Governor Charlie Baker signed a $101 million supplemental budget over the weekend that includes additional funding for a state COVID-19 emergency paid sick leave program and increased access to vaccines and other pandemic supplies.
Baker said in a letter to state lawmakers Saturday that the legislation he signed authorizes $76 million primarily intended to increase access to COVID-19 tests, vaccines, and masks. The legislation also includes a $25 million increase for the state’s COVID-19 emergency paid sick leave program drawn from federal funds.
“We will continue to work with the Legislature if additional funding is needed in the future for this important sick leave program,” Baker said. “These spending authorizations will be helpful as we continue our COVID-19 public health efforts, and I am approving those amounts in full.”
The legislation was a supplement for the state’s fiscal 2022 budget, which Baker approved in July.
Baker pushed back, however, on some provisions that would have required distribution of masks and millions of dollars for testing and vaccines to health care providers and municipalities by month’s end. Baker said in the letter that he did not approve those measures because the deadline did not leave enough time to complete the distribution.
“We will make funds quickly available to local partners so that they in turn can acquire and distribute masks, but to expect this entire sequence to be executed in 16 days is simply unrealistic,” Baker said.
Regarding the money for vaccines and testing, Baker said he agreed with lawmakers that “time is of the essence,” but the requirements were unworkable.
In his letter, Baker spelled out an alternative strategy for distributing those funds.
“Instead, we commit to issuing solicitations or entering into contracts for the award or disbursement of these funds by February 25, and distributing funds within 5 days of receipt of complete applications or executed agreements,” he said in the letter.
Baker said he vetoed a requirement that would have forced Department of Public Health officials to issue and post guidance on matters like mask usage, COVID-19 testing, and quarantining because they are already doing that.
“DPH has consistently published guidance on these topics throughout the pandemic to keep Massachusetts residents updated, informed, and safe, and it reviews and updates its guidance on a regular basis,” Baker said.
Baker also proposed changes to requirements that would have called on the state’s Health and Human Services secretary to implement a comprehensive COVID-19 vaccination equity plan. The governor said the measure — which would have included interim goals, benchmarks, and timelines with the goal of eliminating disparities in vaccination rates within 120 days — was not realistic.
Baker said his administration would file a vaccination equity plan with the Legislature within 30 days and file progress reports every two months.
In his letter, the governor said the administration and local leaders across the state have worked together to increase vaccine access in diverse communities. He said outreach efforts to address vaccine hesitancy and access in 20 communities hit hardest by the pandemic never stopped, and vaccine rates continue to increase in those communities.
He pointed to a Kaiser Family Foundation report that ranked the state second in the nation for the percentage of Black residents who are vaccinated. That same report found the state was fifth in the country for vaccinating Hispanic residents and seventh for vaccinations among Asian residents.
“While Massachusetts is a national leader in vaccine rates across demographics, we appreciate there is more work to do. However ‘eliminating’ disparities in 120 days is not realistic,” Baker told the lawmakers.
The measure signed by Baker Saturday also extends some pandemic-related civil liability protections for health care providers, including nursing homes, and workers that shield them from lawsuits stemming from errors made in good faith during the health crisis.
Baker also proposed tying a measure that eased long-standing restrictions on the number of hours government retirees can work for a public agency each year and collect on their pensions to the current public health emergency declaration.
The restrictions had been eased as a COVID-19 measure to help keep state and municipal services running during the pandemic.
“While I have supported a waiver of this cap during [the] COVID state of emergency, in light of the critical resources that recent retirees have represented to the state and local governments during the pandemic, I have reservations about transitioning to a blanket waiver for the entire calendar year,” Baker said.
The legislation signed by Baker also set Sept. 6 as the date for the state’s fall primary election and extended several existing pandemic measures, including remote participation in public meetings in local government.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, in a separate statement Saturday, said nomination papers for the state primary or election will be available starting Monday [Feb. 14] at 10 a.m.
Galvin faces Tanisha M. Sullivan, a corporate attorney and president of the NAACP’s Boston branch, in his bid for re-election this year.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association said in a statement Sunday that it supported the administration’s additional funding for emergency paid sick time.
Registered nurses and other frontline employees continue to work in environments that lead to contracting COVID-19, it said, “but the state must [ensure] that employers do not deny or deter workers for accessing the benefit.”
It welcomed funds for testing, vaccines, and personal protective equipment, the statement said, but the state needs a long-term strategy to ensure a “ready supply” of protective gear for future contagious diseases.
In January, the union, which represents about 23,000 nurses, sent Baker a letter regarding their concerns about the pandemic’s impact on nurses and other frontline workers.
The association said in its Sunday statement that it wants long-term solutions to address what it called “chronic and deliberate understaffing” of hospitals that has endangered staff and patients.
These conditions have “now led to an unprecedented exodus of needed staff due to the burnout and morale injury caused by working in this under-resourced environment,” the statement said.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.