Sep 20, 2023

Covid’s curtain call


05/11/2023 07:05 AM EDT

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EMERGENCIES EXIT — The public health emergencies are ending, but Covid-19 challenges persist.

Another new pandemic normal has dawned with the end of the state and federal pandemic public health emergencies. And many of the rules and waivers intended to stop the virus’ spread sunset with them.

Now Gov. Maura Healey is dealing with the demise of policies that predate her tenure, some of which she's choosing to end. Here's how her administration is navigating a few of them:

THE GREAT MASKING DEBATE — Healey's decision to end mask mandates in hospitals and other health care settings has drawn plenty of headlines. Hundreds of local medical workers signed onto an open letter to the Department of Public Health last month saying that letting the policy lapse was not only "dangerous" but "unethical." Public health and disabilities advocates continue to argue that ditching masks puts immunocompromised people at further risk.

But the state's new public health commissioner is defending Healey's mask move. "We made the decision in collaboration and in conversation with many experts across the state," DPH Commissioner Robbie Goldstein told Playbook, noting that hospitals are encouraged to create their own masking mandates and "use local factors to help decide when and where masks may be necessary."

AXING THE VAX MANDATE — Healey is also rolling back the Baker administration's order requiring executive branch employees to get vaccinated or get out. Some 1,000 workers quit or were fired under the Republican governor's rule, though he eventually brought some of them back.

Now his successor is figuring out what to do about the rest. The Healey administration said it remains in negotiations with state employee unions about rehiring workers, but neither side seems to want to get into the details.

MASS. MIGRATION — The state is also bracing for another surge in migrants that could hit its overwhelmed shelter system with the end of Title 42, the pandemic-era policy used to block people at the southern border.

And Republican governors could make it worse. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has pledged to continue sending migrants to blue cities including Chicago, New York, D.C. and Philadelphia. And he's threatened that there could be "more [locations] to come." Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is readying his state to resume the relocation program that made headlines last year when the potential presidential contender flew nearly 50 migrants to Martha's Vineyard unannounced.

"We would be extremely concerned" if governors were "repeating that kind of action," Elizabeth Sweet, the executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, told Playbook.

Healey is preparing for that possibility on top of the steps she's already taken to expand the state's overburdened shelter system. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas briefed Healey and other governors yesterday on the Biden administration's preparations for Title 42's expiration, with an emphasis on legal immigration pathways.

"We have been in close contact with our local and federal partners to prepare for the end of Title 42, and we will need their help to ensure we can meet the already rising need in Massachusetts, as our Emergency Assistance shelter system is currently operating at capacity," Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand said in a statement.

GOOD THURSDAY MORNING, MASSACHUSETTS. Tips? Scoops? Lingering Covid concerns? Email us: [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected].

TODAY — Healey speaks at the EMPath EMPower Celebration at 6:30 p.m. at the Boston Children's Museum. Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll speaks at a NAIOP Massachusetts meeting at 8 a.m. in Boston and visits Cambridge Behavioral Health Center at 10 a.m. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu participates in a Disability Community Forum at 2:30 p.m. at Suffolk Law School and attends a STEM Lab unveiling at 4 p.m. AG Andrea Campbell is honored at the City Year Greater Boston Starry Night Gala at 6:45 p.m.

House Democratic Whip Katherine Clark hosts a press conference to "condemn MAGA GOP attacks on women and families" at 1:15 p.m. at the Capitol. Rep. Ayanna Pressley holds a press conference on over-the-counter birth control at 3:15 p.m. at the Capitol.

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— VIRTUAL REALITY: One other pandemic-era policy change your Playbook hosts are watching? Telehealth prescriptions.

Doctors were set to lose the ability to prescribe controlled medications through telemedicine. And the renewed restrictions on accessing drugs like Adderall and oxycodone without a face-to-face visit with a doctor could have proved particularly challenging in Massachusetts, which is experiencing an increasing lack of primary care physicians.

Barbra Rabson, the president of Massachusetts Health Quality Partners, a nonprofit which aims to improve the quality of patient care in the state, told Playbook that the prospect of losing the increased access to primary care through telehealth was "frightening."

But the feds offered a last-minute reprieve on Tuesday, pushing the telemedicine policy's expiration date back until at least November.

— "Protesters disrupt joint session of Mass. Legislature with demands for fossil fuel cuts," by Adam Reilly, GBH News: "Just after 11 a.m., as the House and Senate wrapped up the first session of this legislative cycle's Constitutional Convention without engaging in any deliberation, about a dozen protesters from the groups Extinction Rebellion Boston and Scientist Rebellion rushed to unfurl a banner with the message ‘No new fossil fuel infrastructure’ in the front row of the gallery overlooking the House floor. … At 5 p.m., when the State House officially closed, nine of them were arrested on trespassing charges."

— "ACLU sues state auditor for access to redacted information in prisoner health reports," by Jeremy C. Fox, Boston Globe: "The ACLU of Massachusetts is demanding greater transparency from state Auditor Diana DiZoglio's office, alleging in a lawsuit that her staff won't release complete reports on deaths and health care access at two state prisons. But DiZoglio insists that the information that was withheld had nothing to do with prisoner health care and says she could have explained that if the ACLU had just asked."

— "Mass. Black and Latino Caucus proposes new spending," by Peter Roby, Bay State Banner: "Members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus last month proposed an additional $419.3 million in spending to the House budget for next year. They secured $40.6 million. A 9.7% success rate at work would worry most professionals, but in political calculus, it amounts to a surplus of talking points, at least for a while."

— "Senator plans to push voc school admission changes through budget amendment," by Michael Jonas, CommonWealth Magazine.

STEP INSIDE THE WEST WING: What's really happening in West Wing offices? Find out who's up, who's down, and who really has the president's ear in our West Wing Playbook newsletter, the insider's guide to the Biden White House and Cabinet. For buzzy nuggets and details that you won't find anywhere else, subscribe today.

— "As Boston works to keep elections on schedule after court ruling, council tensions could risk delay," by Emma Platoff, Boston Globe: "[Boston Mayor Michelle] Wu wrote in a letter to the council Wednesday that she was moving to relax candidate filing deadlines, and told the body it had until May 30 to approve the new map for this fall's contest. She will even present her own map proposal to the council, she said, a step that underscores the urgency of the process. … But if Wednesday's council meeting was an early signal as to whether councilors will be able to meet that tight timeline, it was not a positive one. … Councilors could not agree even on which legislative committee should take up the agenda items related to redistricting, turning a typically noncontroversial procedural step into a drawn-out dispute that enflamed old tensions."

— ENDORSEMENT CORNER: Unite Here Local 26 is endorsing Sharon Durkan in the special election for Boston's District 8 city councilor. Durkan plans to join union members on the picket line outside the downtown Hyatt Centric Hotel this afternoon.

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— ENTERING THE SLOW ZONE ON T SAFETY LEGISLATION: A key lawmaker wants the governor's blessing up front when it comes to legislation that would move safety oversight of the MBTA out from under the Department of Public Utilities.

"The governor is the one who, certainly in the area of transportation and safety, took on the responsibility. It was such a major campaign issue," state Rep. William Straus, House chair of the joint Transportation Committee, told Playbook. "To me, it's hard to reorganize such an important function of state government if the Legislature hasn't made use of the governor's insights."

The Transportation Committee is wrestling with how to proceed after members heard hours of at times emotional testimony Monday on bills that would shift safety oversight of the T to either a new, independent commission (S. 2199 from state Sen. Michael Barrett) or to the state's inspector general (H. 3452 from Straus). Monday's speakers seemed to favor the former — even the inspector general, Jeffrey Shapiro, called for creating a new agency, though he said his office could oversee it.

But any bill that emerges from the committee will likely be some combination of what's currently on the table. It's a complicated process with far more at stake than just MBTA safety — the DPU also regulates Uber and Lyft rates, for instance — and lawmakers are being noncommittal on their timeline.

Healey issued the standard "I’ll review anything that comes to my desk" response when asked earlier this week whether she supports either bill. A spokesperson later said Healey "looks forward to working with" MassDOT and MBTA officials and "her legislative partners to evaluate safety across the entire system, including the role of oversight."

— "Harvard graduate student injured by falling utility box at MBTA station says she intends to sue transit agency," by John R. Ellement and Taylor Dolven, Boston Globe.

— "Former Mass. State Police union boss Dana Pullman sentenced to 2.5 years in prison over kickback schemes," by Shelley Murphy, Boston Globe: "The former leader of the Massachusetts State Police union was sentenced Wednesday to 2.5 years in prison on a litany of charges for running the bargaining unit like a racketeering enterprise and taking kickbacks from a union lobbyist."

— "Varsity Blues college admissions scam convictions of John Wilson, Gamal Abdelaziz reversed by US Appeals Court," by Rick Sobey, Boston Herald: "The First Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the admissions scam convictions for former Staples exec and Massachusetts resident John Wilson, and for former senior gaming and hospitality exec Gamal Abdelaziz, of Las Vegas."

— "New court filings indicate feds are investigating alleged retaliation at Mass. max security prison," by Deborah Becker, WBUR.

— "Detention hearing for accused docs leaker Jack Teixeira canceled, court records show," by Chris Van Buskirk, Boston Herald.

— "Holyoke Councilor Wilmer Puello-Mota expected to consider RI plea offer," by Jim Kinney, Springfield Republican: "Holyoke Ward 2 City Councilor Wilmer E. Puello-Mota is expected to hear a Rhode Island plea offer. He's scheduled to reappear in Kent County Superior Court in Warwick, Rhode Island June 12 for a disposition and another routine proceeding called a Frye hearing meant to ensure he's receiving effective legal counsel."

— IN MEMORIAM: "Longtime former North Adams City Councilor and mayoral candidate Robert Moulton Jr. has died," by Greta Jochem, Berkshire Eagle.

GET READY FOR GLOBAL TECH DAY: Join POLITICO Live as we launch our first Global Tech Day alongside London Tech Week on Thursday, June 15. Register now for continuing updates and to be a part of this momentous and program-packed day! From the blockchain, to AI, and autonomous vehicles, technology is changing how power is exercised around the world, so who will write the rules? REGISTER HERE.

— "City committee hesitant on pausing homeless encampment sweeps," by Marco Cartolano, Telegram & Gazette: "As the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance reports a growing number of homeless people in Worcester County, some city councilors had reservations Tuesday on a request for a temporary moratorium on encampment sweeps, citing the conditions of the encampments."

— "School Bus Driver Strike Ends in Marlboro," by Alysha Palumbo and Mike Pescaro, NBC10 Boston.

— "Cable carnage: Trump turns CNN town hall into televised combat," by Meridith McGraw, Kelly Garrity and Alex Isenstadt, POLITICO: "Former president Donald Trump refused to say he had lost the 2020 presidential election and defended his actions on Jan. 6 during a town hall event in New Hampshire on Wednesday night."

— RAPID RESPONSE: New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who's considering his own presidential bid, told CNN after the town hall that Trump looked "weak" and "defensive."

Trump "had a chance to move on from 2020, he didn't do it. He had a chance to own some of the issues of Jan. 6 ... what his role there was, he didn't do it," Sununu said. "If you’re an independent voter, if you’re a suburban mom, all these voters that Republicans are trying to bring back into the mix, I don't see any of them being convinced by anything."

— "Corey Lewandowski spoke with Vivek Ramaswamy Super PAC about role," by Alex Isenstadt, POLITICO.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY — to state Treasurer Deb Goldberg, Phil Sanzo, Bryan Barash, Greg Piatelli, Nicole Landset Blank and Kasey Poulin.

NEW HORSE RACE ALERT: MASKS OFF — GBH's Katie Lannan walks hosts Steve Koczela, Jennifer Smith and Lisa Kashinsky through the end of the state and federal Covid-19 public health emergencies. Plus, a breakdown of the Senate budget and the latest Boston redistricting drama. Subscribe and listen on iTunes and Sound Cloud.

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