BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker plans to convene a group to help guide the state's long-term approach to COVID-19, he said Tuesday, while touting the importance of vaccinations as a key tool in the fight against the virus and continuing to resist suggestions that Massachusetts should mandate masks indoors universally.
"There's a lot of differing points of view about how this whole thing is going to evolve going forward," Baker said.
Baker said he would want the group to include one member each from the House and the Senate, and that its goal would be to bring together some of the "talent that's around here that we talk to on an ad hoc basis" to discuss "how to think about this thing, not just today or next week or next month, but how should we be really thinking about this down the road."
As spread of the omicron variant presses on in Massachusetts, with daily case counts in the tens of thousands, strained hospitals and long lines at test sites, Baker and his Health and Human Services secretary, Marylou Sudders, took questions from a legislative committee focused on COVID-19 and emergency management.
In inviting Baker to testify, committee chairs Rep. Bill Driscoll and Sen. Jo Comerford said they sought to "understand your efforts to address the immediate challenges before us due to the omicron surge and efforts to navigate the coming months." Meeting virtually, they and other committee members asked Baker and Sudders about topics including vaccination efforts, hospitals, mask policies, testing in schools and equity in the distribution of rapid tests.
"I wish that we were doing more to slow transmission, frankly," Driscoll, a Milton Democrat, said after the panel questioned Baker and Sudders for a little over an hour. "We seem to be coping and managing through the blizzard that is the omicron surge this winter, but I don't want to see us get here again if we should ever deal with another variant."
Comerford, who asked Sudders about mask and vaccine mandates, said that the hearing "didn't move the needle on some of those mandates" as she had hoped.
"When we as a state don't take the responsibility that we need to take with regard to mandates, which can be very unpopular, I worry for our local officials," the Northampton Democrat said.
Masks are required in some settings in Massachusetts, including schools, hospitals and public transit, and the Department of Public Health advises people to wear masks indoors, but masks no longer are mandated universally at this point in the pandemic. Some cities and towns have imposed their own face-covering requirements at the local level.
Sen. Cindy Friedman said a mask mandate for large indoor venues, all business and restaurants is one tool that hospitals have told her would help. Comerford, also citing the stresses understaffed and exhausted health care workers face, asked Sudders if she believes the administration "must act immediately to institute a universal mask mandate like New York and California."
Sudders said the administration is "not considering a universal mask mandate at this time."
"I'd also point out, and I spend a lot of time looking at other state data as well as our own data, is that New York, which has a mask mandate, COVID cases are through the roof, and so I don't know, other than further frustrating people in the public, what a mask mandate would do, a universal mask mandate."
The quick transmission of the omicron variant has sparked calls for broad mask mandates from several groups.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity recommended Tuesday that the the administration "immediately implement an indoor mask mandate in Massachusetts and mail high-quality N95/KN95 masks to all Massachusetts residents," and the Massachusetts Public Health Association urged lawmakers to ask Baker "what is preventing [him] from implementing a statewide indoor mask mandate."
While some lawmakers have criticized Baker's pandemic response, including his administration's decisions to not bring back a statewide mask mandate and to no longer count remote learning toward the required annual number of school days, the Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate have, so far, largely left statewide policy decisions around virus control in the hands of the executive branch.
Baker, who on Tuesday separately announced that the state had ordered 26 million rapid tests set to arrive over the next three months, defended Massachusetts' status as one of the most vaccinated states in the country and said the state's goal is for everyone who got a COVID-19 vaccine to also get a booster shot when they are eligible for one.
"When I look at our vaccination booster data relative to the rest of the country, again, we're a top-five player, depending on what day of the week it is," Baker told the committee. "Marylou and I are both open to suggestions on this. If you guys think there are things we should be doing to drive more vaccinations among either kids or adults or to boost populations, especially those that are harder to reach and more hesitant than others, you know, I'm all in on this."
An exchange with Comerford around masks and schools illustrated how Baker and lawmakers do not always see eye to eye on what is the state's role and what is a matter for local officials.
Comerford said that some better-resourced school districts have been distributing high-quality, medical-grade masks to their staff and students and asked Baker why the state does not set "standard guidelines for the quality of masks used in schools given the transmissibility of omicron."
Baker, who repeatedly has stressed the importance of in-person learning, said that public health experts across the country describe school as a "low-transmission operation."
"Our goal all along has been to make it possible to support communities with respect to their goals and their initiatives around all of this but the idea that schools aren't safe is just not based on any data," Baker said. "It's just not, and I'm not going to let people perpetuate this idea that schools aren't safe, because they are and it's been proven not just in Massachusetts, but in the U.S. and around the world for the better part of a year and a half."
The latest COVID-19 surge has coincided with the winter holidays and schools' return from break, and many districts this week have been dealing with an abundance of teacher and student absences related to the virus. Over the period from Dec. 23 to Jan. 5, 38,887 new student cases of COVID-19 and 12,213 among school staff members were reported to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In the Berkshires, some schools in Pittsfield and North Adams were forced to close last week for lack of staffing.
Comerford twice posed her question about mask guidelines for schools before telling Baker she understood he wasn't going to answer it.
"I would like to say that on behalf of the Senate, I think public health guidelines and issuing a standard quality mask is a good idea, and then following those up by distributing them, because in my area, the wealthier districts are getting those higher-quality masks," she said.
Baker, in turn, brought up "about $1 billion dollars in ESSER money that the cities in towns in Massachusetts haven't spent," referencing federal COVID-19 relief funds made available to schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief program.
"There are resources available here," Baker said. "There are local boards of health who make many decisions on behalf of these kinds of issues for local communities, and honestly, I sort of look at the amount of money that's still available there and I really would like to see communities put a lot of that to work."
Comerford said she sees it as the state's job "to set the bar."
Friedman, an Arlington Democrat and a vice chair of the committee, encouraged Baker to return to a schedule of holding frequent COVID-19 news conferences, as he did multiple times a week in 2020, or to otherwise find a way "to be present and so that we know that there is a plan, we know that these are things being worked on."
"I can't tell the state that. I have my own little world," Friedman said. "You can, and I think it would be one of the things that would be enormously useful to get us through the next four weeks, which are going to be incredibly difficult."
Friedman described the state's hospitals as "short-staffed in the extreme" and struggling with capacity.
Ahead of the hearing, the health care workers union 1199SEIU outlined steps it wants to see the state take to help protect frontline staff during the surge. In a letter to health care regulators and stakeholders, executive vice president Tim Foley urged employers and the state to provide health care workers with priority access to testing, ensure adequate access to paid leave for COVID-related reasons and provide full personal protective equipment.
"Based on this latest pandemic surge, its impact on all direct care workers, and the need to continue to provide quality healthcare in a safe environment, it is imperative we take steps to better protect workers and patients from COVID," Foley said, "and to ensure that workers who become sick are provided with adequate paid sick leave time."