for all its best intentions the rollout of the rule has been muddled.
For companies struggling to meet OSHA’s standards because of testing shortages, the Labor Department said Sunday that it would “consider refraining from enforcement” if the employer has shown a good-faith effort to comply.
The reaction of companies has been muddled as well. Over the weekend, some took the first steps in developing testing programs. Others remained in wait-and-see mode. And some employers went even further than what the government has so far required by mandating boosters, spurred by fears over the spread of Omicron.
“I was just on a call with a client who said he can’t keep his work force not because of any vaccine mandate but because people keep getting sick,” Ms. McLaughlin said.
COVID-19 Hospitalizations Rise, but Some Cases are Milder than Before
Boston Globe – Amid surging COVID-19 infections, overflowing hospitals, and exhausted healthcare workers, Massachusetts hospital leaders are hanging on a glimmer of hope: some treatments, vaccines, and hard-won knowledge from the earlier outbreaks have meant fewer severely ill COVID patients.
And those who do need intensive care generally are recovering more quickly, doctors say.
“The proportion of [COVID] patients in the ICU has gone down slightly and the average length of stay for the ICU has gone down slightly,” said Dr. Paul Biddinger, director of emergency preparedness at Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest hospital system.
But doctors are not letting their guard down.
“There are patients getting as sick as they were before and still dying, despite these advanced therapies,” Schwartzstein said. “But the vast majority are the ones who are not vaccinated,” he said.
A snapshot of COVID-positive patients in Beth Israel’s intensive care units over two days last week underscored that point: fewer than half were vaccinated.
Manchin Pulls Support from Biden’s Social Policy Bill
State House News – Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, said on Sunday that he could not support President Biden’s signature $2.2 trillion social safety net, climate and tax bill, dooming his party’s drive to pass its marquee domestic policy legislation as written.
The comments from Mr. Manchin, a longtime centrist holdout, dealt the latest and perhaps a fatal blow to the centerpiece of Mr. Biden’s domestic agenda, barely a day after senators left Washington for the year after Democrats conceded they could not yet push through any of their top legislative priorities, from the social policy bill to a voting rights overhaul.
“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation,” Mr. Manchin said on “Fox News Sunday,” citing concerns about adding to the national debt, rising inflation and the spread of the latest coronavirus variant. “I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there. This is a no.”
In a statement released shortly afterward, he was scathing toward his own party, declaring that “my Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face.”
Moderna Says Booster Data Show Good Results on Omicron
Associated Press – Moderna said Monday that a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine should offer protection against the rapidly spreading omicron variant.
Moderna said lab tests showed the half-dose booster shot increased by 37 times the level of so-called neutralizing antibodies able to fight omicron.
And a full-dose booster was even stronger, triggering an 83-fold jump in antibody levels, although with an increase in the usual side effects, the company said. While half-dose shots are being used for most Moderna boosters, a full-dose third shot has been recommended for people with weakened immune systems.
Moderna announced the preliminary laboratory data in a press release and it hasn’t yet undergone scientific review. But testing by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, announced last week by Dr. Anthony Fauci, found a similar jump.
Pfizer’s testing likewise found its COVID-19 vaccine triggered a similarly big jump in omicron-fighting antibodies. The vaccines made by Pfizer and by Moderna, both made with mRNA technology, are used by many countries around the world to fight the coronavirus.
December 14, 2021
Tuesday December 14
- Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure-Alternative Healing Therapies and Local Over Quotas (OVERFLOW HEARING)-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4120
Thursday December 16
- Joint Committee on COVID-19 Emergency Preparedness and Management-Current State of the Commonwealth and COVID-19-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4127
Baker Signs $4 Billion ARPA Bill With One Policy Veto
State House News – Gov. Charlie Baker signed the great majority of the Legislature’s $4 billion American Rescue Plan Act and surplus tax revenue spending bill Monday, but vetoed one policy section and sent back another with proposed amendments to trim what he previously said was “red tape” in the bill.
“The pandemic has had a significant impact on Massachusetts workers, families, communities, and businesses for nearly two years, and today’s signing directs billions of dollars in relief toward those hardest hit across the Commonwealth,” Baker said.
“While this package falls far short of the investment I called for to address the housing shortage, the important investments included in this bill will help to accelerate Massachusetts’ economic recovery and provide long-lasting benefits to infrastructure, healthcare, education systems, and small businesses.”
The bill (H 4269) deploys $2.55 billion in ARPA money and $1.45 billion in fiscal 2021 surplus state tax revenue while preserving a little more than $2.3 billion in federal ARPA funds for future use. ARPA money must be committed by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
The spending itself is mostly concentrated on health care ($964 million), housing ($624 million), infrastructure ($414 million), education ($389 million) and economic development ($267 million), as well as on specific workforce issues ($500 million allotments for both premium pay awards and the state’s unemployment insurance system), according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation’s analysis.
Last week, Baker said that “red tape” was his administration’s biggest concern, pointing to a large commission created under the bill to make recommendations to the administration on how to divvy up bonuses of between $500 and $2,000 for essential, lower-income employees who worked in-person during the COVID-19 state of emergency.
“We would rather just put a premium pay program together and get the dollars out the door to people,” he said.
On Monday, Baker vetoed the section of the bill that required consultation with the commission to “allow the administration to immediately get to work on the process to distribute these funds.”
He also sent the Legislature amendments that would diminish the influence of a 22-member Behavioral Health Trust Fund and Advisory Committee that was intended to make recommendations to the Legislature on the disbursement of funds aimed at addressing barriers to behavioral health care.
State Delivering 2.1 Million Free Rapid COVID-19 Tests
State House News – Cities and towns representing more than half of the state’s population will begin receiving free, rapid COVID-19 tests this week to distribute to residents as part of a new strategy Gov. Charlie Baker detailed Monday to control the spread of the virus this holiday season.
Baker said that beginning Tuesday the state would start distributing 2.1 million at-home rapid tests purchased from a California-based lab to 102 communities with the highest percentages of families living in poverty. The governor’s hope is that people will use these tests before gathering with friends and family, especially in indoor settings when not everyone’s vaccination status is known.
The administration is also working with manufacturers on a “bulk, cheap purchasing deal” that would allow all municipalities to purchase tests at a fixed, state-negotiated price for distribution to residents, Baker said. The governor expects the purchasing program to be up and running by January.
“This massive distribution effort and the long-term bulk purchasing agreement will make a real difference here in the state,” Baker said.
The move comes after states like New Hampshire have taken similar steps to send rapid antigen tests directly to residents, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced last week that she would be sending 20,000 tests and free masks into select neighborhoods.
In New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu last month made 800,000 rapid tests available for residents to request and have delivered to their homes, and the inventory was scooped within a day. Baker said rapid tests, which can give a result in 15 minutes, can be an important part of stopping the spread of the virus during the holiday season.
The free test kits will be distributed this week by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard and were procured from iHealth Labs for $10 million, or about $5 a test. Baker would not say what price per test he’s hoping to negotiate with manufacturers but said it should be “as cheap as possible.”
A two-pack of BinaxNOW rapid COVID-19 antigen tests was selling Monday for $14 on Walmart’s website.
“The most important element in this is about making rapid tests available on a broad scale to communities that have, in many cases, a lot of people who aren’t going to be able to purchase these on our own, to make these tests available so they can test themselves before they go to gatherings or other large indoor events,” Baker said at a State House press conference.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders briefed municipal leaders on the proposal on Monday morning, and the administration will be relying on communities to get the tests into the hands of residents. The tests come in packs of two, and the communities receiving the free kits this week count 3.7 million residents.
Polito also noted that moving forward the billions of dollars in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act that went directly to cities and towns can be used to purchase additional tests under the deal being negotiated with manufacturers. The state plans to seek reimbursement through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the tests it has already purchased.
In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases have been on the rise and the state has been forced to take steps to preserve hospital capacity by limiting non-essential procedures and providing increased flexibility from mandatory nurse-to-patient staffing ratios and for the utilization of non-traditional hospital spaces for acute-care beds.
The Department of Public Health reported 5,007 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, and hospitalizations from the virus climbed to 1,238. The seven-day average positive test rate has also climbed above 5 percent, as high as it’s been since Jan. 21.
Baker said that more than 100,000 tests a day being performed in Massachusetts, as well as an additional 70,000 to 80,000 rapid antigen tests being administered each week in K-12 schools as part of the state’s “Test-and-Stay” pooled testing program for students and teachers.
Expanding access to free or cheap at-home tests has the potential to dramatically increase the volume of testing being done by residents at-home, but the state would not say whether it had any estimates of how many at-home rapid tests are already being used or how many positive cases being detected that way are then being confirmed through a reported PCR test.
Sudders said there is no public health reporting requirement attached to the use of the free test kits being distributed by the state, though she said anyone testing positive should quarantine for 10 days and notify close contacts.
She also encouraged people to sign up for MassNotify, which can be enabled on any cellphone and notifies close-contacts who have been in proximity with someone who self-reports a positive test. About 25 percent of residents have enabled this feature on their phone, Sudders said.
Baker said that despite the increased spread of the virus Massachusetts is in a much different position than it was last December before vaccines were widely available, and he continued to urge people to get vaccinated or boosted as soon as they are eligible.
“There are no plans to bring back the statewide mask mandate,” he said, in response to a question.
As of Friday, the state reported that more than 5.7 million people had received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine, and 4,970,313 people were fully vaccinated, accounting for over 70 percent of the state population and over 90 percent of vaccine eligible residents.
Another 1.5 million people have received their booster shot, according to the Department of Public Health.
Earmark Process in ARPA Bill Undermines Racial Equity Goals
Commonwealth Magazine – The $4 billion state spending bill appears generous to the arts and culture sector, particularly groups with ties to communities of color. It includes $135 million to help the arts community recover from the COVID pandemic, with explicit instructions that the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the state arts agency, “shall consider racial, geographic and programmatic diversity and equity” when distributing funds.
But those diversity and equity goals collided with lawmakers’ penchant for using budget negotiations to fund pet projects in their districts. The result: The bulk of arts funding in the huge spending bill is tied up in local earmarks, only a small percentage of which are geared toward organizations led by or primarily serving people of color.
The earmark process is the ultimate insiders’ game on Beacon Hill, with the most powerful lawmakers often exercising outsize clout and funding awards that tend to favor politically connected organizations – which are rarely those in communities of color.
“There are really two things that you need in order to secure an earmark or make things happen,” said State Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat who has advocated for more legislative transparency.
“One is transparency,” she said, meaning an understanding of the budgeting process. “And the other is access. We know that structurally those things are hard for communities that have historically not had seats at the table.”
In addition to the $135 million arts line item, there is another $13.5 million line item focused on culture and tourism-related capital improvements. According to an analysis produced by MASSCreative, a statewide arts and cultural advocacy organization, those two line items combined contain $88.4 million in local earmarks, leaving $60.1 million for the Massachusetts Cultural Council to distribute through its grant process. Only 6.4 percent of the $88.4 million in earmarks go to organizations or projects serving Black, Latino, Asian, or other communities of color, according to the MASSCreative.
O’Day Outlines ARPA, Surplus Funds, Including Money for West Boylston Project
Worcester Telegram – After a thorough public hearing process, chamber votes and conference committee deliberations, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed its spending proposal utilizing American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) surplus funds.
Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Legislature voted to transfer the Commonwealth’s allocation from ARPA into a separate fund to ensure stakeholder and resident engagement in a public process. After six public hearings and more than a thousand pieces of testimony received, the House unanimously approved their proposal in October and the Senate passed their version in November.
The spending package is aimed at facilitating recovery from the pandemic through one-time investments in housing, climate mitigation, economic development, workforce, health and human services, and education.
“The American Rescue Plan Act and surplus funding from FY21 presented Massachusetts with a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity to make substantial, equitable investments in essential programs across the state,” said Rep. James O’Day. “It was essential for the Massachusetts Legislature to get this spending bill right, and we did that.”
Highlights of the spending bill include:
· $75 million for small business grants
· $200 million for environmental infrastructure grants and water and sewer projects
· $260 million for financially strained hospitals
· $400 million to expand access to mental and behavioral health supports
Administration Promises Report on Unemployment Trust Fund
Boston Herald – The “roller coaster ride” for businesses waiting to learn how much money they’ll be expected to pay back to cover the cost of pandemic-era claims on the unemployment system is almost over, state officials said.
Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta has promised to provide state policymakers a full reporting on the unemployment insurance trust fund, its balance and outlook for 2022 by the end of December.
Advocates called Acosta’s commitment a “first step” toward transparency.
“Countless workers who did right by the system, struggled throughout the shutdown to get access to unemployment benefits — while potentially $1.6 billion in fraudulent claims were being processed,” state Sen. Diana DiZoglio said.
“While I’m grateful the governor has chosen to respond to our call for transparency and accountability … we need more than just a financial report. We need clarity on the process to ensure … families who actually need unemployment are not being robbed by others who may be filing fraudulent claims,” she said. “Small businesses and their employees who struggled deserve answers.”
The Methuen Democrat and candidate for state auditor, last week sent a letter urging Gov. Charlie Baker to provide a detailed accounting for the UI fund. Officials have failed to produce a monthly report since June.
“Businesses need to know what they’re going to be paying back,” said Christopher Carlozzi, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “They’ve been on a roller coaster ride and it’s still very uncertain times. Businesses have not yet recovered pandemic losses and there is still a lot of hesitancy out there with customers.”
The UI fund — which is funded by a tax on employers — owes the federal government at least $2.3 billion and as much as $7 billion. The Baker administration has authorized borrowing up to $7 billion to pay it back, a cost that would also be covered by the tax on employers.
Moore Joins Call for Accountability in State’s Unemployment Fund
Millbury Sutton – State Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury, has joined several of his colleagues in writing a letter to Governor Charlie Baker in an attempt to gain clarity on the commonwealth’s unemployment insurance trust fund.
“The lack of transparency being offered by the Baker Administration regarding the trust fund deficit has been disappointing, to say the least,” said Moore.
“Having this information is crucial in allowing us to take steps in replenish the fund, and more importantly, it is much needed by employers so that they can determine what financial commitments they may have to make. The fact that we have not seen the numbers since June is unacceptable, and I hope that this data will now be provided to us and the public in a timely manner.”
This request for clarity stems from the lack of communication from the Baker Administration regarding the balance of the trust fund. The administration had been providing monthly financial reports on the account, but has not provided one since June, when the balance was $1.77 billion in the red.
Due to the lack of transparency and with minimal information being made available, it has been difficult for policy makers to determine the necessary steps they may need to replenish the funds.
Hospitals Pushed to the Brink by COVID-19 Surge
Eagle Tribune – The state’s acute-care hospitals are being pushed to the brink by a winter surge in COVID-19 infections and chronic staffing shortages.
Hospitalizations have increased by 50% over the past two weeks, according to state health data, amid a steady rise of infections among the unvaccinated, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant.
Meanwhile, emergency rooms across the state are fielding higher-than-normal levels of people seeking treatment for influenza and other infectious diseases, as well as ailments that they put off getting treatment for during the pandemic, physicians say.
“It’s jammed packed with patients,” said Dr. Phillip L. Rice, chairman of emergency medicine at Salem Hospital. “We’re getting hit with some pretty sick people and there’s just no where to put them because the system isn’t big enough.”
Rice said in addition to a flood of COVID-19 infections, people are seeking treatment for a range of other infectious diseases and serious ailments.
Others are seeking treatment for mental health issues, he said, and have to be “boarded” in the emergency room because there aren’t beds in psychiatric facilities.
“One out of every three patients we’re seeing needs to be admitted,” he said. “That adds to the burden of trying to find beds.”
Complicating matters is a chronic shortage of nurses and other healthcare workers that prevents hospitals from expanding their capacity.
Hospitals Ordered to Limit Elective Procedures Even More
MassLive – Massachusetts hospitals, already ordered last month to slash nonelective procedures to preserve bed capacity as COVID-19 cases surge, must limit those treatments even further by next Wednesday.
Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, said hospitals need to “reduce certain non-essential, elective services and procedures” by 50%.
That compares to the 30% reduction he had ordered on Nov. 23, as Massachusetts officials and health experts sounded the alarm on severe hospital staffing crunches. The state lost nearly 500 beds as a result of the staffing shortage, the Baker administration reiterated on Friday.
As the volume of patients rapidly increases, the administration is also now granting hospitals “flexibility with respect to ICU nursing staff ratios and guidance that permits hospitals to create capacity in alternate spaces.”
Hospitals are allowed to use both licensed and unlicensed space for outpatient care, according to new guidance Friday from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The DPH stated hospitals can also use alternative licensed inpatient settings to care for patients through March 31.
“Today’s actions will help alleviate pressures by providing hospitals with staffing flexibility in order to reopen inpatient capacity in licensed and alternate space not currently being utilized,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said in a statement.
UMass Memorial, which is the third-largest health care system in Massachusetts, does not have enough inpatient beds across its system to meet the current patient demand, MassLive has reported. In four weeks, there has been a rise from 70 to 198 inpatient cases, Dr. Eric Dickson, the president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health, wrote in an email to caregivers on Tuesday.
Fauci: Masks Can Help US Blunt COVID this Holiday Season
Asked by ABC News’ “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos for a few “signs of hope” this winter as cases and hospitalizations rise, Fauci noted that the United States has the advantage this year of vaccines and boosters that weren’t available last holiday season. He added that while “masking is not going to be forever,” it can help the nation “get us out of the very difficult situation we’re in now” when combined with getting more people vaccinated and boosted.
“We have the tools to protect ourselves,” Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, said. “We have 60 million people who are not yet vaccinated who are eligible … and those who luckily did get vaccinated, we have 100 million of them who are eligible for boosters. So, on that framework alone, just vaccination, we can go a long way to getting us through this cold winter season, which clearly is always associated with a spike in respiratory illnesses.”
The other thing Americans can do, Fauci added, is “be prudent.”
“Follow the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines that when you are in an indoor congregate setting and you do not know the vaccination status of the people around you, wear a mask,” he said. “Attention to public health measures that are pretty clear can get us through this, and as we get through the winter and into the spring, hopefully we’ll have a much better control over things.”
What Happens to Baker and Polito Campaign Cash?
WBUR – Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito have amassed more than $3 million in their campaign accounts. Now that they’ve decided not to run for re-election, they’ll have to figure out what to do with all that cash.
Both have been accomplished fundraisers, accepting donations right up until the day before they announced this month they were not running for a third term.
Baker campaign advisor Jim Conroy said they’re considering what to do with the money.
Conroy said they are happy to provide refunds to any donors who ask. Baker and Polito still have a small staff that must be paid, as well as other legal and administrative expenses, until they wind down their campaign operations.
But that could still leave them with a substantial sum to spend. One option would be to throw picnics, cocktail parties and other gatherings to thank supporters.
“Further down the road, we’re focused on the work now, but the governor and lieutenant governor have a lot of people they’re going to want to thank,” Conroy said.
The pair originally scheduled a fundraiser later this month in Springfield. But now they’ve turning it into a holiday party with supporters and will no longer solicit donations.
State Taking Back COVID Hazard Pay issued to Methuen City Employees
Eagle Tribune – The state Executive Office for Administration and Finance is taking back $650,000 from the city that was given out using CARES Act funding for restaurants and COVID-19 hazard pay for some employees.
After receiving $4 million in federal COVID-19 aid funds, Mayor Neil Perry was given a deadline of Dec. 31, 2020, to allocate it. Now the city must return $150,000 that went to restaurants and $500,000 in COVID-19 hazard pay issued to essential employees shortly before the holidays last year.
Administration and Finance officials told Perry late Friday afternoon that his appeal for $68,000 in rental assistance money given to Methuen residents who faced pandemic-related hardship was successful. Originally, the city was told it must return that money on the grounds it was not an acceptable use of COVID-19 funds.
Hazard pay stipends must be returned because they amount to “impermissible bonuses” for workers who did not face a “physical hardship” related to their employment, according to the state.
The restaurant money, given to owners to reimburse licensing fees, is owed back because it was not deemed an eligible expense.
Framingham Council OKs Ordinance Allowing Permanent Outdoor Dining
MetroWest Daily News – Outdoor dining is now a permanent fixture for establishments in Framingham.
The City Council on Tuesday night voted unanimously, with one abstention, to add a new zoning ordinance to the city: Section II.G. 1 Restaurant Outdoor Dining Regulations.
District 6 City Councilor Philip Ottaviani abstained from the vote because he owns two buildings with restaurants, although one is currently vacant.
Expanding outdoor dining was part of the emergency measures adopted by Gov. Charlie Baker to help an industry hit hard by COVID-19. Outdoor activities are considered more safe by experts, with transmission conservatively estimated to be below 10%.
The City Council vote is good news for establishments that invested in outdoor dining arrangements during the pandemic — the temporary measure that expanded outdoor dining was due to expire on April 1.
“If this does not pass, there will be no outdoor seating after April 1,” said District 1 City Councilor Christine Long, who brought the matter before the panel.
The Planning Board had unanimously voted to recommend that the City Council support the zoning amendment.
The process of setting up permanent outdoor dining isn’t going to be a sidewalk free-for-all, however.
Establishments that wish to have permanent outdoor dining will still need to apply to amend their building permits and be approved by the building commissioner, and there are plenty of additional restrictions as well.
Inflation, Supply Chain Pain Expected to Linger, Say Business Leaders
Boston Business Journal – Higher prices at grocery stores and retail shops and for energy are likely to stick around for much of the next year as the same supply chain stresses and inflation-driven price hikes that have put a damper on some economic activity this year persist, a panel of business leaders said last week.
“We’re seeing an inflation rate that is about two to three times what we saw in 2019 and 2020 … We’re seeing cost increases five times that we saw in 2019,” Stop & Shop President Gordon Reid said, explaining that just about every supplier is dealing with either labor, transportation, energy or raw materials headaches.
“Last year and during Covid, the suppliers were selling 100 percent of what they could make. The challenge this year is they can’t make it, which is a whole different scenario.”
Speaking as part of a panel hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce to provide an outlook on the 2022 economy, the grocery chain president added, “We see some of these challenges all the way through 2022.”
Key Inflation Measure Rose to a 39-Year High Last Month
Consumer price inflation rose by 6.8% without seasonal adjustments over the 12 months ended November, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday.
Stripping out food and energy, the prices of which tend to be more volatile, inflation rose 4.9% over the same period — the highest level since June 1991.
Looking at November compared to the previous month, prices increased 0.8% on a seasonally adjusted basis, less than the 0.9% increase in October.
Without food and energy costs, prices rose 0.5% in November, also a slight decrease from the 0.6% rise in the prior month.
President Joe Biden acknowledged prices were rising but added “developments in the weeks after these data were collected last month show that price and cost increase are slowing, although not as quickly as we’d like,” according to a statement.
That said, “price increases continue to squeeze family budgets,” Biden said. “We are making progress on pandemic related challenges to our supply chain which make it more expensive to get goods on shelves, and I expect more progress on that in the weeks ahead.”
Schools Report New COVID Cases among 6,879 Students, 1,105 Staff Members
Those positive cases were reported from Dec. 2 to Dec. 8, according to a report from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
With about 920,000 students enrolled and roughly 140,000 staff members working in public school buildings, the rate of COVID-19 cases currently stands at 0.75% among students and 0.79% among staffers, according to DESE’s report.
The state typically releases a report each Thursday with the number of newly reported cases over the prior week. Last week, the report contained two weeks’ worth of data because of a delay in reporting on Thanksgiving week.
From the two-week period of Nov. 18 to Dec. 1, a total of 8,513 students and 1,396 staffers were positive for the virus. From Nov. 11 to Nov. 17, public schools reported that 3,257 students and 558 staff members had tested positive. And from Nov. 4 to 10, 2,640 students and 381 staff members had COVID.
So far this school year, the pooled testing positivity rate stands at 1.36%, according to Thursday’s report.
In the last week, Boston reported the largest number of student cases with 272, per the report. The district had 59 staff cases. From Nov. 29 to Dec. 5, a total of 3,820 pooled tests were administered, with 151 coming back positive, for a rate of 4%.
CDC Says 16- and 17-Year-Olds Should Get COVID Vaccine Booster Shots
MassLive – Teenagers ages 16 and 17 should get their COVID-19 vaccine booster shot if they are eligible to do so, according to the latest federal public health recommendations.
The Centers for Disease Control on Thursday expanded its booster guidance, saying everyone ages 16 and older should get the shot to better protect themselves from the coronavirus and a new mutated strain that scientists fear is more transmissible than the Delta variant.
“Although we don’t have all the answers on the Omicron variant, initial data suggests that COVID-19 boosters help broaden and strengthen the protection against Omicron and other variants,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “We know that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and I strongly encourage adolescents ages 16 and 17 to get their booster if they are at least 6 months post their initial Pfizer vaccination series.”
For now, the Pfizer shot is the only authorized vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds, the CDC said.
Earlier on Thursday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker also urged all eligible residents to get vaccinated or boosted — a plea that’s growing increasingly familiar and urgent as cases and hospitalizations skyrocket. If all eligible Massachusetts residents were immunized, Baker told reporters, half as many people would be hospitalized right now for the virus.
Lydia Edwards, Anthnony D’Ambrosio Face Off in Special Election
Boston Globe – Lydia Edwards has been working in state public policy and legal circles for a decade. She’s won election to Boston’s City Council three times. In her bid for Massachusetts Senate, she is backed by both the state’s US senators, its attorney general, Boston’s mayor, and nearly two dozen labor unions.
There’s also no guarantee that she’ll win. Buffeted by the holidays and an election-weary electorate, next week’s special Democratic Senate primary between Edwards, of East Boston, and Anthony D’Ambrosio, a 25-year-old Revere School Committee member, has become a contest steeped in uncertainty.
It has pitted parochial interests against each other, and to those paying attention, hinges less on how many voters turn out but where.
Eggs Could Largely Disappear from Stores by January without Legislative Action
Boston Globe – Sayonara, scramble. Farewell, frittata.
The most valuable player in the most important meal of the day will be at risk come Jan. 1, if state lawmakers don’t soon take action to shore up Massachusetts’ egg supply. The egg industry warns that as many as 90 percent of the eggs currently being supplied to the state will disappear from the shelves in 2022 unless the Legislature changes the standards for eggs that may be sold in Massachusetts supermarkets.
Without legislative action, eggs born of hens that have less than 1.5 square feet of space could not be sold in the state, a standard that industry experts say is strict enough to effectively destroy the market.
Mariano Defends Decision to Keep State House Closed to the Public
Boston Herald – The State House has been closed to the public for 629 days and it’s unlikely that will change anytime soon, a decision Speaker of the House Ronald Mariano defended again this weekend.
“The building is still closed because we’re concerned about the safety of about 600 folks who work there,” Mariano said during a Sunday appearance on WCVB’s “On the Record.”
It’s the only state capitol in the nation to remain closed to the public for the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic. And “the people’s house” remains closed even as other state buildings have reopened — at least in some capacity — and as the public have also been invited to return to museums, performance halls and the like.
“My concern is public safety,” Mariano said.
The historic building that serves as a stop on the Freedom Trail welcomes over 100,000 visitors a year. Mariano said managing visits from tourists is one of the reopening hold-ups.
“We’ll be welcoming visitors from all over the world. How are we going to deal with their vaccinations? How are we going to determine who comes in and who doesn’t come in? Those are things we’re moving through,” he said.
Mariano also pointed to unvaccinated elected officials.
More than 95% of House lawmakers have disclosed their vaccine status, Mariano told reporters last month noting five state representatives have not said whether they’re vaccinated or not and have been asked to work from home.
Expanded Voting Protections at Risk in Massachusetts
The Berkeley Beacon – Several pandemic-era voting reforms in Massachusetts are slated to expire next week after dying on Beacon Hill, bringing an end to a period of increased voter access for many student residents.
A bill to expand voter rights implemented as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—namely by codifying mail-in balloting, early voting, and same-day registration—was passed by the Massachusetts State Senate on Oct. 6 before stalling in the House. The General Court ended formal sessions last month.
The expiration will come as a disappointment to many of the 1,477 Emerson College students from Massachusetts, who took advantage of the temporary voting protocols to cast their ballots in the 2020 presidential election.
Ian Roper, a sophomore visual and media arts major, voted by mail in the 2020 elections despite being only a short drive from his polling place in Newton. Not only did he enjoy the ease with which he was able to order an absentee ballot, but also said the temporary system was more conducive to democratic participation in the state.
“It is a system that people are more open to,” he said. “It makes it easier for them to contribute to the election—that’s a benefit.”
Women in Greater Boston Earn 70 Cents for Every Dollar Men Earn
WBUR – New numbers from the Boston Women’s Workforce Council (BWWC) show a 30-cent gap, on average, between men and women in Greater Boston. Researchers analyzed compensation data for 14% of the region’s full-time employees. For Black and Hispanic women, the wage gap is more than 50 cents per dollar earned by a white man.
Greater Boston’s gender wage gap looks much bigger than the national average of 84 cents per dollar. That’s partially because the BWWC obtained anonymized data directly from companies’ payrolls, says executive director Kim Borman. Whereas national data is usually based on self-reported information from the U.S. census.
“We think ours is much more correct,” Borman said.
The BWWC data also does something few other gender wage gap reports do. They compare raw data across gender and race rather than stratify it by position or years of experience. Looking at the raw data, Borman says, paints a more accurate picture of what she calls the “power gap” within different industries.
“We’re never going to be able to change this average between men and women if you’re not getting women, and particularly women of color, promoted at the same rate as men,” she said.
Companies usually measure wage gaps under the “equal pay for equal work” model, which is required under federal law. But Borman argues that measurement falls short of describing a phenomenon that usually happens at work places. Overtime, men are promoted more frequently and given more responsibilities than their female colleagues.
A recent study from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found gender biases among MBA graduates. Respondents said they preferred male managers to lead large teams and female managers to lead smaller teams. Those biases, according to the authors, widen the “responsibility gap” and consequently, the compensation gap, over time.
Toxic PFAS Chemicals Will be Added to List of Hazardous Substances
WBUR – The widespread and pervasive chemicals known as PFAS will be added to the state’s list of “Toxic or Hazardous Substances” in December, according to officials at the quasi-governmental Toxics Use Reduction Institute.
The decision includes nearly the entire class of PFAS chemicals — of which there are thousands — rather than just the handful identified as most concerning for public health.
The amendment to the state’s Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA) Program does not ban the use of PFAS chemicals outright. (Some states, like California, Maine and Washington have restricted the use of PFAS in consumer products.) Rather, Massachusetts manufacturing facilities covered under the program must start tracking their use of PFAS chemicals in 2022.
If a facility uses large amounts of PFAS — 10,000 or 25,000 pounds per year, depending on how they are used — its operators will need to report their total PFAS use annually to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and undergo toxics use reduction planning every two years.
Those facilities also will pay an annual fee to the state, which can vary from “a few thousand dollars up to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the company” and the number of chemicals used, according to Elizabeth Harriman, deputy director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, which is based at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
December 7, 2021
Tuesday December 7
- Joint Commitee on the Judiciary-Sex Offenses/Domestic Violence-10:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4115
- Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture-Forestry, Funding and Administrative Infrasture-1:00pm-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4112
- Joint Commitee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy-Solar Legislation-1:00pm-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4118
- Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business-Economic Development-2:00pm-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4116
Thursday December 9
- Joint Committee on Financial Services-Auto and Health Insurance Matters-11:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4111
Monday December 13
- Joint Committee on Revenue-Tax Credits/Deductions-10:00am-Written Testimony Only(due December 15th)-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4122
- Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure-Alternative Healing Therapies and Local Over Quotas-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4120
Tuesday December 14
- Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure-Alternative Healing Therapies and Local Over Quotas (OVERFLOW HEARING)-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4120
Legislature Passes $4 Billion Spending Plan
The Massachusetts House and Senate agreed to a $4 billion spending proposal Friday using state surplus revenue and federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Both chambers unanimously approved the compromise legislation that was written by the conference committee who resolved the differences in the two different versions of the bill.
The legislation contains:
- $500 million to help reduce the deficit in the unemployment insurance trust fund. This aid was a top AIM priority and will help reduce the tax burden on employers in future years.
- $500 million to create a premium pay bonus for low-income essential employees that worked on the job in person during the COVID-19 state of emergency. Eligible workers can apply for a one-time bonus ranging from $500 to $2,000.
- Hundreds of millions of dollars to retrain the workforce and to help reduce the cost of housing in the Commonwealth. AIM supported both priorities because we strongly believe that these investments will make the state’s economy more competitive and help us retain our excellent workforce.
It also includes two critical tax reforms for Massachusetts businesses:
- The legislature extended the nontaxable treatment of several state and federal COVID-19 related business loans and grants for 2021.
- They approved changes to the accelerated sales tax program which gives employers significant flexibility when remitting their monthly obligations.
The legislature remains in control of roughly $2.5 billion in remaining state surplus revenue and ARPA aid which will be allocated at a future date. The agreed-upon proposal now moves to Governor Baker’s desk for his signature.
Governor Charlie Baker Won’t Seek Re-Election
Politico – Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, one of the nation’s most popular governors, won’t seek re-election next year, he said Wednesday in a move that blew Massachusetts’ gubernatorial contest wide open and will ripple across down-ballot races in 2022.
And, in perhaps an even more shocking move, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito won’t run for governor in his place.
Baker and Polito said in a joint statement that a re-election bid would “be a distraction” from managing the COVID-19 pandemic. “We want to focus on recovery,” they said in a note to friends and supporters, “not on the grudge matches political campaigns can devolve into.”
A moderate Republican with enduring support among Democrats and independents, Baker was the GOP’s best hope of holding onto the governor’s office in deep-blue Massachusetts and Polito was widely seen as his heir apparent.
But Baker, who eschews national politics, has been increasingly at odds with his own party as it coalesced around former President Donald Trump. Running for re-election presented plenty of obstacles, including a conservative primary challenger backed by the former president and attacks from across the political spectrum on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We both love the work,” Baker said while briefing reporters Wednesday afternoon, adding, “focusing on campaigning and focusing on politics and on all the things that come with that — while certainly appropriate and necessary to anybody who chooses to run in 2022 — just seemed to us like a big step away from what we should be focused on.”
With Charlie Baker Out, Who will Big Business Back for Governor?
Boston Globe – Massachusetts has a history of electing governors with deep experience in the private sector. But with Charlie Baker bowing out of another term there’s no longer a candidate the business community perceives as a friend.
That has set off a flurry of behind-the-scenes strategizing since Baker’s announcement on Wednesday about whom business leaders might back to succeed him. The current field skews progressive on the Democratic side and Trumpist on the Republican side, which leaves a wide opening in the middle.
And with the race far from formed, some business leaders are wondering if they should jump in themselves — weighing their willingness to self-fund, their ability to raise millions of dollars, and whether they can build enough name recognition to win an election that takes place in less than a year.
Of course, there are big names in the wings — Attorney General Maura Healey and former Boston mayor and current Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, both of whom are reportedly mulling bids. Their entrance into the race would make it harder for political newcomers to gain traction. Sure, Deval Patrick, an attorney who never had been elected to office, won in a landslide in 2006. But he was an exceptionally charismatic campaigner who spent close to two years on the ground building a base.
The governorhas a huge influence on the state’s economy and the success of its business community, setting policy on taxes and a range of programs — from workforce development to housing — that affects their ability to expand and recruit and retain workers.
State Tax Revenues Head Higher
Commonwealth – State tax collections kept humming along in November, with revenues coming in nearly 14 percent above last year and nearly 9 percent over the projections on which this year’s budget was based.
For the first five months of the fiscal year, revenues were $2.1 billion higher than they were in the same period last year and $914 million, or 7.2 percent, more than projected.
Officials said the gushing state revenues reflect increases in tax income across the board, but they cautioned to not read too much into the numbers given that November is often a small month for revenue collections and Massachusetts hasn’t quite reached the halfway mark in the fiscal year yet.
Still, the trendlines are extremely positive and the upward movement in revenues comes at a time that massive amounts of funds are flowing into the state from the federal government. The amounts are so big that state officials are having difficulty deciding what to do with it.
The Legislature on Friday, for example, approved a $4 billion American Rescue Plan Act spending plan and lawmakers still have to decide how to spend another $2.3 billion.
The heavy inflow of cash may pose problems for backers of a constitutional amendment that heads to the ballot next year. The amendment would impose an income tax surcharge on people earning more than $1 million a year
Free Rapid Tests Part of Biden’s Winter COVID Strategy
WHDH – As COVID-19 cases surge in Massachusetts and around the country and scientists begin to get a better picture of a worrisome new variant circulating, President Joe Biden on Thursday laid out his strategy to control the pandemic this winter without putting new restrictions on the economy.
Biden’s plan includes a push to get more people vaccinated — both children who have only recently become eligible for the shots and adults who have chosen not to get vaccinated to this point — new restrictions on international travelers, an increase in federal resources available to states experiencing a surge of coronavirus activity, and a new order making at-home rapid tests available at no cost to people with private health insurance.
“My plan I’m announcing today pulls no punches in the fight against COVID-19 and it’s a plan that, I think, should unite us. I know COVID-19 has been very divisive in this country; it has become a political issue, which is a sad, sad commentary. It shouldn’t be, but it has been,” Biden, who spoke with a strained voice and coughed a few times during his remarks, said.
“Now as we move into the winter and face the challenges of this new variant, this is a moment we can put the divisiveness behind us, I hope. This is a moment we can do what we haven’t been able to do enough of through this whole pandemic — get the nation to come together, unite the nation in a common purpose to fight this virus, to protect one another, to protect our economic recovery.”
Deadline Whittles Ballot Question Field to Three Campaigns
State House News – A Republican-backed proposal to implement voter identification requirements will not appear on the ballot in 2022 after the effort’s supporters and campaigns behind 11 other initiative petitions failed to gather enough signatures by a Wednesday deadline.
Collecting the required 80,239 voter signatures proved an insurmountable hurdle for all but three campaigns, eliminating from contention potential ballot questions that would have legalized the sale of consumer fireworks, reversed the state’s decades-long ban on happy hour, and imposed new restrictions on hospital CEO compensation.
Proposals to update alcohol licensing limits, rewrite worker status and benefits for app-based drivers, and impose spending limits on dental insurers remain on track to make next year’s ballot, though it will not be clear how many signatures each petitioner filed until Secretary of State William Galvin’s office counts the submissions in the coming weeks.
The gig economy giants backing the app-based driver question submitted signatures for two different versions of their proposal, keeping both in the mix heading into the next phase of the biennial initiative petition process.
Wendy Wakeman, who worked on the campaign pushing a voter identification ballot question and two others, told the News Service that its supporters “did fail to get enough signatures to make the ballot.”
Legislators Seek to Designate July 8 as “Massachusetts Emancipation Day”
Baystate Banner – Legislation is now in the works in state government to recognize the end of slavery in Massachusetts and honor an instrumental figure who helped make it happen.
On Nov. 10, state Sen. Cindy Friedman and state Rep. Michelle Ciccolo, both of Lexington, testified before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight on behalf of a day to be known as “Massachusetts Emancipation Day.” Alternatively, the holiday would be known as Quock Walker Day, in honor of a former slave who freed himself by suing his former enslaver.
On July 8, 1783, 82 years before the 13th amendment was ratified, ending slavery in the United States, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Constitution of the Commonwealth’s Declaration of Rights in and of itself made slavery unconstitutional. This was after 28-year-old Walker, born to enslaved Black parents in Massachusetts, emancipated himself and was subsequently brutally beaten by his former enslaver when found working on a neighboring farm.
Walker, using the credo that would become recognizable as part of the United States Constitution — that all men have certain inalienable rights — sued for assault and battery and was found to be a legally free man by a jury of the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas. The ruling was appealed and then upheld in front of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. His case served as the precedent that ended slavery in the Commonwealth on constitutional grounds and led to Massachusetts becoming the first state in the nation to abolish slavery.
Marty Walsh Weighs run for Massachusetts Governor
Politico – Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is weighing whether to return home to Massachusetts and run for governor next year, according to two sources with knowledge of his deliberations.
A number of Democrats have called Walsh about the race after Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker announced on Wednesday that he was declining to run for a third term. Allies of the former Boston mayor are also telling fellow Massachusetts Democrats that he is considering running, according to two additional sources.
Asked if Walsh is ruling the race out, spokespeople for the Labor secretary did not respond to multiple emails, calls, voicemails and text messages. The White House declined to comment.
While sources say that Walsh is processing a potential run and is not leaning any way yet, his chief of staff Daniel Koh is seriously considering entering the race for lieutenant governor, according to two sources familiar with his thinking. Should both choose to mount bids, they could potentially run as a ticket.
Walsh would start the race with $5.1 million in the bank left over from his mayoral reelection campaign which he dropped out of to join the Biden administration. He has high name identification in the state and has not hid the fact that he has future political ambitions there. Days before he resigned as mayor, he gave $250,000 dollars to the state party.
Non-Profit Launches ‘Black City Hall’ to Address Gaps in Access to Services
Boston Globe – Boston’s long history of racism means Black Bostonians have more trouble accessing the economic, social, and health support they need, leaving them more vulnerable in times of stress.
Addressing these gaps is the driving force behind the Community Communications Center, a virtual “Black City Hall,” launched by a Boston nonprofit where Black Bostonians can ask for help with securing food assistance, scheduling a COVID-19 booster shot, or repairing their credit.
“My goal is supporting Black people to be able to . . . transition from survival mode to thriving,” said Atyia Martin, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit behind the initiative, Next Leadership Development Corporation, or NextLeads.
Senator says Businesses Bear Burden of Unemployment Fraud
Boston Herald – Candidate for state auditor, state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, is calling for “sorely needed clarity” in the effort to replenish the unemployment trust — drained during the pandemic — with businesses apparently on the hook to pay back an eye-popping $7 billion — including nearly $2 billion in fraud.
“It is important that we know precisely how much of this deficit is due to fraud and overpayment issues which, we should add, should not be up to employers to pay for,” DiZoglio, D-Methuen, wrote in a Dec. 3 letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, signed by a group of bipartisan lawmakers.
The unemployment insurance fund — which is funded through a tax on employers — may have racked up $7 billion in debt amid an unprecedented number of claims during the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Unemployment Assistance has said.
As much as $1.6 billion in Massachusetts unemployment benefits payouts made amid the pandemic could be fraudulent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Court Case Could Upend Franchise Laws
Commonwealth – Questions about how to classify workers have been lingering for years over industries as diverse as ride-hailing and construction. Now, add franchise convenience stores to the list.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a case that could upend the way state labor laws apply to franchise business owners.
Franchises are a big part of the economy. In addition to 7-Eleven, many of the biggest chains operating in Massachusetts – Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway – operate in a franchise model. Individual franchisees own the stores but pay franchise fees to the company and are required to use its business model and operating procedures.
The core of the case, Dhananjay Patel vs. 7-Eleven, which was filed by five 7-Eleven franchise owners, is whether the Massachusetts law that distinguishes between an independent contractor and an employee applies to franchisees.
The franchise owners say they technically own their businesses, but the franchise agreement with 7-Eleven treats them no differently than an employee. Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney representing the franchisees, said her clients give up half the store’s profits to 7-Eleven while the average franchisee in other chains turns over 4 to 7 percent.
She said the franchisee also has to pay all of the expenses of the business out of their share of the profits. She said 7-Eleven even controls the store bank account.
‘Critical’ Bed Shortage in Central Massachusetts Leaves Hospitals Scrambling
GBH – The availability of hospital beds in Massachusetts is dwindling as COVID-19 case counts continue to rise. The latest figures on Friday from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health show that hospitalizations for the disease have now risen 10 times above their all-time low from July, with the seven-day average now at 855 hospitalizations.
“Right now, we have a critical bed shortage at all of our hospitals,” said Dr. Eric Dickson, president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health.
“We’re boarding patients in the emergency department that need to get to the ICUs, to get to the floors. And that’s causing a backup in the emergency departments and delay of care for people that are walking in. So it’s a very, very stressful environment in the emergency departments created by the bed shortage.”
The stress on the largest hospital system in central Massachusetts has put all options on the table.
“We have projections for kind of worst-case scenarios, and obviously best-case scenarios,” Dickson said, “but even under the best-case scenario, there’s going to be more patients than we have room for within our existing beds. So, we’re already starting to develop plans to surge into other areas and even developing plans to move into a [field] surge hospital like the DCU [convention center in Worcester], which we’ve had to do twice before.”
Dickson says 15% of his system’s ICU beds are occupied by COVID patients, and that the overwhelming majority of those are unvaccinated.
And the situation is the same for the state’s largest healthcare system, said Ron Walls, the chief operating officer of Mass General Brigham.
Egg Supply in Peril If Voter Law Kicks In
State House News– Lawmakers have just a month left to overcome a disagreement about how to update an animal welfare law before it kicks into effect, and if they fail to meet that deadline, they could unleash a nearly eggless period that one industry leader forecast would be “temporary chaos.”
The House and Senate have each already voted in favor of changes to a voter-approved law setting new standards for egg-laying hens, but a six-member conference committee has not reached agreement on a handful of details in the bill, delaying the proposal’s passage.
The effects of inaction could be enormous, even if they are temporary.
Bill Bell, general manager of the New England Brown Egg Council, estimated that “over 90 percent” of the eggs currently available in Massachusetts will no longer be legal for sale starting Jan. 1 if the voter-approved initiative petition takes effect without changes.
With both industry interests and animal rights groups aligned in support, Bell said he thought “this would be done a month ago.”
As Omicron Spreads, Demand for Boosters is “Sky High”
WBUR – The omicron variant is here in Massachusetts.
The state’s Department of Public Health says it was detected in a fully vaccinated woman in her 20s who lives in Middlesex County. The department said the woman, who had traveled out of state, had a mild case of COVID-19 that did not require hospitalization.
It’s only the first confirmed case of the variant in the commonwealth, but, amid global discussion of omicron, demand for boosters in Massachusetts is sky high. So high, that staff at a walk-in vaccine clinic run by Tufts Medical Center are starting to set boundaries.
“It’s becoming so overwhelming toward the end of the day that we’re having to close our facilities just to allow our staff to go home at the end of the night because people are just lining up in droves,” said Nick Duncan, director of operations and emergency management for Tufts.
Duncan says there’s been a three to four-fold increase in demand for booster shots at the walk-in clinic in the last three weeks. The facility has the capacity to vaccinate 600 to 650 people, but it’s been stretching resources and serving roughly 700 people a day lately.
Tuesday November 30
- Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs-Veteran Benefits-1:00pm-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4107
- Joint Committee on Transportation-Recreational and Specialty Vehicles-1:00pm-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4105
Wednesday December 1
- Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security-Immigration-11:00am-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4104
- Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy-General Legislation-1:00pm-Virtual Hearing-https://malegislature.gov/Events/Hearings/Detail/4102
CDC Strengthens Booster Recommendation
Boston Globe – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention broadened its recommendation for COVID-19 booster shots to include all adults because of the new Omicron variant. The agency had previously approved boosters for all adults, but only recommended them for those 50 years and older or living in long-term care settings.
“Everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot either when they are six months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or two months after their initial J&J vaccine,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
The CDC’s recommendation comes after President Biden Monday appealed to the roughly 80 million unvaccinated Americans aged 5 and up to get their shots, and for the rest of the country to seek out booster shots six months after their second dose. He also encouraged everyone to get back to wearing face masks in all indoor public settings — a pandemic precaution that has fallen out of use across much of the country.
When omicron arrives, and it will, Biden said, America will “face this new threat just as we’ve faced those that have come before it.”
Biden was joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and the president’s COVID-19 adviser, who said earlier Monday that scientists hope to know in the next week or two how well the existing COVID-19 vaccines protect against the variant, and how dangerous it is compared to earlier strains.
“We really don’t know,” Fauci told ABC’s “Good Morning America,” calling speculation premature.
The new variant poses the latest test to Biden’s efforts to contain the pandemic, mitigate its impacts on the economy and return a sense of normalcy to the U.S. during the holiday season.
Moderna, Pfizer Fast-Track Study of Omicron Variant
Boston Herald – As the omicron variant has seized the world’s attention, crushing financial markets and grounding global travel, vaccine manufacturers are scrambling behind the scenes to make sure their shots still protect against the deadly virus, and make adjustments if they don’t.
“We should know about the ability of the current vaccine to provide protection in the next couple of weeks, but the remarkable thing about the mRNA vaccines’ Moderna platform is that we can move very fast,” Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton told the BBC on Sunday, noting the company has “mobilized hundreds” to research the new variant.
Executives at Pfizer, makers of the other mRNA vaccine, expect to know within two weeks if the variant is resistant to its current vaccine, but said they, too, would be able to respond quickly.
“Pfizer and BioNTech have taken actions months ago to be able to adapt the mRNA vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days in the event of an escape variant,” the company said in a statement.
Public health experts agree existing vaccines should provide at least some protection against the deadly virus and Gov. Charlie Baker seized the opportunity on Sunday to encourage residents to roll up their sleeves.
“If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated and if you’re eligible for a booster, get a booster. That’s your best protection,” Baker said, following a menorah lighting ceremony in Boston Common on Sunday evening.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, also plugged vaccines during an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, saying they are the nation’s best hope for combatting a “potential” new COVID-19 wave.
Baker: State May Need to Up Booster-Shot Availability in Response to New Variant
WGBH – State, federal and municipal officials strategized in conversations throughout the weekend about how to address the new, highly mutated omicron variant of COVID-19, according to Gov. Charlie Baker.
Baker said his administration has been “in constant touch” with federal health officials and the White House and expects conversations to continue this week.
“There are three big questions,” Baker told GBH News in an interview Sunday. “The first is the transmissibility relative to previous variants. The second is the nature of the impact that it has on the people who get infected by it, which is a really important issue and a hard one for people to answer immediately. The third is, what’s the likely issue associated with this relative to the vaccines that are already available? And that question, I think, will be answered relatively quickly.”
Omicron, first discovered in South Africa earlier this month and declared a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Friday, has increased the call nationwide for booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines, which officials from the National Institutes of Health describe as the best bet for tackling the spread of the new variant.
“If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated,” Baker told GBH News on Sunday. “And if you’re eligible for a booster, get a booster. That’s your best protection.”
Massachusetts Cash Hoard May Reshape Debate Around Income Surtax
Boston Globe – Massachusetts has nearly $5 billion in unspent federal stimulus dollars to spread to its residents. At least another $8 billion in aid is coming from the US government to help repair roads, bolster public transit, and shore up the state against climate change. The state’s tax receipts are again running well ahead of expectations.
This is good news for Massachusetts. But the heady fiscal times could also complicate a question that voters are set to answer in the November 2022 election: Should Massachusetts raise taxes on its wealthiest residents to generate billions more for the state to spend?
A proposed constitutional amendment that would layer a surcharge on yearly earnings above $1 million will land on the ballot in 2022, years after it first surfaced during a time of mounting needs for Massachusetts’ school and transportation systems — and of financial uncertainty for the state.
Worlds Apart Politically, Wu and Baker Begin to Form a Relationship
Boston Globe – Michelle Wu is a 36-year-old progressive champion who preaches the gospel of the Green New Deal and rent control for Boston.
Charlie Baker is a 65-year-old moderate Republican who recently yanked an ambitious climate change program and opposes rent control.
This month, theirs became the most important political partnership in the state, with implications for everything from Boston’s global reputation to its snowstorm preparations.
The future of the city that is New England’s economic engine rests on the relationship between the Boston mayor and the Massachusetts governor. So far, there isn’t much of one: Aides say Baker and Wu don’t know each other well. Both have said they’re committed to building that bond and collaborating effectively.
High Inflation? Low Polling? White House Blames the Pandemic
US News – Inflation is soaring, businesses are struggling to hire, and President Joe Biden’s poll numbers have been in free fall. The White House sees a common culprit for it all: COVID-19.
Although the economy has actually been coming back, there are multiple signs that COVID-19 will leave its scars even if the pandemic fades.
For now, in the administration’s view, an intransigent minority that is resisting vaccination is spoiling the recovery for the rest of the country — forcing masks on the vaccinated and contributing to lingering anxiousness everywhere you look.
Asked why Americans aren’t getting the message that the economy is improving, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this past week: “We’re still in the middle of fighting a pandemic and people are sick and tired of that. We are, too.”
Biden’s team views the pandemic as the root cause of both the nation’s malaise and his own political woes. Finally controlling COVID-19, the White House believes, is the skeleton key to rejuvenating the country and reviving Biden’s own standing.
But the coronavirus challenge has proved to be vexing for the White House, with last summer’s premature claims of victory swamped by the more transmissible delta variant, millions of Americans going unvaccinated and lingering economic effects from the pandemic’s darkest days.
All of that as yet another variant of the virus, omicron, emerged overseas. It is worrying public health officials, leading to new travel bans and panicking markets as scientists race to understand how dangerous it may be.
‘No Appetite’ for a Shutdown as Congress Readies Funding Fix
Politico – Democrats are preparing a temporary funding fix to keep the government open into the new year, with federal cash set to run out — again — at midnight on Friday.
The House could vote as early as Wednesday to avert a shutdown, sending the stopgap measure to the Senate. While leaders have yet to settle on an end date, they are mulling mid to late January.
That span would buy top lawmakers and the White House less than two months to hash out a bipartisan deal, which would include revamped spending totals for the military and all the other federal agencies that have been running on autopilot since the new fiscal year began on Oct. 1.
Democrats had originally eyed a short-term funding fix that would expire before the holidays, hoping to keep the pressure on Republicans to negotiate a broader funding deal before Christmas. But GOP leaders have shown no inclination to participate in those talks, leveraging the threat of sticking Democrats with non-defense funding levels established when Donald Trump was president.
Republicans were planning to make Democrats a counteroffer for the next funding patch on Monday afternoon. A Senate GOP aide said Democrats “decided to start a conversation” about the stopgap on Sunday. Meanwhile, Democrats have accused Republicans of failing to negotiate on a broader funding agreement for weeks.
“We are working diligently and hope to reach a resolution“ by the deadline on Friday, the GOP aide said, adding that the length of the next temporary funding bill should provide Congress with “as much time as possible“ to work out a broader agreement.
A stopgap through the new year would remove one major legislative item from the calendar as Democrats race to pass President Joe Biden’s social spending package before Christmas. And, unlike Democrats’ bill to expand the social safety net that can pass on party lines, the government funding deal requires buy-in from at least 10 Senate Republicans.
“People are very, very concerned,” House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said of funding the government through stopgap measures rather than full-year spending bills. “I’m getting calls every day — what does this mean for this program? What does it mean for that program? What’s going to happen? … We can get started if you want to get started, and you want to try to move forward.”
Despite the gridlock, lawmakers in both parties say a funding lapse is highly unlikely after the 35-day government shutdown that began just before Christmas three years ago.
What’s Next for East-West Rail in Massachusetts and the Berkshires?
Berkshire Eagle – “If you build it, they will come” has been the mantra of those who want to see passenger rail service connect Pittsfield and Boston through Springfield and Worcester.
“What we advocated for was a commuter rail system throughout the commonwealth. To have a separate governmental structure for Boston versus Western Massachusetts says to me that they are not committed to Western Massachusetts, especially beyond Springfield,” said William “Smitty” Pignatelli, state representative, D-Lenox
Money to “build” that service, which would run along a combination of existing and newly constructed track, could come through the federal government’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which President Joe Biden signed Nov. 15.
Western Massachusetts lawmakers overwhelmingly hail east-west rail — or “west-east” rail, as Berkshire County supporters say — as a generational investment that would help their constituents access economic opportunities in the east and relieve Greater Boston residents of an increasingly unaffordable housing market, all while curbing vehicle emissions from highway travel.
Lobbyists Turn to Implementation of Infrastructure Law
The Hill – The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill is enshrined into law, but the lobbying over its implementation is just getting started.
The spending package, which aims to rebuild roads, bridges and rail and expand broadband and clean drinking water, gives federal agencies broad powers to craft key policies. That opens up an opportunity for industry lobbyists to fight provisions they unsuccessfully urged Congress to strip from the final bill — as well as scramble over how and where billions of federal dollars will be spent.
The fast-growing cryptocurrency industry, for example, lost its first lobbying battle when the infrastructure bill included a measure that requires brokers to disclose digital asset transactions to the IRS.
Advocates warned that the law’s broad language could apply to crypto miners or wallet developers who are unable to comply with the tax reporting rules. After failing to secure an amendment to better define what crypto “brokers” are, they’re now shifting their lobbying efforts to the Treasury Department, which is tasked with writing the new rules.
“It’s our job as the crypto industry to have conversations with the IRS and Treasury and explain to them why if they attempt to go too broad, it simply won’t work,” said Kristin Smith, executive director of the Blockchain Association, which lobbies on behalf of crypto exchanges such as Binance.US and Kraken.
Schools Struggle to Ease Mask Mandates
Newburyport News – Schools are struggling to meet the state’s requirements to ease COVID-19 mask requirements, which require at least 80% of students and staff to be vaccinated to lift the restrictions.
As of this week, only 15 of the state’s more than 1,800 schools had been authorized by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to lift their masking policy. None of them are in the North of Boston region.
Under the policy, schools are allowed to lift the rules for vaccinated students and staff if at least 80% have been inoculated. Unvaccinated students and staff are still required to mask up. The state also encourages children younger than 5 – who are not eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines – to wear masks.
The mask mandate, which was originally approved by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in August, has been extended until the end of the year for schools that cannot meet the 80% threshold.
Many school districts are still verifying how many students and staff have been vaccinated.
In most cases, that process involves providing a scanned copy of a COVID-19 vaccine card, but schools can also meet the verification requirements by getting a signed self-attestation from a student, parent or guardian, or a printout from the Massachusetts Immunization Information System.
The vaccination rate is calculated on a school-by-school basis, not at the district level. It must include all enrolled students, in addition to staff regularly providing in-school services.
School Food-Service Workers Scramble to Feed Students Amid Supply Chain Issues
Metro West Daily News – For the food-service staff at Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School, it’s been all hands on deck lately.
As supply and staffing shortages squeeze food-service departments in schools statewide, those who remain are scrambling to make sure students are fed. About 85% of the Marlborough school’s 1,200 students are served breakfast and lunch.
The school’s director of nutritional services, Dina Wiroll, noted during a recent phone interview that it was probably the first time she’d sat at her desk in two months.
“I’m with my staff every day feeding kids,” said Wiroll, who added, “They work like crazy people.”
The ongoing labor shortage and supply chain issues mean there are not enough workers to harvest food, transport it or distribute it, Wiroll said.
As a result, school nutrition directors throughout Massachusetts are facing a backlog of orders every week. To make it work, they rework lunch menus day to day and hunt for hard-to-find key products, such as chicken or forks.
“It’s kind of a global situation that funnels to a very local level,” Wiroll said.
GOP Courts Anti-Vaxxers with Jobless Aid
Axios – Republican officials around the country are testing a creative mechanism to build loyalty with unvaccinated Americans while undermining Biden administration mandates: unemployment benefits.
Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee have changed their unemployment insurance rules to allow workers who are fired or quit over vaccine mandates to receive benefits.
Extending unemployment benefits to the unvaccinated is just the latest in a series of proposals aligning the GOP with people who won’t get a COVID shot. Republicans see a prime opportunity to rally their base ahead of the midterms. No matter how successful their individual efforts, the campaign is a powerful messaging weapon.
Nine GOP-controlled states have passed laws requiring exemptions for the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate, or banning private companies from requiring vaccination altogether, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.
Several states have made it as easy as possible for workers to claim exemptions, allowing them to opt-out on philosophical grounds or requiring businesses to accept all requests for religious or medical exemptions without proof.
Legal uncertainty created by a wide variety of new vaccine exemptions in Florida – including for past COVID-19 infections and “anticipated future pregnancy” – prompted Disney World to suspend its vaccine mandate on Tuesday.
In Congress, Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) is leading a formal challenge against the federal vaccine mandate using the Congressional Review Act, the official process for Congress to eliminate an executive branch rule.
Teen Vaccination Rates Lag in Most Massachusetts Towns hit Hard by Coronavirus
Boston Herald – Vaccination rates among teenagers are lagging in the same cities and towns that have suffered the most amid the coronavirus pandemic, a new report by equity advocates reveals, renewing calls for officials to prioritize the state’s most vulnerable residents with cases back on the rise.
“We are nine months into the state’s vaccination program, yet we are still seeing the same inequities that plagued the program from the start,” said Dr. Atyia Martin, Co-Chair of the Vaccine Equity Now! Coalition.
A data visualization created in partnership with Boston Indicators revealed inequities in COVID-19 vaccination rates among 12-19 year-olds living in different cities and towns. The scatterplot shows many communities with higher cumulative incidences of coronavirus and higher social vulnerability ratings have lower rates of vaccination among youth while more affluent communities that were less affected by the virus have vaccinated teens in higher numbers.
Martin said the chart “shows in no uncertain terms” that many of the state’s most vulnerable communities are still being left behind.
Officials Discuss New Omicron COVID-19 Variant
MSN – Health officials say it appears the omicron variant is more contagious, but it’s unclear if it will result in more severe illness.
And it’s not yet clear how the current vaccines hold up against it.
“I think the bottom line – whether it’s delta, omicron or whatever is next – people can’t just assume that they can ignore this virus, go about their business, as if nothing was wrong,” said Dr. Robert Klugman of UMass Memorial Health.
Gov. Charlie Baker said his administration has been communicating with the feds about the omicron variant over the past few days.
“There are three big questions, you know? What’s the answer with respect to transmissibility? What’s the answer with respect to severity? And what’s the answer with respect to how vaccines that are currently available respond to this? And those are questions that we expect we’ll learn a lot more about in the next few days, and we’ll make adjustments in our current plans, based on that information, as it becomes available,” Baker said.
Pfizer and Moderna are already working to adapt their vaccines to fight omicron if necessary, but that process could take two to three months.
No Time to Let Down the Guard
Newburyport News – Winter is coming. The pandemic continues. Too many people are unvaccinated. Breakthrough cases are common. And now, even as the delta variant continues to pummel the masses, an ominous new strain – Omicron – is on its way.
And so, this is the time to pause; to pay attention to the trends; to get vaccinated if you are not or schedule your booster if you haven’t yet. We have to mask up, practice social distancing, sanitize, and become hyper-vigilant about personal and public safety.
We know the drill. And as much as we might not want to, it’s time to double down.
In the United States, new daily coronavirus cases have risen by 10% in the past week, according to Washington Post figures. Deaths have increased by 10% as well, while hospitalizations crept up 4% in that period.
In Massachusetts, the number of new daily COVID-19 cases reported as of Thursday was 5,058, while the number of newly confirmed deaths rose by 24, according to Department of Public Health data. There were 771 people reported hospitalized with the virus that same day, 156 of them in intensive care units. Cases have doubled since October.
Gov. Charlie Baker issued an emergency order to hospitals facing limited capacity, requiring them to reduce nonessential, nonurgent scheduled procedures beginning this week. He did so for a variety of reasons, among them protecting patients and the workforce, and ensuring beds are available during a winter surge.
Mobile Vaccination Clinics Pop Up as Booster Appointments Hard to Find
Boston Herald – The state is rolling out COVID-19 mobile pop-up vaccination clinics, as many people struggle to find booster appointments at pharmacies across the region.
Four of the community-based, short-term vaccination clinics were held on Sunday in Chelsea, Everett, Methuen and Fall River — and more of these clinics are set for this week as Bay Staters seek out booster doses.
Gov. Charlie Baker said Sunday the shots are available at 800 locations statewide, but officials may “may need to do more” to keep up with demand.
“A couple weeks ago you could get a booster pretty much anywhere on a walk-in basis. We now have seen a very significant increase since we started talking about boosters for everybody over age 18 and that means we may have to up our game a little with respect to additional capacity,” Baker said.
Coronavirus cases are surging in Massachusetts, and many residents are hoping to get a third shot as soon as possible for extra protection this winter. All fully vaccinated people who are 18-plus are eligible for the booster, and more than 1 million people in the state have already received the third dose.
Some residents trying to find appointments at local pharmacies have been struggling, however.
“No time slots are available for this date at this location,” the CVS message reads for many locations in the Greater Boston area. “Try choosing another location or day.”
A CVS spokesperson on Sunday said they’re “continuing to book appointments and administer COVID-19 vaccines and we encourage patients to make appointments at CVS.com on or the CVS Pharmacy app.”
While those appointments have been hard to come by, people on Sunday without appointments walked into the state’s mobile pop-up vaccination clinics and got the shot within 20 to 30 minutes.
The mobile pop-up vaccination clinics coming up this week include: New Bedford, McCoy Center, Monday from 2 to 7 p.m.; Chelsea Senior Center, Monday from 2 to 7 p.m.; Nahant Town Hall, Tuesday from 3 to 8 p.m.; Amherst, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Arts, Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m.; and Chelsea Senior Center, Friday from 2 to 5 p.m.
Wu Hints at Possibility of Vaccine Passports for Restaurants, Businesses
Boston Herald – Mayor Michelle Wu said she’s looking at “all the options available” when it comes to a potential vaccine mandate for restaurants, venues and businesses, which some key stakeholders oppose.
Wu had previously voiced support for a vaccine verification system or “vaccine passport” such as the one implemented in New York City where residents and visitors cannot enter establishments like restaurants and concert halls without showing proof of coronavirus vaccination.
When asked again on Boston Public Radio on Tuesday, Wu said, “I still very much think that we should be taking all possible action to protect our community members, to protect customers and those who might be wanting to attend these events.”
Wu said, “We’re looking internally as well as externally at all of the options available.”
She added she’s working with the Boston Public Health Commission on “what those standards will look like.”
Some small businesses and restaurants in Boston have no appetite for a vaccine passport.
Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association said, “The government can’t come back and start to put enforcement responsibilities on our understaffed and overstressed restaurant employees.”
He added, “We know firsthand what employees had to overcome when having to enforce mandates on guests, and it really wasn’t pretty
Some ‘Boston-based’ companies are hardly here
Boston Globe – What does it mean to be a “Boston-based” company these days?
With lots of startups giving up office leases, hiring people in other states, and even having top leaders move away during the pandemic, the very notion of a company with a home office or headquarters is starting to seem antiquated.
Take a company such as EverTrue, which helps universities communicate with alumni to persuade them to donate. I met the founder, Brent Grinna, in 2010, just after he’d earned a degree at Harvard Business School and was starting the company.
He went through the Techstars Boston and MassChallenge “accelerator” programs, designed to help companies polish their products, attract investors — and ideally, put down roots in Boston. EverTrue raised money from Bain Capital Ventures, a Boston investment firm, and before long, it had an office in the Seaport with 37 employees.
Clearly, a Boston company.
But when EverTrue’s office lease expires in January, Grinna doesn’t plan to renew it. Amidst the pandemic, Grinna and his family moved to Narragansett, R.I. — about a 90-minute drive from the office.
“When we started the company, our first 30 or so hires were all in the Boston metro area,” Grinna says. But of the 23 people he has hired since COVID shut down offices last March, just three live in or near Boston. “We’ve also supported three employees who’ve relocated from Boston to Maine, Colorado, and Rhode Island — me,” Grinna says.
“It’s hard to imagine going back to a world where we care how close to the Boston Seaport a candidate lives,” or whether they will move here, he adds.
EverTrue is not a one-off. Josh Walker co-founded Sports Innovation Lab, a research firm that focuses on trends in the world of pro sports and that had office space in a WeWork building near the TD Garden. He and his wife, who works for another Boston startup, decided to move to Manchester, Vt., last summer, in part so that their children could attend school in person. He sees the company likely convening in Boston for all-hands gatherings, but says, “I cannot imagine putting monthly rent and multiyear leases back on our books anytime soon.”
Hospitals to Reduce Non-Essential Elective Procedures
Boston Herald – Massachusetts hospitals, which are once again facing critical staffing and bed shortages, will soon be limiting non-essential pre-scheduled procedures to preserve resources and capacity.
“The current strain on hospital capacity is due to longer than average hospital stays and significant workforce shortages, separate and apart from the challenges brought on by COVID,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders in a statement.
“COVID hospitalizations in Massachusetts remain lower than almost every other state in the nation, but the challenges the healthcare system face(s) remain,” she continued. “This order will ensure hospitals can serve all residents, including those who require treatment for COVID-19.”
According to data compiled by the New York Times, Massachusetts hospitals are at 82% ICU capacity, compared to 69% capacity nationally.
The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Order developed by the Baker-Polito administration and the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association goes into effect Monday, Nov. 29.
It instructs any hospital or hospital system that has limited capacity to start reducing “non-essential, non-urgent scheduled procedures that may require the use of bed capacity and/or services,” according to the order. The guidance is aimed at preserving capacity for more pressing health needs.
State officials said the changes were due largely to ripple effects of the pandemic, including staffing shortages across the health care system and about 500 fewer beds available statewide in both medical/surgical and intensive care units.
Senate Leader Hopes to Revive Facial Recognition Debate
State House News – Limits on law enforcement use of facial recognition software enacted last year “did not go far enough” to rein in the technology, a top Senate Democrat told her colleagues on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem urged the Judiciary Committee to advance legislation (S 47) that would impose a near-total ban on public agency use of facial recognition, arguing that the burgeoning tool empowers government surveillance and creates disproportionate impacts on people of color.
“Given their significant implication, we cannot allow government agencies to keep using this technology without further regulations in place, and right now there are no regulations on government agencies following us,” Creem said.
Her bill would prohibit any government agent from using facial recognition to track people in public spaces and would require police to obtain a warrant to use facial recognition databases except in some emergency cases. The Registry of Motor Vehicles could continue to use facial recognition to verify identities when handling licenses or other documents.
Lawmakers originally approved a ban on almost all law enforcement use of facial recognition systems as part of a police reform bill they sent Gov. Charlie Baker last year, but in a compromise with Baker, the final law allows police to use the tool to assist with criminal cases or to mitigate “substantial risk of harm” after submitting a request in writing.
Civil rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and some legislators continue to push for an update to the policy, particularly to standardize practice across the state after some municipalities have taken steps to rein in facial recognition at the local level.
“Last session, we were able to establish limited regulations on police use of facial technology,” Creem said. “Unfortunately, these reforms were the result of a compromise and truly did not go far enough.”