Coronavirus

Equity task force gives Gov. Baker failing grades for protecting marginalized groups during COVID-19 reopening

“The time for talk is over; action is desperately needed now."

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

A task force focused on equity, formed by public health, community, and labor organizations, says Gov. Charlie Baker has failed to protect marginalized groups during the state’s coronavirus reopening phases.

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The Massachusetts Public Health Association’s Task Force on Coronavirus and Equity released a report card on Monday, giving the Republican governor D’s and F’s for how his reopening policies prioritized the health of Black and Latinx residents, low wage workers, and others in the state who have been most impacted by COVID-19.

The task force, made up of a coalition of 94 public health, community, and labor organizations, began meeting in mid-March, according to the Massachusetts Public Health Association, which coordinates the group.

“We are eager for a safe reopening for the sake of workers, small businesses, and our overall economy, but Governor Baker’s reopening policies to date have shown a disregard for the health of Black and Latinx residents, low-wage workers, and others who have been hardest hit by COVID-19,” Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said in a statement. “It’s not too late to change this. We call on the governor to immediately implement commonsense policies that value the lives of the communities that have borne the brunt of the pandemic.”

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Last week, the group pointed out, new data released by the state Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 Health Equity Advisory Group showed Black and Latinx residents in Massachusetts have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, experiencing a coronavirus-positive case rate that is three times higher than white residents. They also are seeing higher rates of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 compared to the state’s white and Asian populations.

“The fact that the positive case rate for Black and Latinx residents of Massachusetts is three times higher than that of white residents is further evidence that COVID-19 is an environmental justice issue and should be treated as such by Governor Baker and the Department of Public Health,” Sofia Owen, staff attorney at Alternatives for Community & Environment, said in a statement. “Black residents and other communities of color are doubly impacted by the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic. As the state continues to reopen, Black residents and communities of color will continue to suffer at disproportionate rates unless the governor implements policies that protect their lives and livelihoods.”

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The task force gave Baker a “D” for “Infections Dropping for All Groups,” writing that while overall rates for infection, hospitalization, and deaths continue to fall in Massachusetts, the state still doesn’t have data on race and ethnicity for almost 35 percent of cases. 

“The state is not tracking any data on low wage workers, people with disabilities, people who don’t speak English, and others who have likely been hard hit by the pandemic,” the task force wrote. “Governor Baker has not prioritized the collection of data that would allow inequities to be clearly understood. The governor signed a bill to improve state data collection and reporting 15 days ago, and we are awaiting information on when and how it will be implemented.”

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For “Enforceable Protections for Workers and Support for Small Businesses,” the task force gave Baker an “F,” citing a lack of action to ensure safety standards set with the reopening guidelines are being met. 

“The entities with enforcement authority – local boards of health and the Department of Labor Standards – do not have anywhere near the staff or resources to respond to or enforce workplace safety protections on the scale necessary,” the report card reads. “Further, current guidelines do not allow for timely enforcement action in the case that employers are putting workers and the public at risk. Instead of enforceable protections, employers are only required to provide a self-attestation that they are compliant with safety standards, ignoring core tenets of occupational health practice and denying a role for workers in safety assessments.”

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The task force gave the governor a “D” for failing to accelerate and expand testing, pointing out the state is falling short of the goal he set to perform 45,000 tests a day by the end of July and that testing is still not widely available for people at high risk who may not have symptoms. 

“A new state testing website does not recommend testing for high risk, asymptomatic people,” the group wrote. “While pop up sites recently offered testing aimed at people who had attended protests, these sites were open for just two days before closing. A plan has been developed that would expand testing to meet these goals, but has not been implemented.”

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For making sure groups most affected by the state’s reopening decisions were given a “seat at the table,” the equity task force gave Baker an “F.”

“Essential workers, Black and Latinx communities, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, and older adults will be most affected by these decisions but have no seat at the table,” the report card reads. “Likewise, municipal public health leaders who are responsible for education, communications, and enforcement at the local level, have not been consulted on important decisions. While useful, the DPH health equity advisory committee was not convened for this purpose.”

A request for comment from Baker’s office on the report card was not immediately returned.

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The equity task force called on Baker to commit to implementing recommendations made by the state’s advisory group to address the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on communities of color in Massachusetts. 

“The time for talk is over; action is desperately needed now,” Pavlos said in a statement. “We sincerely hope that in the coming weeks we are able to issue a more favorable report card based on the governor’s actions.”

Read the full report card here.

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