Massachusetts lawmakers grill Charlie Baker over Omicron wave response


“Sometimes I can make a sale and sometimes I can’t.”

Governor Charlie Baker during a press conference on Tuesday. Jonathan Wiggs / The Greeley Tribune Globe

The COVID-19 infection is at a record high. Hospitals with less staff are making a lot of effort to deal with the increasing number of patients. And some Massachusetts lawmakers are asking why the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker isn’t doing more.

Despite the state’s high vaccination rate, the unprecedented amount of COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron type has exacerbated bed capacity shortages in local hospitals and forced schools and businesses to remain open.

While experts expect dramatic boom peak this month, they also present many difficult weeks ahead, especially for hospitals and schools,

“I wish we were doing more to slow transmission,” state Representative Bill Driscoll, a Milton Democrat and co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint COVID-19 Oversight Committee, said during a virtual hearing Tuesday afternoon.

“It looks like we’re facing Blizzard and there’s an Omicron surge this winter, but I don’t want to see us here again,” Driscoll said.

In fairness, the situation in Massachusetts is hardly unique. And the Baker administration argues that they are already doing a lot — in some ways, if not more, than any other state in responding to the Omicron wave.

  • Massachusetts issues new isolation protocol, as state increasingly relies on COVID-19 tests

  • Massachusetts is doing a lot to keep kids in school amid the Omicron COVID-19 boom. this is enough?

On Tuesday afternoon, just hours after the hearing, Baker activated an additional 500 National Guard members to help hospitals and announced that the state had committed 26 million rapid COVID-19 outbreaks to distribute to schools and childcare centers over the next few months. -19 tests have been achieved.

Of course, lawmakers would not have asked Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Saders to testify at Tuesday’s hearing if they thought that was enough.

Two top officials were briefed about everything from mask policies to vaccination efforts during an sometimes tense, 90-minute hearing that sheds new light on how the Baker administration is in the current Omicron wave and beyond. How is it coming?

Here’s what we learned:

1. Hospitals are under pressure again, why aren’t the public being asked to flatten the curve?

In response to the Omicron surge, the Baker administration is now asking all residents to voluntarily wear a mask in indoor public spaces, though the Republican governor says he has “no interest” in making it a statewide requirement.

However, with COVID-19 hospitalizations now occupied between 3,000 and 92 percent of hospital beds in Massachusetts, State Sen. Cindy Friedman questioned the same “flatten the curve” argument that hardened at the beginning of the pandemic. The lockdown was justified, at least not justified. An indoor facade now mandates.

“The relief is desperately needed so they can keep their staff healthy and care for those who need to stay in the hospital,” Friedman said. Like restaurants and businesses.

Baker acknowledged that hospitals are “incredibly challenging”. but he argued current mask requirements For schools, health care settings, public transportation, and collective care facilities were sufficient.

He said, “We have chosen to focus the mask mandate in places where we think the population is either at risk or we believe it is an important part of providing some degree of comfort and satisfaction and protection for people.” equipment.”

While dozens of the most densely populated cities and towns such as Greeley Tribune implemented its own indoor mask mandate, Suders also suggested that the public’s appetite for re-enactment of the statewide order would dwindle.

“I’m not sure, other than disappointing people in public, what a mask mandate will do,” she said.

Sudders stressed that “the issue facing our hospitals is the hospitalization of people who are unvaccinated,” which make up a disproportionate share of COVID-19 patients, particularly those in the intensive care unit.

However, she added that “as you’ve heard the governor say, he’s not inclined, we’re not inclined,” to enforce any statewide version of the vaccine requirements that apply to Greeley Tribune and a handful of other community indoor locations. restaurants, gyms, theaters and museums.

Unlike the COVID-19 wave during the spring of 2020, capacity constraints are now primarily due to staffing shortages, resulting in an effective loss of 700 hospital beds, which Sudders argued presented various alternatives. does.

During the hearing, Sudders highlighted a number of less public-facing actions that officials could continue to squeeze hospitals into, saying it “hopes” it won’t reach the point of rationing care.

The Baker administration has already ordered hospitals to halt all non-essential elective procedures that could result in inpatient admissions.

Suders said Tuesday that he could order them to postpone elective procedures “100 percent”, both inpatient and outpatient. However, at the request of the hospitals, they have put a hold on that for now.

Administration also did not use the new flexibility Affordable by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Only healthcare workers who have asymptomatic COVID-19 can return to work in direct care after seven days of isolation.

“Those are two levers … we’ll pull, or take the initiative, before you reach crisis standards of care,” Sudders said.

Suders also introduced the idea of ​​limited liability protection for health care workers during an Omicron surge.

“These.. are the people who have been working exceptionally hard and have continued to work exceptionally hard and are making the best decisions they can in real time,” Sudders said. “And we would welcome it.”

2. Baker says getting kids vaccinated is more difficult than she thought

Massachusetts is a national leader when it comes to pediatric vaccine rollout. With about 44 percent Children aged 5 to 11 years are vaccinated with at least one dose, state second only to Vermont When it comes to vaccinating your youngest eligible cohort.

But there are striking gaps.

As Greeley Tribune Globeeditorial board of recently tested, the pediatric vaccination rate lags far behind in low incomes and conservative-leaning communities,

Baker’s administration has launched significant outreach and sponsored vaccine clinics in places such as schools and public events. But even the governor acknowledged on Tuesday that it has been “more difficult” than he thought.

“This equation takes two,” Baker said. “We need to put vaccines in front of people. I would argue that we did a very good job of it. There’s always something more to do. But then you have to get people ready to go. ,

Baker said he’s had “some very intense conversations” trying to convince people he knows about getting their kids vaccinated.

“Honestly, sometimes I can make a sale and sometimes I can’t,” he said.

Baker said he was “very open” to suggestions if the legislature had ideas about things they might not normally be doing to boost vaccination rates (he also noted that the state’s target Each vaccination person is promoting; so far, they have reached about 40 percent).

“I’m all over it, but baby talk, in particular, is a more difficult sell for many people than I thought,” Baker said.

Baker said, “I think it’s because there’s a lot of noise about vaccines in general, and that hasn’t helped us, in my opinion — not only in Massachusetts, but across the country — make the case.” “

3. State officials are looking beyond the current wave

As much as Tuesday’s hearing is focused on the current wave, his experiences countries like south africa Where the Omicron version hit first, it also shows a dramatic decline (COVID-19 samples.) Retrieved from Greeley Tribune area wastewater This week is already showing a decline, although they remain above the previous peaks).

and then what?

Baker said on Tuesday that his administration plans to form a group to discuss the state’s outlook for COVID-19 in the medium to long term.

“There are very different and different perspectives on how this whole thing is going to proceed,” the governor said, adding that he would like to have members of the House and Senate on the committee.

“The basic goal would be to really talk about how not only today or next week or next month, but how we should really think about this,” Baker said.

some experts optimistic project That Omicron surge’s wave of mostly mild infections combined with vaccination would turn the pandemic into an “endemic”, where it is treated in the same way as the common flu.

“Omicron may lubricate the wheels of that process a bit, especially in countries with high levels of vaccination and immunity,” According to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health,

However, experts say that low vaccination rates in some regions may contribute to the emergence of additional types, which may contain more lethal or transmissible mutations.

Lawmakers recently allocated $200 million in federal pandemic relief funds to the Baker administration to use on the ongoing pandemic response. Baker said about $175 million has been spent on supporting various health care providers, as most vaccination and testing expenses are federally reimbursable.

This still leaves millions latent.

“We always wanted to have something in our pocket in case something happened that was so unexpected that we could implement it,” Baker said.