Dear Governor Baker,
As House Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health, I’m writing to urge you to reconsider your decision to move forward with the Commonwealth’s reopening plan into Step 2 of Phase 3. I know that you’ve heard this message from House Chair Bill Driscoll of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, as well as from Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and local epidemiologists and public health experts. As Dr. Walensky — the Director of the CDC and an original member of your own COVID-19 Advisory Board — warned 24 hours after your reopening announcement, “Now is not the time to relax restrictions.” While the data around hospitalizations, cases, and wastewater viral rates are encouraging, the baselines are still too high for comfort.
Although COVID-19 case count numbers are now trending downward, we’ve seen from our experience with the holidays how quickly and how much the trend can shift when precautions are relaxed. Dr. Walensky has warned that recent case counts showing the number of COVID-19 infections reported nationwide appears to be plateauing “at a very high number.” New, more infectious variants of COVID-19 are likely to compound this problem. On February 14th, the Department of Public Health announced that it had identified 29 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant.
I agree with you that getting students back into schools is paramount and I applaud your decision to make childcare workers, K-12 educators and K-12 school staff eligible for vaccines this week. However, the recent vote by DESE to allow Commissioner Riley to force elementary schools to reopen April 5 makes the timing of the reopening even more worrisome, to put it mildly. As it stands, the reopening timeline is not prioritizing risk mitigation. We need a science-based approach to reopening, one that prioritizes schools over restaurants and equity over Opening Day.
The vaccination program clearly still has a way to go before the highest risk groups are adequately protected. The vaccine does not become fully effective until two weeks after the final dose. Some additional caution and small delay in reopening now, can save a much longer wait to reopen down the road in order to reverse another surge in infections.
Reopening should not be prioritized while the state is still working to mitigate existing problems with the vaccination distribution plans and procedures. Many of those who are currently eligible are still unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine due to unavailability of accessible appointments, and many of those who have been on the front lines of this pandemic are still waiting to be made eligible to receive the vaccine.
According to the most recent weekly COVID-19 vaccination report produced by DPH, dated March 4th, only 5% of first vaccine doses had been administered to Black residents, who make up 9% of the state’s population. Additionally, only 4.4% of first vaccine doses administered had gone to Hispanic residents, who make up 12.4% of the state’s population.
Transportation and regional equity in vaccine distribution must be prioritized in our state’s vaccine distribution plan. A family from my district eventually found appointments in western Massachusetts for their elderly, medically frail parents after multiple efforts and through mounting anxiety. I sit here holding their pain and their anger because they lost a loved one during the 2-hour drive. In that journey, as a loved one was failing, they had to scramble to find the nearest hospital. They didn’t make it. In this case it’s not a far stretch to believe that had this person found a vaccine in their own community — or even 4 miles away at Fenway — they might still be alive. This is one tragedy, and I fear there are more that will come to light over time. Even just last week, I received an email from a 77-year-old who is delaying her vaccine because she fears taking the MBTA or a cab to her provider in Boston.
No one should have to drive 2 hours from home for a life-saving vaccine, and so long as residents are going to these lengths to secure a vaccine and struggling to secure appointments, the reopening of our state should be put on hold. These scenarios have been a reality for many as the state has transitioned away from providing vaccine doses to community-based providers and channeled them to the seven mass vaccination sites across the entire state.
Please help me understand who in your advisory committee is advising a reopening at this time — and if it’s not someone from the committee, then I would like to know who is advising you. I ask this of you as the decision to do so is in stark contrast to the guidance of Dr. Walensky, Dr. Fauci and every public health expert that I’ve spoken to. I have yet to find anyone who thinks that reopening is science-based. In fact, I’ve heard consistently that hundreds could end up dying because of rollbacks. This is very alarming, and I know that additional deaths due to the virus is not the outcome that the administration would like.
I imagine you might believe that if people don’t feel safe sitting in a restaurant at full capacity, then they can choose not to do so. This thinking comes at total disregard for the workers who have no choice and will face increased exposure — the same workers who haven’t been prioritized in the vaccination rollout. I’m sure that you and others within the administration have thought about the implications of this rollback taking place just weeks before St. Patrick’s Day. This is prescriptive for significant community spread. I’m anxious to hear your response.
State Representative – 25th Middlesex
House Chair, Joint Committee on Public Health