Politics

State senate passes $76 million COVID response bill 

The bill focuses on increasing access to tests, vaccines, and masks, with an emphasis on disproportionately impacted communities.

The bill, passed Wednesday, includes $50 million intended to increase the availability and encourage the use of testing and vaccination sites throughout the state.  David L Ryan/Boston Globe

The Massachusetts State Senate passed a $76 million COVID response bill on Wednesday focused on testing and masks. 

The bill, S.2622, aims to provide “residents with greater access to tests, vaccines, and masks, [prioritize] communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as frontline workers,” according to a statement from senate leaders.

“With the passage of [Wednesday’s] bill, the Senate confronts the challenges brought upon us by the Omicron surge and prioritizes urgently needed additional resources to expand access to rapid testing, masks, vaccines and boost our COVID-19 response efforts,” state Sen. Michael Rodrigues said in the statement. 

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Rodrigues, a Democrat representing the 1st Bristol and Plymouth district, is the chair of the Committee on Ways and Means, which sponsored the bill.

The funds allotted in the legislation are divided up into a few buckets. The biggest investment is $50 million going toward increasing the availability of, and encouraging use of, testing and vaccination throughout the state. 

Of that $50 million, $7 million is specifically designated for assisting community organizations with education and promoting vaccine awareness in disproportionately impacted communities. The bill earmarks $5 million to expand the capacity of community health centers, including helping hire more staff. Another $5 million is intended to help boost vaccination rates among 5 to 11-year-olds. 

The bill also allots $25 million for the purchase and distribution of high-quality masks in the state, prioritizing education and health care workers.

“Teachers, hospital staff, other front-line professionals, artists and cultural institutions should not be expected to pay out of their own pockets for masks,” Senate President Karen Spilka, a Democrat from Ashland, said in the statement. “Such basic protections are essential to doing one’s job and providing them will give a small but vital relief.”

According to the statement, much of the spending in the bill is expected to be eligible for federal reimbursement.

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Beyond financial investments, the bill also extends several COVID-19 emergency measures from earlier in the pandemic. It allows flexibility for local governments and nonprofits to hold meetings virtually; allows outdoor dining and beer, wine and cocktails; and extends liability protections for health care providers, according to the statement.

The bill also directs the Department of Public Health to post guidance on mask usage, testing, and quarantine and isolation periods. It also requires the secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a vaccine equity plan. 

According to the legislators, the bill, in consultation with the Massachusetts Cultural Council, also establishes a grant for cultural institutions to help prompt vaccine education and awareness. 

“I’m proud that this bill makes targeted investments in community organizations that are working hard to get more residents vaccinated and keep them protected from severe illness due to COVID-19,” state Sen. Cindy Friedman said in the statement. Friedman, a Democrat representing the fourth Middlesex district, is the senate vice-chair of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management.

In addition, the legislation provides $1 million in funding for the Department of Unemployment Assistance to conduct “multi-lingual, easy-to-understand public information campaign to notify claimants of their legal rights” as the department seeks to collect overpayments in pandemic unemployment benefits. 

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The bill also sets Sept. 6 as the date for this year’s state primary election.

The state’s House of Representatives passed a similar version of the legislation last week, but the senate scaled up the investment significantly, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. The version the House passed (H.4340) laid out $55 million to respond to the current phase of COVID-19. The two legislative bodies will now work on reconciling the two versions of the legislation.

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