Coronavirus

Health equity coalition asks Charlie Baker to prioritize voices of essential workers in planning state’s reopening

“Residents of the Commonwealth should not have to choose between earning a living and protecting their lives.”

Gov. Charlie Baker. Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

A group of more than 400 health care professionals, public health experts, and community leaders penned a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker this week, expressing “profound concern” that Massachusetts still lacks the necessary conditions to safely reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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In the letter from the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity, dated Wednesday, the health and community leaders pointed to the still emerging understanding of how people recover from COVID-19 and how the virus impacts children as just two factors for ensuring that “appropriate protections in all workplaces and in all public spaces are in place” before the state reopens.

“We are concerned about the absence of three critical determinants of a successful emergence from the current first wave of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth,” they wrote. “In addition to insufficient testing and the absence of objective benchmarks that can indicate readiness to reopen, we note the lack of representation of essential workers and of the most affected communities on your Reopening Advisory Board and a dearth of medical and public health experts. In its current composition, this panel, which skews overwhelmingly toward CEOs and business representatives, lacks the expertise and perspective necessary to successfully reopen our state.”

Baker has charged the advisory board with producing a reopening plan on May 18. The governor has so far declined to speak to specifics of how the reopening might roll out, but has said the state will take a four-phased approach.

Regina LaRocque, a physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a member of the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity, acknowledged in a statement the need to restart the economy and that state residents have been waiting to go back to work.

“But the conditions to do so safely are currently not in place,” she said. “Residents of the Commonwealth should not have to choose between earning a living and protecting their lives.”

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Henry Wortis, a professor of immunology at Tufts University School of Medicine who joined the coalition, said in a statement that the individuals sitting on the reopening board are “not the people most at risk” for the coronavirus.

“It’s overwhelmingly business owners and politicians who live in affluent neighborhoods and suburbs,” he said.

Essential workers and communities of color have suffered the highest infection rates, the group pointed out. So the perspectives of essential workers and the communities “most intensely affected” by the outbreak need to be prioritized in planning the state’s reopening, the coalition wrote.

“Representatives of the respective employees and of workplace safety organizations must be invited to share their knowledge of needed protections,” the group wrote in their letter to the governor. “Similarly, representatives of residential districts who understand the current barriers their neighbors face in protecting themselves and their family members from infection are the only ones who can provide knowledgeable advice on how to remove these barriers.”

The coalition also asked that before the state reopens, officials specify a benchmark for new infections that would trigger another shutdown.

Read the group’s letter to the governor here.

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