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Mass. Senate COVID bill features spending directives

BOSTON — Senators plan to take up a $55 million COVID-19 spending plan Wednesday afternoon that includes additional spending requirements aimed at increasing vaccination rates and boosting education around vaccines in communities disproportionately impacted by the virus.

The broad outlines of the bill (H 4345) mirror what the House passed unanimously last week: $30 million to establish and expand COVID-19 testing including $5 million to increase youth vaccination rates. Another $25 million is earmarked for purchasing N95 and KN95 masks for public elementary and secondary school districts.

However, the Senate Ways and Means Committee added extra spending requirements for staffing capacity and technical assistance for local education campaigns on the vaccine in a new version of the bill (S 2622) that is set to go before the Senate on Wednesday.

The committee set aside $5 million to support expanded infrastructure and staff capacity at community health centers to deliver shots. The language includes a new clause saying "funding shall prioritize efforts to maximize a culturally, linguistically, and ethnically competent workforce as it relates to vaccine delivery."

The Senate bill also earmarked $5 million to assist local community groups and organizations conducting outreach and education related to COVID vaccines in communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Michael Rodrigues mug

Michael Rodrigues

Both the House and Senate bills direct the Department of Public Health and Executive Office of Health and Human Services to establish and expand walk-up coronavirus testing locations with locations at community health centers, urgent care centers, and other nonprofit organizations.

"We want to ensure that whenever you want to get a test, there's one more readily available than there is now. And we've seen other cities and other states around the country where there are kiosks, or community health centers are performing these tests," Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues told the News Service. "Those aren't available here in Massachusetts so we want to provide the resources to make them available."

Where the House seeks to purchase COVID-19 rapid antigen tests for and distribute masks to elementary and secondary public school districts, the Senate bill added to the list early education and care programs, congregate care facilities, and health care workers like personal care attendants and home health aides.

Both bills require masks to be distributed by Feb. 28, direct the Baker administration to seek the highest allowable rate of federal reimbursement, and outline the creation of a public website detailing the total number of masks purchased, among other things. For the public website, the Senate bill includes additional reporting parameters for congregate care and early education and care programs to which masks were distributed.

The Senate bill also expands upon a COVID-19 vaccination equity initiative, by adding language directing the secretary of health and human services to prepare and implement a "detailed comprehensive" COVID-19 vaccination plan with interim goals, benchmarks, and timelines to boost vaccination rates.

The plan will aim to eliminate disparities in vaccination rates within four months of the effective date of the bill. Senate President Karen Spilka told the News Service on Monday that the plan is "really a critical piece to our bill."

House and Senate Democrats have described the bill as urgent and any differences in the bills will need to be resolved quickly if lawmakers are to meet their stated goal getting it to Baker's desk "swiftly." Senators so far have come up with 23 amendments to the bill.

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