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Massachusetts will end the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency on Thursday, May 11. On Tuesday, state officials explained what changes residents can expect once the emergency is officially over.
Along with Massachusetts, the national COVID-19 public health emergency is set to end on Thursday and the World Health Organization on Friday declared the global health emergency over.
Once the public health emergency is officially over, the Commonwealth, with a large stockpile of vaccines and tests, will continue to focus its resources on prevention and virus management, Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Robert Goldstein told reporters in his first press conference as commissioner. And while he expressed that the pandemic is not over, through several metrics Massachusetts can be considered “in a better place.”
In September 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed national restrictions on mask mandates for healthcare settings, but Massachusetts maintained the restrictions in healthcare facilities across the Commonwealth.
Now, as the Massachusetts public health declaration ends, masks will no longer be required in facilities.
“We are rescinding the statewide order that all providers and visitors in healthcare settings must wear a mask,” Goldstein said. “We are only taking this action after intense consideration, conversation, and deliberation.”
Goldstein noted that statewide transmission and community levels are down across the Commonwealth and some hospitals are reporting no COVID-19 cases for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
The pivot mirrors similar actions taken by neighboring states that have seen no increase of in-hospital transmission rates. Individual facilities will still have the ability to create their own policies based on their own criteria. Additionally, healthcare centers must create plans regarding how they would implement mask requirements if needed in the future.
Several hospitals in Boston have already announced they will no longer require masks.
Advocates admonished the ending of universal masking in health centers when the decision was first announced in March. Many believe the move will put vulnerable communities at greater risk while receiving treatment.
When asked about Americans with Disabilities Act civil rights complaints from immunocompromised individuals against health providers, Goldstein reiterated that health centers must create plans to implement masking if COVID-19 transmission rates rise.
Vaccines and therapeutics provided by the federal government will essentially remain unaffected.
“Access to vaccines will remain,” Goldstein said. “Much of the change that will come to vaccines and therapeutics is linked to the commercialization of those two products. The timeline for commercialization is more towards the fall and winter of this coming year.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Goldstein said, Massachusetts’ primary dose and bivalent booster vaccine distribution was top three in the country. And because, as Goldstein describes, getting vaccinated is the “most important thing people can do” to combat the pandemic, residents can expect little-to-no change regarding how and when they can get vaccinated.
“On May 11, folks can still go and get a vaccine wherever they were getting a vaccine before and the cost of that vaccine will still fall on the federal government. So nobody should be limited in their access to vaccines and that’s important because remaining up-to-date, having received the most recent bivalent booster dose is the best way that we can protect everyone against COVID-19 severe disease and death.”
In addition to vaccine access, the Department of Public Health will also continue to provide testing, protective equipment, and other therapeutics from a vast stockpile to healthcare facilities across the Commonwealth. The resources and equipment, Goldstein explained, will also be useful for combatting other respiratory viruses in the future.
On May 11, the Massachusetts executive department will also end its obligation for employees to be vaccinated, per an executive order from Governor Maura Healey.
The order, initially passed by Governor Charlie Baker in August 2019, spiked the vaccination rate of executive department employees from 76% to more than 99%, but as the public emergency ends, Healey has moved to end the requirement. The initial order proved controversial, forcing approximately 2% of employees who refused the vaccine to leave their state employment.
“Executive Order No. 595 has since served as a vital and successful tool for boosting vaccination rates and reducing the presence and severity of COVID-19 throughout the Commonwealth,” the order, which was issued on March 15 said.
For most residents, the majority of changes will go unnoticed, Goldstein said. Some of these shifts include reporting vaccine and hospitalization data to the federal government on a weekly basis instead of daily and how often the Commonwealth will report data on its COVID-19 dashboard.
“A lot of those [changes] are things that I described as under the hood,” Goldstein said. “Changes that are happening to our data reporting that go to [Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services] and CDC, [and] the way in which we share those data on our public dashboards. But we’re working through all of those changes to make sure that the information that’s necessary for communities and for healthcare settings will continue to be available, accessible, [and] understandable, so that they can make local decisions about what they need to do to protect themselves against COVID.”
The pivot is partly the result of lower reported testing rates, as more people turn to at-home rapid tests, and fewer hospitalizations, as greater vaccine coverage has led to fewer severe cases.
“We’re in a very different stage and it makes sense to move to weekly reporting of our COVID-19 vaccine and to move in line with the rest of our immunization program,” Goldstein said.
Importantly, Goldstein said, the Department of Public Health is hoping that local communities and health centers will take necessary measures to address the pandemic as they see fit.
“We actually really want folks in the local health care settings to make some local decisions,” he said. “It is a large Commonwealth and each hospital, each hospital center is quite unique and different.”
While the department will continue to provide masks, testing, equipment, and statewide data, they are advising local health centers and communities to use their own local data, from inpatient COVID-19 cases, wastewater particle data, and demographic statistics to make decisions and proactive plans.
“We’re here to partner with them, and we will see what the future brings, we’ll see what happens with COVID-19 levels, but for right now, we are asking them to make local decisions,” Goldstein said.
While the press conference was in large part celebratory, discussing the labored strides Massachusetts has taken over the past three years to combat the pandemic, Goldstein and other officials noted the pandemic is not over.
“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.”
“This is not the end of the pandemic, Goldstein said. “This is not the end of COVID. This is the end of an emergency phase of COVID-19.”
Goldstein reiterated that residents should work to get vaccinated and people feeling sick should stay home and get tested.
“I think it’s unlikely that coronavirus that’s with us will be eradicated,” said Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “It’s going to be another virus that we live with, has become another virus that we live with, just like the other coronaviruses.”
In spite of its permanence, Madoff and Goldstein pointed out Massachusetts is better equipped than before to fend off and prevent another pandemic. With pharmaceutical companies continually creating new vaccines for mutated viruses, a recently-upgraded statewide pandemic plan, 2.5 million rapid tests, and local communities and health centers focusing on local data to create proactive pandemic responses, the end of the Commonwealth’s public emergency comes with an upgraded plan for future viral outbreaks.
“As Dr. Goldstein said, there were many heartbreaking moments associated with COVID,” Madoff said. “I haven’t used the word heartbreaking as often as I did.”
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