State House News Service Weekly Roundup: Things That Go Bump

Article Source: State House News Service

Author: Katie Lannan

APRIL 16, 2021….With at least one COVID-19 shot in the arms of more than half of Massachusetts adults and almost two months elapsed since that four-legged orange octopus heralded a website fail, it’s been a while since Gov. Charlie Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders have had to return to their go-to adjectives for hiccups in the state’s vaccine rollout: “lumpy” and “bumpy.”

This week, it was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s turn.

Boston Mayor Kim Janey and Gov. Charlie Baker lay a wreath at the site of the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial on Thursday, marking eight years since the terrorist attack shook the finish line. It was one of their first public events together since Janey became acting mayor last month. [Nancy Lane/Boston Herald/Pool]

“Our partners will be working to reschedule people who have the J&J vaccine appointments in the days ahead,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, said Tuesday. “This may be a bit bumpy. We want to make sure that we’re getting the word out to the public and to our providers.”

Federal officials’ Tuesday recommendation that use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines be suspended while they review extremely rare but serious post-vaccine cases of a blood clotting condition — reported among six U.S. women, out of more than 6.8 million people nationwide to receive that shot — definitely counts as a speed bump.

It’s one that Baker projects Massachusetts can cruise over with minimal disruption, since most of the state’s doses come from Moderna and Pfizer.

The CDC and Food and Drug Administration, like state officials and health care leaders, stressed that vaccines are effective and people should keep getting their shots. The pause, they said, indicates the vaccine monitoring process works and is taken seriously.

“I would take the J&J if it had been available, and I would still take it,” said Baker, who received his first Pfizer shot last week at the Hynes Convention Center.

That’s no surprise to anyone who’s heard him talk up the J&J shot over the past several months. Baker has often described the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which relies on a single dose and less stringent storage requirements, as a vehicle to boost capacity in Massachusetts, get shots to harder-to-reach populations and speed up the overall vaccination process.

“I feel like I’m waiting for Godot,” the governor said in February, as he kept vigil for the FDA’s eventual emergency use authorization of the J&J vaccine. And now it’s a waiting game again, to see what emerges from the CDC review.

The digital waiting room for the state’s vaccine-booking website — one of the improvements made after its February crash under high traffic — is likely to fill up again on Monday, as Massachusetts drops its eligibility restrictions and allows anyone age 16 and older who lives, works or studies here the chance to book an appointment. If they can find one.

If not, there’s always New Hampshire. The Granite State, no longer subject to a mask mandate after Friday, will on Monday allow out-of-staters to get vaccines there, too.

Baker indicated this week he’s not yet thinking about relaxing his mask order, saying the timing of such a move would ultimately depend on federal guidance (and so far, the feds have discouraged dropping mask orders), vaccination pace and the spread of coronavirus variants.

Dr. Bronwyn MacInnis, director of pathogen genomic surveillance in the Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, told lawmakers Tuesday that only about 1.4 percent of positive COVID-19 cases in the state undergo genetic sequencing to determine if they were caused by a viral variant, below the 5 percent she said should be sequenced to identify emerging threats.

The Broad Institute, which has also been a major player in COVID-19 testing efforts, aims to be sequencing 4,000 samples per week by the end of April, up from this week’s roughly 1,000.

By that point, state representatives should have wrapped up work on their version of the fiscal 2022 budget. In a return to the traditional budget-development timeline after the pandemic threw everything off-kilter last year, that $47.65 billion bill is set to hit the floor after next week’s school vacation.

“I think the timing might be the only normal thing,” Senate President Karen Spilka told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, in an event where she proposed a “moonshot” to create an intergenerational care system to support the family members, particularly women, who care for loved ones of all ages.

Speaking of school vacation, this year’s April break will come as more and more students and teachers are returning to the classrooms — and as the numbers of new COVID-19 cases districts report to the state each week are also elevated. Last week, 1,279 new cases were logged among students and staff, topping the previous record of 1,045 cases the final week in March.

Statewide, school enrollment numbers dipped significantly this pandemic-disrupted year, and the question of how many students will return to the rolls in the fall — and how that variable should be considered in per-student funding formulas — lingers over budget deliberations.

The House Ways and Means Committee’s plan, in keeping with an agreement with their Senate counterparts, proposes a $40 million reserve fund to offset adverse enrollment impacts.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center says that approach will create more work for administrators already stretched thin, and could disadvantage schools most in need of funding, depending on its criteria.

The House’s first budget draft under Speaker Ronald Mariano has a higher bottom line than Baker’s bill, boosting spending over this year by 2.6 percent instead of the cut the governor recommended. It also has a bigger draw from the state’s rainy-day fund, and accounts for large MassHealth obligations not captured in the governor’s budget.

Not featured in the House Ways and Means budget? The roughly $4.5 billion in state fiscal relief expected from the American Rescue Plan. With the state anticipating the rules for spending that money to land sometime next month, Mariano said the House would rather wait and handle that in a separate bill.

In the meantime, House lawmakers have more than a thousand ideas of how the fiscal 2022 budget could be improved.

Amendments filed ahead of Friday’s deadline range from policy matters (to name a couple: a proposal from Rep. Jay Livingstone that would allow MassHealth applicants to simultaneously apply for nutrition benefits, and one from Rep. Nicholas Boldyga that would limit the governor’s emergency powers, including capping emergency orders that “infringe constitutional rights” at 30 days’ length unless extended legislatively) to local earmarks (a new wooden shingle roof for Wakefield’s Hawthorne House, cleanup after a gypsy moth infestation in Hampden, a footbridge over Bedford’s Elm Brook….) to the Beacon Hill-centric (cost-of-living pay increases for legislative staffers and the return of Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek pitch to require an annual training for reps on how to properly mute their phone).

Seemingly without any muting/un-muting snafus, the 160 members of the House — back at full strength after Winthrop Rep. Jeffrey Turco’s swearing-in last week — convened over conference call and in the chamber on Wednesday to unanimously pass a $400 million borrowing bill for construction of a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

Working under a time crunch in hopes of securing a federal grant, the Senate intends to soon follow suit. A week ago, legislative leaders described that branch’s timeline for action as “in the coming weeks.”

Another issue that could be subject to legislative action in the short term is one that seemed like it’d been already handled: unemployment insurance relief for businesses.

A bill Baker signed on April 1 eased the UI rate hikes facing businesses, replacing a roughly 60 percent average increase with an 18.5 percent one. But costs spiked for many employers anyway, as one component of their UI payments, known as a solvency assessment, jumped from a rate of 0.58 percent in 2020 to 9.23 percent in 2021.

The National Federation of Independent Business said the higher solvency rate was enough to wipe out savings some of its members had expected from the new law, and joined with other business groups to ask the Baker administration to step in with federal stimulus funding.

On Thursday, the Department of Unemployment Assistance told employers that their first quarter payments would be due June 1 instead of April 30, promising more information later on the solvency rate. The delay will give Beacon Hill time to figure out how to respond to a situation that surprised some lawmakers as much as it did business owners.

The former Woburn City Clerk started a new job this week. William Campbell found himself face-to-face with Secretary of State William Galvin once again on Monday, when Galvin swore him in as the new director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Campbell challenged Galvin in 2010, taking in about half as many votes as the longtime incumbent.

Meanwhile, Cannabis Control Commission member Jennifer Flanagan, a former lawmaker, is leaving her state job behind, four months before her term is set to end. The CCC described Flanagan’s upcoming departure, planned for the end of this month, as “ending a 25-year career of public service.”