A day after Boston mandated proof of vaccination for city workers and those gathering in certain public establishments, Representative Ayanna Pressley pushed Governor Charlie Baker to take stronger precautions as well and issue a statewide mask mandate, as a wave of COVID-19 infections spreads across Massachusetts.
In a letter to Baker on Tuesday, Pressley urged the state to take “immediate action to mitigate the ongoing spread of the coronavirus,” as Massachusetts has reached the grim milestone of more than 1 million cases and nearly 20,000 deaths, disproportionately impacting disenfranchised families and communities of color.
“As we continue to experience a winter surge and are now faced with the new threat of the even more contagious Omicron variant, it is incumbent upon policymakers, at all levels of government, to act aggressively to center the public health and keep our collective constituents safe and healthy,” Pressley said in the letter to Baker, which was shared with the Globe.
She added, “In this moment, our shared constituents deserve bold leadership and evidence-based policies that will mitigate COVID-19 transmission and save lives.”
Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey joined in with Pressley on calling for a statewide mask mandate to be imposed Tuesday evening, writing in a tweet that it is “clear” the requirement needs to be reinstated. The Malden Democrat added that he has been a proponent of such measures for more than a year.
Earlier Tuesday, Baker announced a new advisory that encouraged residents to wear masks in indoor public spaces, activated 500 National Guard members to assist at hospitals, and ordered hospitals to postpone elective procedures to cut down on hospital admissions amid the surge of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Last week, the Baker administration also disbursed more than 2 million at-home COVID-19 tests in high-need communities, helping to provide testing mechanisms as families gather for the holidays. Baker officials said the governor has taken appropriate steps to address the surge. The state set up 200 vaccine booster locations in Boston alone; the state has invested more than $43 million in local vaccine equity and awareness efforts, including mobile vaccination sites; and the administration’s Vaccine Equity Initiative has prioritized the state’s hardest-hit communities, including Boston.
Though he issued the mask advisory, the governor told reporters Tuesday he did not believe a mask mandate is necessary.
“We are saying that we think more people should be masking, but the people of Massachusetts know at this point that masking is one of the tools they can pursue if they choose to do so to protect themselves,” Baker said. “But let’s not forget: Five million people in Massachusetts are fully vaccinated and the vaccines are by far the most effective tool we have in the toolbox to protect one another from COVID.”
He said local communities can choose to explore mask mandates on their own if they choose. “At this point in time, we have vaccines, we have rapid tests, we have testing sites, and people know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t with respect to combating the virus,” he said.
In her letter, Pressley specifically called on Baker to reinstate the statewide indoor mask policy as a mandate, rather than an advisory, and to adopt the Massachusetts COVID-19 Action Plan put forward by public health experts and community leaders to more aggressively mitigate the surge. That plan includes strategies to expand access to free testing, including the distribution of more free rapid tests.
Other public officials also called on the governor to do more.
“We have grossly and inexplicably insufficient action from the governor to protect public health and ensure that hospitals and emergency rooms remain accessible,” said state Senator Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, during a press conference to promote the COVID-19 Action Plan, which was endorsed by 41 organizations, 18 legislators, and 120 health professionals. The plan calls for an indoor mask mandate, mobile vaccination clinics, and workplace protections, among other measures.
“Now is no time to ignore the experts,” Rausch said.
The need now to deploy the National Guard to help shows “a failure to institute a robust preventive transmission policy in the first place,” Rausch said.
Massachusetts Senate President Karen E. Spilka also called on the governor to take stronger measures.
“It’s necessary to go beyond advisories and recommendations and apply a uniform, consistent approach to stopping the spread and saving lives,” said Spilka, who called on the governor to mandate proof of vaccination for most public indoor social venues, similar to the regulations enacted in Boston.
“Time is of the essence and a patchwork strategy will not lead to a healthier, faster recovery for Massachusetts,” Spilka said.
Pressley warned that “testing alone is simply not enough.”
Pressley also urged Baker to increase resources for mobile vaccination clinics and expand partnerships with community health centers to offer vaccinations and boosters. She also called for stronger safety and distancing protocols in schools and workplaces, such as proper ventilation and an expansion of the statewide school mask policy beyond January.
Pressley cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing that every county across Massachusetts is seeing increases in transmission rates and pointed to warnings from experts that the upcoming holiday gatherings and travel will likely exacerbate those spikes.
“Public health experts note that masks remain simple and effective tools for limiting COVID-19 spread — especially as we navigate the winter months and traditional cold and flu seasons,” Pressley said. “It is clear, implementing a universal indoor mask policy now can help mitigate these spikes and help save lives.”
Pressley’s letter comes a day after Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced new vaccine requirements for indoor dining, fitness, and entertainment establishments in the city. Beginning Jan. 15, patrons of such businesses will be required to show proof of at least one vaccination shot; they must show proof of a second shot after Feb. 15.