Commonwealth Announces Initial Steps for COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

Last week, the Commonwealth announced allocation and distribution plans for the first round of COVID-19 vaccine shipments to Massachusetts set to begin around December 15. The state’s first shipment of 59,475 doses of the Pfizer vaccine was ordered from the federal government this past Friday and will be delivered directly to 21 hospitals across 8 counties, as well as to the Department of Public Health Immunization lab.

Doses will then be redistributed for access to 74 hospitals across all 14 counties for front line medical workers. The next 40,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine will be allocated to the Federal Pharmacy Program to begin vaccinating staff and residents of skilled nursing facilities, rest homes and assisted living residences.

Vaccine is being prioritized for these groups to maximize life preservation and to support the health care system. Based on information at this time, Massachusetts is expecting 300,000 first doses of the vaccine to be delivered by the end of December. The first vaccines, manufactured by Moderna and Pfizer, will require two doses administered three to four weeks apart.

While all delivery dates and quantities are subject to change due to ongoing federal approval and allocation, the Commonwealth plans to receive and distribute over 2 million doses to priority population groups by the end of March.

In collaboration with the COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group, the Commonwealth designated groups of medical workers, first responders and residents most at risk for serious illness to receive the vaccine before the general population. The Vaccine Advisory Group is made up of leading medical, infectious disease and public health experts as well as representatives from communities of color and representatives of high-risk populations.   

Communities of color and at-risk populations are prioritized throughout the process to maximize life preservation and to prevent serious complications from COVID-19 related illnesses. 

Anticipated Vaccination Phases and Timeline:

Phase One (December 2020 through February 2021), in order of priority:

  • Clinical and non-clinical healthcare workers doing direct and COVID-19 facing care
  • Long term care facilities, rest homes and assisted living facilities
  • Police, Fire and Emergency Medical Services
  • Congregate care settings (including shelters and corrections)
  • Home-based healthcare workers
  • Healthcare workers doing non-COVID-19 facing care

Phase Two (February 2021 through April 2021), in order of priority:

  • Individuals with 2+ comorbidities (high risk for COVID-19 complications)
  • Early education, K-12, transit, grocery, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works and public health workers
  • Adults 65+
  • Individuals with one comorbidity

Phase Three (April 2021 and forward):

  • Vaccine available to general public

The first shipments of the vaccine are expected to contain doses manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna. While both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are pending FDA emergency use authorization, Massachusetts will not distribute the COVID-19 vaccine until it receives this authorization.

Vaccines go through extensive testing, more than any pharmaceuticals, including extensive testing in clinical trials. The FDA, which approves the vaccine, and the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which will make its recommendation for use, must ensure any vaccine is both safe and effective for the public before approval and distribution.

The infectious disease experts in the state’s academic medical centers have pledged to review the EUA data and provide an independent opinion about their safety and efficacy.

All residents should visit www.mass.gov/COVIDVaccine to learn more or contact their medical provider for questions about their vaccination plans. 

Massachusetts to Return to Phase Three, Step One

Yesterday, Governor Baker announced that effective Sunday, December 13th, all communities in Massachusetts will return to Step 1 of Phase III of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan. This will reduce indoor capacities across a broad range of sectors of the economy and tighten several other workplace restrictions. This roll-back is in response to an increase in new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations since the Thanksgiving holiday that is straining the health care system in Massachusetts.

The return to Step 1 will also require the closure of certain businesses designated as Step 2 industries. These include indoor performance venues and certain high-contact indoor recreational businesses. In addition, capacity limits will be reduced to 40 percent statewide for most industries, and the limit on outdoor gatherings will be reduced statewide from 100 persons to 50 persons. Additional safety measures will be applied to restaurant dining as well.

These new measures are designed to prevent infection and viral spread, especially in indoor settings. They will create stronger mask compliance, more social distancing, and limits to the time spent with people outside of your immediate household. 

Governor Baker also announced additional guidance for certain sectors including restaurants, office spaces and gyms, to address activities where mask wearing is not possible at all times.

Phase III, Step 1:

Effective December 13, all communities will roll back to Phase III, Step 1 of Massachusetts’ re-opening plan, including the following restrictions:

  • Outdoor gatherings at event venues will be limited to no more than 50 people
  • Hosts of outdoor gatherings of greater than 25 people will be required to provide advance notice of the gathering to their local board of health
  • Indoor theaters and performance venues and higher contact indoor recreation businesses will be required to close to the public
  • Outdoor theaters and performance venues will be limited to 25 percent capacity, and no more than 50 people

In all communities, capacity will be reduced from 50 percent to 40 percent for the following sectors:

  • Arcades/Indoor and Outdoor Recreational Businesses
  • Driving and Flight Schools
  • Gyms/Health Clubs
  • Libraries
  • Museums
  • Retail
  • Offices
  • Places of Worship
  • Lodging (common areas)
  • Golf facilities
  • Movie Theaters (Maximum 50 people per theater)

This new capacity limit will not apply to sectors that do not currently have a percentage-based capacity limit, including restaurants, laboratories and close contact personal services.

Click here to read the revised gatherings order.

Click here to read the order rolling Massachusetts back to Phase III, Step 1.

Restaurants and Venues

Governor Baker also announced new guidelines for restaurants and other venues with seated dining, including:

  • Patrons must wear masks at all times except when eating and drinking
  • Restaurants must seat no more than six patrons per table
  • Restaurants must impose a 90-minute time limit on tables
  • Musical performances at restaurants will no longer be permitted
  • Food court seating must be closed in malls

Customers are encouraged to dine only with members of the same household.

Offices and Gyms

Governor Baker announced new guidelines for workplaces and gyms, including:

  • In offices, employees must wear masks at their place of work when not in their own workspace and alone
  • Employers are encouraged to close or limit the use of break rooms
  • Patrons must wear masks at all times in gyms

All employers are encouraged to continue to offer teleworking to their employees when possible.

Massachusetts Legislature Passes Balanced FY2021 Budget

Last week, I voted along with my colleagues in the Massachusetts Legislature to pass a Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) budget, which invests in programs and services across the Commonwealth.

Funded at $46.2 billion, the budget aims to address the sweeping effects of the global pandemic by making targeted investments in housing, food security, and substance use addiction services, as well as domestic violence, sexual assault treatment and prevention programs. The budget also invests in programs that provide COVID-19 related supports for students and increases funding for developmental services, early education and childcare, and public health.

Several items in the budget that I supported or filed as amendments have impacts locally here on Cape Ann, including:

  • $75,000 for the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute to develop a strategic plan with UMass Amherst and Tufts University to study applications of genomics to mitigate the effects of climate change on land and marine food resources;
  • $25,000 for the First R Foundation and Pathways for Children to provide books to Cape Ann’s children through the Imagination Library;
  • $14,000 each for Gloucester, Rockport, and Essex for costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • $75,000 to increase workforce development training opportunities and technical education in secondary and post-secondary schools for careers in the marine trades; and
  • $125,000 for the Essex county court-appointed special advocates program.

The Legislature continues to further its commitment to cities and towns by investing $1.1 billion in Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA) and $5.283 billion in Chapter 70 education funding, including over $16 million for Cape Ann’s schools and municipalities. Continuing the Legislature’s support of targeted investments in education, this budget provides an increase of $107.6 million over Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20). The education budget allocations include:

  • $53 million in COVID-19 related student supports;
  • $345.2 million for Circuit Breaker Special Education reimbursement;
  • $117 million for Charter School Reimbursement; and
  • $82 million for Regional School Transportation reimbursement.

Due to the pandemic, access to safe and affordable housing for many families across the Commonwealth has taken on new urgency. The budget represents the Legislature’s ongoing commitment to housing and homelessness funding. This year, the budget makes targeted investments into rental and housing assistance to support families, tenants and property owners during this time of crisis:

  • $180 million for Emergency Assistance Family Shelters;
  • $135 million for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP);
  • $50 million for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), as well as emergency changes to the RAFT program to increase the maximum amount of rental assistance that a household can receive from $4,000 to $10,000 and allow eligible households facing a housing crisis to access both RAFT and HomeBASE;
  • $80 million for public housing subsidies;
  • $56 million for homeless individual shelters;
  • $13 million for homeless student transportation;
  • $12.5 million for the Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP), which provides rental assistance to people with disabilities;
  • $11 million for Department of Mental Health Rental Subsidy Program; and
  • $8 million for unaccompanied homeless youth.

In addition, the budget includes protections to ensure tenants facing eviction better understand their rights and have the opportunity to slow any court process down if they are seeking financial assistance with their rent payments. To help oversee the state’s tenancy preservation efforts, the budget requires additional data and reporting and creates a task force made up of legislators, the administration, and court officials.  

Keeping in mind the widespread economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, this budget makes specific investments in labor and economic development programs that provide opportunities for the Commonwealth’s workers and its businesses. The budget maintains its support for the Massachusetts Manufacturing Partnership with an investment of $2 million—funding which has helped many Massachusetts manufactures retrofit their businesses into the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) market. Other investments include: 

  • $94 million for Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs);
  • $46.4 million in new economic development funding including; 
    • $17.5 million for a local Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)
    • $17.5 million for community development financial institutions
    • $7.5 million for matching grants for capital investments by small businesses
    • $3.85 million for small business technical assistance grants
  • $46 million for Adult Basic Education Services;
  • $20 million for summer jobs for at-risk youth; 
  • $15 million for a Community Empowerment and Reinvestment grant program to provide economic supports to communities disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system;
  • $10 million for the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund; 
  • $6 million for Regional Economic Development Organizations to support economic growth in all regions of the state; 
  • $5 million for Community Foundations to provide emergency economic relief to historically underserved populations;
  • $2.5 million in Urban Agenda Grants; and
  • $1.4 million for small business development.

The budget builds on the Legislature’s commitment to ensuring all children have access to high-quality early education and care (EEC) during this pandemic. The budget provides $25 million for a new Early Education and Care Workforce and COVID-19 Supports Reserve to provide classroom stabilization grants, incentive pay for providers, and support for increased operational costs due to COVID-19. In addition, the budget invests in those who work with children by increasing rates for early education providers by $20 million and provides $40 million for a new reserve to cover parent fees for families receiving subsidized childcare for the remainder of FY21. The budget also includes the following EEC investments and initiatives:

  • $15 million for Head Start grants;
  • $10 million for EEC Workforce Higher Education Opportunities;
  • $2.5 million in early childhood mental health grants;
  • $11 million for child care resource and referral agencies; and
  • Establishes the Early Education and Care Economic Review Commission to review childcare funding and make recommendations on policy changes to expand access.   

The budget continues to dedicate substantial resources toward supporting public higher education and increases scholarship funding for students. These investments include:

  • $286 million for state universities;
  • $307.7 million for community colleges; 
  • $560 million for the University of Massachusetts system;
  • $120 million in scholarship funding;
  • $4.8 million for the STEM Starter Academy, to support underrepresented students in STEM fields at community colleges; and
  • $2 million to ensure high school students with intellectual disabilities have continued access to higher education opportunities during this time of need.  

Funded at $19 billion this fiscal year, MassHealth is the largest investment the Commonwealth makes in its most vulnerable residents, including children, seniors, low-income residents and those experiencing homelessness. In response to the threats to reproductive rights for women on the national level, the Legislature also voted to remove medically unnecessary barriers to women’s reproductive care across the Commonwealth. The budget also invests in critical health and human services agencies and providers including: 

  • $501.1 million for Adult Support Services; 
  • $307 million for the Department of Children and Families for social workers, family support and stabilization, and foster care and adopted fee waivers;
  • $94.8 million for children’s mental health services;
  • $36.4 million for early intervention services;
  • $30.4 million in emergency food assistance;
  • $25.8 million for funding to support expanded access to mental health services, including $10 million for the Behavioral Health, Outreach, Access and Support Trust Fund and $10 million for a new inpatient mental health acute care beds grant program to expand access to critical mental health services; and
  • $17.5 million for Family Resource Centers to meet increased demand for services.  

In addition to these health care investments, the conference report includes provisions that prohibit insurers from denying coverage for mental health services and primary care services solely because they were delivered on the same day in the same facility.

Highlighting the urgent need to strengthen public health infrastructure at the local, state and regional level to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the budget includes targeted investments aimed at redoubling our efforts and pushing forward with a proactive public health response to defeat this horrible virus. The budget includes:

  • $10 million for grants to support local boards of health to combat COVID-19;
  • $1.7 million for the State Action for Public Health Excellence (SAPHE) program to support a more effective local and regional public health delivery system; and
  • $1 million for a COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Plan program, focused on equitable vaccine distribution.

Keeping in mind those affected by domestic violence, the budget establishes a grant program to provide domestic violence advocate services across the state to connect survivors with essential services. 

In order to support programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the budget increases funding for developmental services to $2.1 billion and includes $239 million for community day and work programs across the Commonwealth. The budget also includes the following investments:

  • $237 million for state-operated residential services
  • $78 million for family respite services; and
  • $38.5 million for autism omnibus services.

The budget furthers the Legislature’s ongoing commitment to fight the opioid epidemic. To provide assistance to those who are battling substance addiction, the budget increased funding for the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services to $169 million while offering continued support for step-down recovery services, jail diversion programs, and expansion of access to life-saving medication. 

Food insecurity has become one of the most prevalent consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting children, adults and seniors alike. To that end, the conference report prioritizes access to food resources across the Commonwealth. Food insecurity investments include:

  • $30 million for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program;
  • $13 million in Healthy Incentives Programs to ensure vulnerable households have continued access to food options during the pandemic; and
  • $1.2 million for Project Bread to support the Child Nutrition Outreach Program and the Food Source Hotline.

The budget includes funding for the judiciary and ongoing criminal justice reform, including a $762.9 million investment in the trial court and to support for criminal justice reform implementation. The budget also includes $29 million for civil legal aid to provide representation for low-income individuals via the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and invests in community-based re-entry programs and a pre- and post-release services grant program.

The budget calls for $312.6 million in spending for environmental programs, which aim to protect the Commonwealth’s natural resources. These investments include:

  • $70.4 million for the Department of Environmental Protection, including additional funding for a PFAS-specific team to remediate water contamination in the Commonwealth;
  • $51.5 million for state parks and recreation;
  • $40.1 million for the Department of Agricultural Resources, including $1.4M for mosquito spraying to mitigate the risk of the Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) virus;
  • $16.1 million for fisheries and wildlife protection;
  • $8.5 million for agricultural resources;
  • $2.6 million for ecological restoration; and
  • $500,000 for the Commonwealth’s endangered species program.

Having been passed by the House and Senate, the legislation now goes to Governor Baker for his signature.

Thanksgiving During COVID-19

As we head into Thanksgiving, I want to personally extend my thanks to you all for your strength and perseverance during these trying times and wish you a safe and happy holiday. While we offer our thanks for what we have, we must also pause and remember those who are no longer with us due to this terrible pandemic and endevour to each do our best to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. 

As Massachusetts residents plan for the Thanksgiving holiday, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and Department of Public Health are offering the following considerations to help keep our friends, families, and communities safe during COVID-19. If you host a holiday celebration, keep it small. If you are considering travel, be aware of Massachusetts travel orders. If you participate in a celebration, follow public health guidance.

Any time you’re near people you don’t live with: 

  • Wear a mask when not eating or drinking
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water
  • Stay at least six feet apart from others 
  • Consider if those around you may be at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, such as older adults or those with certain medical conditions, and take extra precautions
  • If gathering indoors, improve ventilation by opening windows and doors

Lower risk celebrations

  • Limit in-person holiday gatherings to only people you live with or limit to a small group of individuals with whom you are regularly in contact.
  • Gatherings with more people pose more risks. As a reminder, gatherings in Massachusetts are subject to gathering size limits.
  • Keep visits short – gatherings that last longer pose more risk than short gatherings.
    • Host a virtual holiday dinner with extended family or friends, especially if they are at higher risk for illness from COVID-19. Prepare traditional family recipes for family and neighbors, especially those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and deliver them in a way that doesn’t involve contact with others.

Higher risk celebrations

Including people who are not in your household or limited social network increases the risk of contracting or spreading illness. If you plan on celebrating the holidays in person with people you don’t live with:

  • Wear your mask and watch your distance at all times.
  • Do not share food, drink, or any utensils.
  • Encourage guests to bring food and drinks for themselves and for members of their own household only.
  • Wear a mask while preparing or serving food to others who don’t live in your household.
  • Consider having one person serve all the food so that multiple people are not handling the serving utensils.
  • Use single-use options or identify one person to serve sharable items, like salad dressings, food containers, plates and utensils, and condiments.
  • Avoid any self-serve food or drink options, such as buffets or buffet-style potlucks, salad bars, and condiment or drink stations.
  • For 14 days before and after holiday gatherings, minimize contact with other people, and leave home only for essential services like going to work, buying groceries, and appointments with doctors; OR,
  • Obtain a negative result from a molecular (PCR) SARS-CoV2 test, on a sample obtained within 72 hours of the celebration. Information about where to obtain a test can be found at www.mass.gov/GetTested.
  • Seat people with plenty of space from one another while dining.
  • Consider small seating table arrangements in multiple rooms with plenty of spacing, instead of a large family table.
  • If gathering indoors, improve ventilation by opening windows and doors.

Avoid these activities

  • Avoid sharing food and drinks.
  • Avoid shaking hands and hugging. Wave and verbally greet others instead.  
  • Avoid singing, dancing, and shouting. These activities increase your chances of catching COVID-19 through the air.  
  • Avoid in-person gatherings with people at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, such as older adults and people with certain medical conditions.

Other important considerations

  • Community levels of COVID-19: Higher levels of COVID-19 cases and community spread in the gathering location, as well as where attendees are coming from, increase the risk of infection and spread among attendees. Consider the number and rate of COVID-19 cases in your community and in the community where you plan to celebrate when deciding whether to host or attend a holiday celebration. Find information on cases in Massachusetts cities and towns and information on cases across the United States.
  • People with or exposed to COVID-19 should avoid attending in-person celebrations. Do not host or participate in any in-person festivities if you or anyone in your household:
    • Has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and has not met the criteria for when it is safe to be around others
    • Has symptoms of COVID-19
    • Is awaiting COVID-19 viral test results
    • May have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the last 14 days
    • Is at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, such as older adults or those with certain medical conditions
  • Celebrating with your loved one in a long-term care or congregate care setting: ​There are important considerations when planning celebrations with a loved one who lives in a congregate setting​, as many people living in these settings are at higher risk of becoming sick or severely ill from COVID-19. EOHHS is offering considerations and recommendations on how to safely celebrate with a loved one in a congregate setting in a letter to families.​

All residents are also encouraged to get the flu vaccine. For additional information, please refer to the holiday guidance provided by the CDC.

New Grant Program Provides COVID-19 Relief for Cultural Organizations

The Mass Cultural Council, in partnership with the Commonwealth’s Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development, has launched the Cultural Organization Economic Recovery Grant Program, which offers grant assistance to Massachusetts nonprofit cultural organizations negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the $10 million available, $2 million will be dedicated to supporting small cultural nonprofits, in alignment with the FY20 COVID-19 supplemental budget.

The Cultural Organization Economic Recovery Grant Program will grant cultural organizations up to $100,000, or three months of supported operating expenses. On an extremely limited basis, Mass Cultural Council and EOHED reserve the right to award a small number of grants worth up to $500,000 for organizations experiencing extraordinary losses. An organization must demonstrate extraordinary need and show that they face remarkable challenges that threaten its viability for this higher award amount to be considered.

Program guidelines, eligibility requirements, and the grant application for the Cultural Organization Economic Recovery Grant Program are available online. Applications are due on December 11th at 11:59 PM. An online info session for organizations interested in the program will be held at 4 PM on December 1st.