By Bob Katzen
After several weeks of differences between the House and Senate, the two branches agreed on and sent to Gov. Baker a bill that would require that the Department of Public Health (DPH) compile, collect and issue daily online reports on the number of people tested for COVID-19. The report would include the number of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths along with the gender, race, ethnicity, primary residence, occupation, disability, age and primary language of each case. The bill was filed in response to increasing concerns about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and disproportionately impacted populations.
To ensure a comprehensive understanding of cases statewide, the legislation also requires that daily reports include data and demographic information from municipalities and counties with more than 25 positive cases, elder care facilities and state and county prisons.
The measure also requires the governor’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services to describe the actions it is taking to address disparities identified through the data collected. Another provision establishes a task force to study and make policy recommendations for how to address these health disparities. The task force is required to issue an interim report by June 30, 2020, with a final report due August 1, 2020.
“This strong, comprehensive bill will help us begin to address the disparate impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare, especially among our communities of color and other vulnerable populations,” said Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland). “I am proud of the thoughtful and collaborative work my Senate colleagues, as well as the Senate Working Group, did to advance this urgent piece of legislation. I look forward to it becoming law.”
“This legislation has two major wins: data transparency and government accountability,” said Senator Jo Comerford (D-Northampton), co-chair of the Committee on Public Health and chair of the Senate COVID-19 Working Group. “Public access to comprehensive data is foundational to a strong democracy and a healthy government is one that commits publicly to address any disparities and inequities found in the data.”
“Communities of color are more vulnerable to disease because of long-term, structural barriers to care and treatment,” said Sen. Julian Cyr (D-Truro). “COVID-19 has disproportionately sickened and killed underserved and underrepresented populations in Massachusetts, and the commonwealth is obligated to respond and care for communities where the need is greatest. Collecting actionable demographic data is critical to inform policies and interventions for the duration of the pandemic. This legislation is a step towards making right the gaping equities that COVID-19 has laid bare.”
“We thank the Senate and House for the legislative actions taken to prioritize the needs of those living in long-term care residences and senior housing locations,” said American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Massachusetts State Director Mike Festa. “We believe transparency and notice to the public is critical for public health. Caregivers and family members need and deserve to have information on COVID-19 positive cases and deaths for their own health decisions and as they consider possible next steps and interventions for their loved ones.”
“The bill requires greater transparency from the Baker Administration about what actions they are taking to address the inequities shown in the data,” said Carlene Pavlos, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association. “Knowledge is crucial but is only valuable if it leads to smart action. As Massachusetts considers additional stages of reopening, we must use data to ensure that communities of color, low wage workers and other marginalized populations do not suffer further than they have already.
“The COVID-19 illness has mercilessly targeted older adults, especially those living in congregate settings,” said Rep. Ruth Balser (D-Newton) whose bill to require reporting by all elder facilities — including Soldiers Homes, nursing homes, assisted living residences and independent senior housing — was rolled into this bill. “Only with accurate and comprehensive information about the tragedy that is unfolding in elder facilities, can we direct the resources that are needed, and save lives.”