GOV. CHARLIE BAKER often says he and his political opponents will “agree to disagree.” That could have been the mantra of Tuesday’s oversight hearing of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management.
As the Omicron variant of COVID-19 surges through Massachusetts, overwhelming hospitals, lawmakers monitoring the state’s response questioned Baker and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders in a 1 1/2-hour virtual hearing. They pressed the officials on vaccination outreach, education policy, and how to help the state’s struggling health care system.
The hearing was characterized by respectful disagreement between Democratic lawmakers and the Republican Baker on issues including a universal mask mandate and standards for masking in schools. What emerged were fundamental debates over whether the Baker administration is doing enough to curb the spread of the virus – and whether decisions about precautions should be made on a state or local level.
“When we as a state don’t take the responsibility we need to take with regards to mandates that can be very unpopular, I worry for our local officials,” said committee co-chair Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat. “Today we didn’t move the needle on some of those mandates as I hoped we would.”
Comerford opened the hearing by criticizing the administration for distributing 4.5 million masks “of questionable efficacy sent with expired tests.”
This referred to an incident when Baker said masks distributed to teachers were tested by MIT and 85 percent effective, then later the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education acknowledged that some masks had not been tested. The Massachusetts Teachers Association said the masks were of a less effective type.
Comerford asked Baker why the administration would not publish standards for what quality masks should be worn in schools, then distribute high-quality masks. “Some well-resourced districts have taken the distribution of high-quality masks on themselves,” Comerford said.
Baker said when his administration realized the masks had not been tested, masks from the batch were sent for testing. “The preliminary results are very positive with respect to the efficacy and safety of those masks,” Baker said.
Pressed by Comerford on why not issue mask standards, Baker did not answer directly but pivoted to arguing that schools are safe. “The idea schools aren’t safe is not based on any data. I’m not going to let people perpetuate this idea that schools aren’t safe because they are,” Baker said.
“I understand you’re not going to answer this question,” Comerford said.
Baker then added that school districts have unspent federal COVID relief money that can be used to buy high-quality masks – but that is a local decision.
Comerford shot back: “I believe it’s the state’s responsibility to set the guidelines to keep our people safe.”
A similar disagreement about state versus local control arose regarding whether Massachusetts should reissue an indoor mask mandate. Baker has declined to do so, leaving the decision to local officials.
Sen. Cindy Friedman, an Arlington Democrat who co-chairs the Committee on Health Care Financing, said hospitals are inundated with patients and short-staffed. The things they are asking for, she said, are an indoor mask mandate for large venues, businesses, and restaurants; vaccine outreach in communities with low vaccination rates; and free, available testing so people stop coming to emergency rooms seeking COVID tests.
Baker said the state’s recent purchase of 26 million rapid tests, which will be distributed to schools and childcares, should help with testing. The state is continuing vaccine outreach. But Baker indicated, as he has in the past, that he will not reinstate a mask mandate.
“We’ve chosen to focus on mask mandates in places where we think the populations are either at risk or we believe that it’s an important tool to provide some degree of comfort and satisfaction and safety for people,” Baker said, referring to mask mandates in transportation and health care facilities.
Sudders reiterated, “We have mask mandates in specific places and are not considering a universal mask mandate at this time.”
New York has an indoor mask mandate but COVID cases “are through the roof,” Sudders said. “I don’t know other than further frustrating people in the public what a universal mask mandate would do.”
Comerford pressed Sudders on whether a vaccine mandate is necessary to curb the virus’ spread in places like nightclubs, gyms, and stadiums. Sudders said the state has set up a way for people to obtain a digital vaccine credential, should municipalities or private businesses choose to impose a mandate. “We’re not inclined to do a mandate,” she said.
Committee co-chair Rep. William Driscoll, a Milton Democrat, pressed Baker on why only 44 percent of Massachusetts children ages 5 to 11 have gotten their first COVID shot. Baker acknowledged that getting parents to vaccinate children “is a more difficult sell for many folks than I thought it would be,” though he said Massachusetts’ pediatric vaccination rate is higher than in most other states.
One sobering moment came when Driscoll asked Sudders what would trigger hospitals’ use of “crisis standards of care,” ethical guidelines for rationing care when a hospital cannot care for everyone.
Sudders said the state has activated National Guard members to help hospitals. She said there are other things that can be done before rationing care, including allowing some health care workers infected with COVID-19 to work, as some Rhode Island hospitals have done, and cancelling all inpatient and outpatient elective procedures. So far, Massachusetts has only paused inpatient elective procedures, with exceptions for hospitals that have not reached capacity.