In his first press conference as commissioner of public health, Dr. Robbie Goldstein marked — and in a sense celebrated — the end of the state and federal public health emergencies on Thursday.
The state is well equipped to track the virus and respond to any surges, and the controversial decision to lift the requirement for masks in health care settings was grounded in science and data, Goldstein asserted Tuesday at the Department of Public Health offices.
But he acknowledged that little will change on Friday, the day after the emergency officially ends — and cautioned that COVID-19 remains very much with us.
“As of May 3, there have been over 2 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts and tragically 22,602 people who have died,” Goldstein said. “Every resident has felt the impact of this disease. Every family has felt this loss. Every community has been changed.”
Today, however, the state has “the tools to manage the virus, including at-home testing, therapeutics, and vaccines.”
With some hospitals reporting that they have no patients admitted for COVID-19, and in-person activities resuming everywhere, he said, “We are, after years of hard work, in a better place.”
The biggest change to come with the end of the emergency is the lifting of the hospital mask mandate, which was announced earlier this year. Massachusetts is the last state to lift such a mandate, Goldstein said.
Hospitals are advised to keep an eye out for upticks in illness, and make their own decisions about whether to resume masking. They also must supply masks to visitors, staff, and patients who request them.
Some people, including physicians and advocates for disabled people, have criticized the move as endangering vulnerable people seeking health care. But Goldstein defended the decision. “We are in a much different place with COVID-19,” he said. “And at this moment, if we’re looking at the risk of COVID-19 transmission, even in a health care setting, the risk is extremely low.”
After the emergency ends, vaccines, and therapeutics will remain available in the state, provided by the federal government, he said. When the federal supplies run out, probably sometime in the fall, private companies will sell the products — and the costs and processes surrounding that have yet to be worked out. “We want to make sure that everyone who needs a vaccine has a vaccine,” Goldstein said.
Additionally, a Massachusetts law requires insurers to cover treatment and vaccines for COVID-19.
The federal government’s program that delivered free rapid COVID-19 tests by mail will end on Thursday. But people can buy them in drugstores, and some insurers have said they will reimburse for them.
Goldstein said the state has a stockpile of 2.5 million rapid tests that can be distributed to health care facilities and community groups.
Other changes as the emergency ends, Goldstein said, are mostly “under the hood,” such as the way the state reports COVID-19 data to the federal government.
The state COVID-19 dashboard will continue for now, but may be updated less frequently as activity slows. But he pledged to make sure that communities and health providers will have enough information “to make local decisions about what they need to do to protect themselves against COVID.”
Goldstein praised the department’s 3,200 employees, who “weathered long hours, difficult conversations, public criticism, their own personal illness and loss. And still, they returned to work every day.”
SARS-Cov2, the virus that causes COVID-19 will probably continue circulating for some time, Goldstein said. “But just like other respiratory viruses, it will continue to mutate, it will continue to change, its impact on health will change, the severity of disease … will change and we in medicine and public health are going to have to adapt with those changes.”