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This Week in Massachusetts – Tuesday May 3, 2022

Posted on May 2, 2022

Moderna asks FDA to Authorize COVID Vaccine for Kids under Six Years Old

CNBC – Moderna on Thursday asked the Food and Drug Administration to authorize its COVID vaccine for children ages 6 months to 5 years old.

The vaccine was about 51% effective against infection from the omicron variant in children under 2 years old and about 37% effective among 2- to 5-year-old kids, according to a company press release. Dr. Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said those levels are similar to two-dose protection for adults.

The protection Moderna’s vaccine provides against infection has declined substantially from the high-water mark of 90% effectiveness when the shots first rolled out. The omicron variant, which has more than 30 mutations, is adept at evading the antibodies that block the virus from invading human cells.

However, Burton said children under 6 years old who receive two doses should have high levels of protection against severe illness. Adults have about 1,000 units of antibody after two shots with at least 70% protection against severe disease, while children in the study had 1,400 to 1,800 units of antibody after two doses, he said.

Baker Ready to Aid Next Vaccination Push

WHDH – Massachusetts will “do everything we can” to make sure vaccines are available across the state if COVID-19 shots become available for young kids, Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday.

Baker’s comments came as Cambridge-based Moderna announced it had filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seeking emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 6 months to 6 years old.

Baker said the FDA plays an important role as “overseer and gatekeeper with respect to the efficacy and safety of vaccines generally,” and that Massachusetts will “pursue whatever the recommendations are that come out of their expert panels.”

“If there are vaccines that are available and approved by the FDA for populations under 5, we’ll certainly do everything we can to make sure that those vaccines are available to people across the Commonwealth in places like this and others, and we’ll probably work with our colleagues in the health care community and make sure that there’s a strategy to promote that, especially within the pediatric community,” he said.

Baker took questions from reporters after getting his second COVID-19 booster shot at the Melnea A. Cass Recreational Complex in Roxbury.

Wu administration Touts Decisions by Labor Board on Vaccine Cases

Boston Herald – Boston is declaring victory in the fight over collective bargaining issues over vaccinations after the state Department of Labor Relations largely sided with Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration in continuing to dismiss complaints.

The state’s DLR threw out the main issues in the complaint from the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation after making a similar ruling last week with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 718.

DLR investigator Gail Sorokoff concluded that the city was able to go ahead with implementing a vaccine mandate without bargaining it beforehand.

Of the three assertions at issue in the complaint — that the city hadn’t bargained “in good faith,” that it had “coerced” employees and that it had violated existing agreements — the DLR threw out the first two and some of the complaints in the third while siding with the unions on another.

“I conclude that the City’s decision to require bargaining unit members to either receive the COVID-19 vaccination by August 30, 2021 or be tested weekly is a core governmental decision,” Sorokoff wrote. “The City was acting to keep its employees and the public safe from a pandemic.”

State Supreme Court will Consider Challenges to All Four Ballot Questions

Commonwealth Magazine – State law lays out the steps needed to file an initiative petition to put a question before voters on the state ballot: get certified by the attorney general, collect signatures, go to the Legislature.

What’s not included, but may as well be, is defend the petition before the Supreme Judicial Court. In what has essentially become a rite of passage, all four potential questions on this November’s ballot will go to court next week.

One case that has gotten significant attention is a proposed constitutional amendment raising the tax rate on income over $1 million. The Massachusetts High Technology Council and others are asking the court to change the summary on the ballot to clarify that there is no guarantee the money raised will go toward increased spending on transportation and education, as the measure’s advocates claim.

Several business-backed or conservative-leaning groups – the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, PioneerLegal, the Beacon Hill Institute, and the New England Legal Foundation – weighed in supporting the High Technology Council.

James Rooney, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the ballot question, said the ballot summary “should be unequivocal in stating that the amendment does not require new revenue be directed to transportation and/or education. The voters of the Commonwealth deserve and expect transparent and accurate information,” Rooney said.

Three other cases aim to have the SJC exclude questions from the ballot. One of the biggest battles this year is over a question that would define drivers for ride-hailing companies as independent contractors while giving them certain benefits like a guaranteed minimum wage.

Gov. Charlie Baker is — Again — the Most Popular Governor in the U.S. – Gov. Charlie Baker is going out on a high note.

A new survey from Morning Consult, the global enterprise technology company, shows the moderate Republican governor, who will not be seeking a third term this year, is the most popular governor in the country.

Baker carries a 74 percent approval rating, according to the poll, which surveyed 9,849 voters between Jan. 1 and March 31. In contrast, 21 percent of those polled disapproved of Baker’s leadership.

The Swampscott lawmaker has long enjoyed a favorable view from voters. Baker held the title of most-liked governor in the United States several times after he took office in 2015 before he dropped to third-most-popular in 2020.

Fidelity Just Announced a Massive Hiring Spree

Finance.Yahoo – Fidelity Investments said Thursday it would add more than 12,000 new employees by September.

The new hires will bring Fidelity’s headcount to 68,000 by year’s end, up 19% from the start of this year.

The move is a stark contras    t to competitors like Robinhood, which announced it is laying off hundreds of employees.

Fidelity Investments said Thursday it will hire more than 12,000 new employees by the end of the third quarter, gambling that individual investors will continue to grow beyond the Reddit-fueled Covid-19 lockdown boom.

Most will be concentrated in client-facing positions, with 69% of the new employees falling under that category while 14% are targeted for technology-focused positions.

The new target of more than 12,000 new hires comes after 16,600 were added in 2021 and 7,200 in 2020. The 2022 batch of new employees will bring Fidelity’s headcount to 68,000 by year’s end, up 19% from the start of this year.

Fidelity’s announcement comes amid worried that recent market volatility will last longer than the growth of individual investors.

Cambridge Will Give $500 per Month to Every Family Below the Poverty Line

Boston Herald – Cambridge will be handing out $500 a month to every family below the poverty line, expanding on a pilot program that it says has helped 130 families.

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui announced during this week’s State of the City address that the city will be using $22 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to give cash to families living in poverty.

The direct cash assistance — in the form of $500 dollars per month for about 18 months — will be for every single eligible family under 200% of the federal poverty level in the city.

Cambridge is the first city in the country to expand its cash assistance program to every family living in poverty, according to the mayor of the progressive municipality.

The direct cash assistance — in the form of $500 dollars per month for about 18 months — will be for every single eligible family under 200% of the federal poverty level in the city.

Cambridge is the first city in the country to expand its cash assistance program to every family living in poverty, according to the mayor of the progressive municipality.

Massachusetts Economy Shrinks; Slow Growth Predicted

MassLive – Massachusetts’ economic output was down in the first three months of 2022 after big gains at the end of last year, economists said.

The MassBenchmarks report released Thursday by the University of Massachusetts Amherst Donahue Institute said the state’s real gross domestic product declined 1% in the first quarter. Nationally, the economy shrank by an annualized rate of 1.4%

“The sharp slowdown in growth in the first quarter reflects the impact of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, continued supply chain woes, the eroding effect of inflation on purchasing power, and weakening consumer and investor confidence,” the report said.

MBTA Spending Going Up, but Not Enough for Low-Income Fare

Commonwealth Magazine – The MBTA is planning to increase spending 8 percent in the coming fiscal year, but the transit authority’s general manager said there is not enough money for new initiatives such as a fare discount for low-income riders.

“We will be challenged to incorporate costly initiatives absent some additional source of revenue,” said General Manager Steve Poftak. “That’s been part of the discussion around means-tested fares.”

The previous MBTA board, called the Fiscal and Management Control Board, had directed T staff to present a couple alternatives for a low-income fare pilot to the new board last fall. The staff did provide an overview of fare options, but never presented the board with options for low-income fare pilots.

Poftak indicated at a board meeting on Thursday the T could not afford it. “At some point, our means may constrain our ends,” he said.

Disney’s Clash with Florida Has CEOs on Alert

In private meetings and coaching sessions over the past few weeks, top business leaders have been asking a version of the same question: How can we avoid becoming the next Walt Disney Co.?

The fallout from the recent political spat between Disney and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has alarmed leaders across the corporate sphere, according to executives and their advisers, and heightened the challenges for chief executive officers navigating charged topics.

At many companies, vocal employees have in recent years pushed bosses to take public stands on social and political issues. Florida’s pushback against Disney has raised the stakes.

“The No. 1 concern CEOs have is, ‘When should I speak out on public issues?’ ” said Bill George, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic PLC and now a senior fellow at Harvard Business School. “As one CEO said to me, ‘I want to speak out on social issues, but I don’t want to get involved in politics.’ Which I said under my breath, ‘That’s not possible.’ ”

Some executives might be relieved. The old idea that CEOs should focus on shareholder returns and stay out of politics lingers in some corporate suites, even in a politicized age of public social-media discussions and more-activist workforces.

Certainly, the consequences of weighing in appear to be changing. Lawmakers for years have expressed displeasure when companies take public stands on issues such as voting access, through critical tweets, public remarks and, in some cases, calls for public boycotts. Disney’s experience shows a willingness to go further, corporate advisers say, by challenging arrangements that have helped a company to operate.

Ron Williams, former CEO of Aetna, says, ‘It’s not enough to know what you want to do. You have to be artful in how you do it.’

Gov. DeSantis, a Republican, in April signed into law a bill that would terminate a special tax district that has allowed Disney to self-govern the land that houses its Orlando-area theme parks, hotels and resorts for more than a half-century. Questions remain about the law’s impact on Disney and surrounding communities. Gov. DeSantis cited Disney’s opposition to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, which was signed into law in March and which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. He called Disney a “woke” corporation.

David Berger, a partner who specializes in corporate governance at law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, said politicians seem increasingly comfortable taking on business when it is advantageous for them. “It used to be that Republicans especially—but both parties—liked big business,” he said. “And now what you’re seeing is both parties like to use big business as political footballs one way or the other.”

Some executives say they have learned to monitor issues that could consume public attention and increase pressure for some response. Some use employee affinity groups to help flag potentially troublesome issues.

“You make it a safe forum where people feel comfortable talking about concerns or whatever, and out of that, there’s really a kind of responsibility on our part to pick up on things that really do demand some attention,” said Nancy Langer, CEO of Transact Campus Inc., a financial- technology company based near Phoenix. “I look at that as a feedback loop for us.”

Some of the topics of employee pressure involve Republican-backed measures, such as the new abortion law in Texas and new voting laws. Democrats have pushed executives to weigh in, and Republicans have pushed them to keep out. Climate and diversity issues also are hot buttons, as is the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Democrats also have criticized companies. President Biden, facing heat on inflation, has accused meat and oil companies of price gouging.

But Disney’s recent experience in Florida has captured the attention of C-suite executives at companies big and small, given the impact on its operations, many say.

“I think probably anybody sitting in a leadership role follows it to some degree,” said Julie Schertell, chief executive of Alpharetta, Ga.-based manufacturing company Neenah Inc., which has around 2,500 employees.

Ms. Schertell said the Disney drama reminds her as a CEO that she must look at situations from every angle. “Because I want folks to assume positive intent, like ‘Here’s what we’re trying to do, and if it feels like a misstep, let’s talk about that. And of course, correct on it,’ ” she said.

Staying silent has its own risks. Disney initially declined to take a public stance against the Florida bill, which bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity through third grade. Disney CEO Bob Chapek told employees he didn’t want the company to become a “political football.” That sparked an outcry from some employees, and Disney reversed course and spoke out against the bill.

Washington veterans advise that building relationships with political leaders in advance, particularly in off-cycle election years, can be helpful during times of crisis. Ron Williams, the former chairman and chief executive of Aetna who sits on the boards of Boeing Co., Johnson & Johnson and American Express Co., said he counsels CEOs to find advisers who know how to navigate the political terrain.

“Companies often deal in substance, and politicians often deal with foils,” he said. “And so, you know, companies can inadvertently become a foil for different political issues. It’s not enough to know what you want to do. You have to be artful in how you do it.”

Most current CEOs rose by gaining customers or boosting profit margins, not navigating hot-button social issues, and so aren’t trained on how to respond, Harvard’s Mr. George said. They must prepare quickly.

“It is an even more challenging job,” Mr. Williams said. “Running the business turns out to be table stakes.”

Health Care

Walgreens to Open 10 Primary Care Practices in Massachusetts – A primary care practice will be opening inside a Quincy Walgreens next month.

This will be the first of 10 clinics launching across Massachusetts in the next year, part of a partnership between the pharmacy chain and primary care services company VillageMD.

According to an article from the Boston Business Journal, the companies expect that the primary care practices will create more than 350 full-time jobs in Massachusetts – directly employing more than 150 professionals in science, technology, engineering and math.

The company says they hope to provide thorough care by opening the practices right next to the pharmacy inside the stores. The Boston Business Journal says physicians and pharmacists are expected to collaborate to immediately fill prescriptions following medical visits out of convenience for patients.

All services will be open to anyone as long as their insurance plans cover them, and clinics plan to accept a variety of private and public plans.

Move Brings Together AstraZeneca and Alexion Colleagues in Kendall Square – AstraZeneca today announced plans to open a new site at the heart of the Cambridge life-sciences and innovation hub.

The new site will be a strategic R&D center for AstraZeneca, as well as Alexion’s new corporate headquarters. The site will bring together approximately 1,500 R&D, commercial and corporate colleagues into a single purpose-built space in Kendall Square, Cambridge.

The site, scheduled for completion in 2026, will be in close proximity to several major academic, pharma and biotech institutions, inspiring greater collaboration and innovation potential, and providing access to future talent. The move reinforces AstraZeneca’s commitment to the greater Boston area, with over 570,000 square feet of R&D and commercial space, and room for expansion for the future.

Pascal Soriot, Chief Executive Officer, AstraZeneca, said: “Today’s announcement is a milestone moment following the acquisition of Alexion in July 2021. Our combined company has already successfully leveraged internal scientific synergies, and this move will act as a catalyst for even more external collaboration and innovation.

“Kendall Square, Cambridge, is at the heart of the life sciences and innovation hub of the greater Boston area, and our new site will put us right at the center of this space. The move will provide access to some of the most innovative partners in academia and biotech, offering opportunities to accelerate our growth and collaborate with like-minded organizations as we continue to push the boundaries of science to deliver advances for patients.”

US Pediatricians’ Group Moves to Abandon Race-Based Guidance

Associated Press – For years, pediatricians have followed flawed guidelines linking race to risks for urinary infections and newborn jaundice. In a new policy announced Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics said it is putting all its guidance under the microscope to eliminate “race-based” medicine and resulting health disparities.

A re-examination of AAP treatment recommendations began before George Floyd’s 2020 death and intensified after it has doctors concerned that Black youngsters have been undertreated and overlooked, said Dr. Joseph Wright, lead author of the new policy and chief health equity officer at the University of Maryland’s medical system.

The influential academy has begun purging outdated advice. It is committing to scrutinizing its “entire catalog,” including guidelines, educational materials, textbooks and newsletter articles, Wright said.

“We are really being much more rigorous about the ways in which we assess risk for disease and health outcomes,” Wright said. “We do have to hold ourselves accountable in that way. It’s going to require a heavy lift.”

Dr. Brittani James, a family medicine doctor and medical director for a Chicago health center, said the academy is making a pivotal move.

South Coast Residents Struggle to get Health Care, Insurance 

Boston Herald – It is by now an axiom that Massachusetts residents have access to some of the best health care in the country. But, actually getting that health care and being able to afford it may depend in large part on who you are and where you live.

New data released Thursday by the state’s Center for Health Information and Analysis looks at geographic disparities related to health insurance and health-care access. It identified the South Coast region as an area with some of biggest challenges in health-care access. For example, nearly one in seven South Coast residents reported difficulties accessing care either because they were uninsured or because a doctor wouldn’t take their insurance type.

Experts say there are many reasons for those disparities in a region primarily comprised of the cities of Fall River and New Bedford. “We’re older Gateway Cities here,” said David Borges, a principal at Springline Research Group who used to work for UMass Dartmouth and has done research for health systems around the South Coast.

“Definitely the lower incomes, higher poverty levels, more immigrants with English as a second language all are issues that can be obstacles.”


Biden Considering Student-Loan Forgiveness is ‘a Tremendous Victory’: Pressley

Business Insider – President Joe Biden said last week that he will have an “answer” on the question of student-loan forgiveness “in the next couple of weeks,” a move Democratic lawmakers are praising.

“All we know is that the President has expressed an openness to cancel some debt,” Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts told Yahoo Finance. “That in and of itself is a tremendous victory, and so I believe we are closer than ever before to seeing some of this hardship alleviated.”

About $1.6 trillion in federal student debt is owed by some 40 million people, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Biden administration recently extended a pause on federal student-loan payments until August 31.

In his comments on Thursday, Biden said he is not considering the $50,000 debt reduction that some Democrats, including Pressley, have called for. However, he recently expressed support for debt forgiveness in the range of $10,000, Insider previously reported.

Sustainability, Climate and Energy

Climate-Change Brain Drain in Baker Administration

Commonwealth Magazine – Governor Charlie Baker lost another key aide on the climate change front, as Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said she is leaving the administration next week. 

Theoharides has been an emerging star in the Baker administration, the face of its efforts to build out the offshore wind industry and address climate change. She stepped into the job exactly three years ago after first joining the administration in 2016. She declined to say where she is headed, but departures like hers are not unusual in an administration in its final year on the job.

Beth Card, the undersecretary of environmental policy and climate resilience, is stepping in to fill Theoharides’s shoes. Card joined the administration last year after David Ismay, the then-undersecretary for climate change, left following comments he made to the Vermont Climate Council suggesting that Massachusetts residents were going to be squeezed financially as the state tries to meet its emission reduction targets.

In a video on YouTube, Ismay said Massachusetts doesn’t have many big sources of emissions left to target, and is left with changing the lifestyles of ordinary people. “There is no bad guy left, at least in Massachusetts, to point the finger at, turn the screws on, and break their will so they stop emitting,” he said. “That’s you. We have to break your will. I can’t even say that publicly.”

Employment Law and Workforce Development

Carter Named New DUA Director

State House News – Rick Jeffers is out as director of the state Department of Unemployment Assistance and Connie Carter is in.

The Baker administration on Thursday afternoon announced a “leadership transition” at the agency, which has struggled under the weight of massive demand for unemployment aid during the pandemic.

The Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said Jeffers will fill a newly created role with the title of Executive Sponsor of UI Transformation. He will lead a project to improve the online experience for DUA clients, with a focus on accessibility, usability, efficiency, and accuracy, the office said.

The administration said that Carter “brings 47 years of state and federal experience with UI systems” and will serve as interim director under a transition that will be effective Tuesday, May 31.

Taxation and Budget

Child-Care Report Tallies Lost Wages, Productivity

MetroWest Daily News – Hourly workers in Massachusetts collectively miss out on more than $1.6 billion in wages every year because of unmet child-care needs, part of a roughly $2.7 billion drag on the statewide economy stemming from inadequate child care, a new report estimates.

Putting a hefty dollar figure on an issue familiar to parents throughout the state, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said in a report published Thursday that a shortage of early education and care slots and sky-high prices for those available punch a financial hole in the pockets of workers, employers and state government.

The business-backed foundation projected that employers lose nearly $812 million every year due to lost productivity, turnover and replacement costs when workers need to step away to care for their children, in addition to the estimated $1.66 billion in lost wages that families face.

And because of lower wages and spending, state government also collects $187 million less in taxes every year as a result of poor child care access, MTF said.

“If we are to unleash all of Massachusetts’ economic potential, we must enhance our child care infrastructure and increase accessibility in the state,” authors wrote in the report. “The future of our workforce and economy depend on it.”

Home Buyers Are Finding Ways to Take the Sting Out of Rising Mortgage Rates

Mortgage rates are at their highest level in more than a decade. Home buyers are fighting back.

More borrowers are paying fees to cut their interest rates and making higher down payments to lower the amount they have to finance, lenders and real-estate agents say. People buying homes under construction are choosing to lock in today’s rates rather than risk even higher ones later.

And more home buyers are considering home loans that carry lower rates in their early years. Applications for adjustable-rate mortgages have doubled over the past three months, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

For much of 2020 and 2021, ultralow mortgage rates helped Americans offset a sharp increase in home prices. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage fell below 3% for the first time in July 2020 before bottoming out at 2.65% in early 2021.

Everything changed this year. The Federal Reserve’s pullback from the mortgage-bond market has helped drive up rates on home loans close to 2 percentage points since early January, their steepest climb in decades. And they are likely to climb even more if the Fed continues to raise its benchmark rate throughout the year, as expected.

Prospective buyers who had been quoted rates well below 4% when starting their search now face rates closer to 6% than 5%. They are scrambling to adjust.

“It’s kind of like giving a toddler some sugar for a while and then taking it away,” said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist at Kukun, a real-estate data firm. “They want to know whether it’s going to be taken away forever and whether they can live off things that aren’t sugar.”

More home buyers are opting to pay fees to secure lower rates in the form of rate-lock agreements and discount points. A borrower can buy points at a rate of 1% of the value of the mortgage; each point lowers the rate by a fraction of a percentage point.

Borrowers in April paid an average of $3,134 in discount points and loan-origination costs, according to estimates from the National Association of Realtors. That is 31% higher than a year earlier.

Paul Egbele was quoted a rate near 2.5% last year when he hit the market. But completion of the Red Oak, Texas, home he expected to close on last fall was delayed until May.

He locked in a rate of 3.5% in February, just before rates began their sharp rise. After the 60-day lock expired in April, he paid his lender, JPMorgan Chase & Co., about $1,700 to extend it until early May.

Mr. Egbele, who operates an online shoe-selling business, also opted to pay about $4,600 for discount points to reduce his rate to 3.25%.

His monthly mortgage payments are about $500 lower than they would have been if he had been saddled with today’s average rate above 5%.

“I would still be able to afford the payments, but I would have been annoyed,” Mr. Egbele said.

At mortgage lender Neat Loans, about 75% of customers chose to pay for discount points in the first quarter, up from less than 20% a year ago.

“They’re kind of taking their medicine and making a one-time payment to get back to where things were 30 days ago,” said Tom Furey, co-founder of the Boulder, Colo.-based company.

Jared Hansen, a real-estate agent in Salt Lake County, Utah, said higher rates have pushed about 15 prospective clients off the market this year. Some of those who can still afford to buy are looking at mortgages with lower introductory rates that reset in five, seven or 10 years.

Average rates on adjustable mortgages last week ranged from 3.69% to 5.03%, depending on the loan terms, according to The website’s average rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage was