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Amid rising COVID-19 cases, some local Mass. officials say 'the state needs to do more'

 Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, at left, and Massachusetts House Speaker Ron Mariano in November 2021.
Sam Doran
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State House News Service
Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, at left, and Massachusetts House Speaker Ron Mariano in November 2021.

Massachusetts lawmakers heard last week from local health officials who want more help from the state responding to COVID-19. Some officials say there is a disconnect between state policies and what's actually going on in their communities.

A few days later, the state announced it's ending the majority of its contact tracing program to focus on group settings where infections are likely to spread rapidly.

Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to talk about how lawmakers are reacting, and what else is in store in the week ahead.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: Well, there's a good number of lawmakers who are looking at the daily COVID report — the case numbers, the hospitalizations — all on the rise, and saying that the state needs to do more. That a lot of the programs that have been relaxed, scaled back or even canceled since the summer, when it seemed like the pandemic was under control — well, the pandemic is back.

They want more resources put into local testing, more state resources put into local vaccination clinics and things that can enable cities and towns to do a lot of the things, take a lot of the precautions now that we saw taken earlier during the pandemic.

The American Rescue Plan Act bill that the Legislature passed, and the governor signed just a few weeks ago — that has hundreds of millions of dollars for local public health. That should be a good shot in the arm as soon as that money starts to flow from the state to the cities and towns.

But people are looking at days, not weeks, and looking at the testing programs — long lines for testing, unavailability of at home rapid tests — and looking to the state to provide more of a response as the omicron variant gets worse.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Questions are still swirling about the omicron variant, how it might impact us and how we should protect ourselves. Massachusetts public schools still have an indoor mask requirement through mid-January. What is Commissioner Jeff Riley saying about whether he might extend the mandate?

Last week, at the oversight hearing, a number of public health experts testified before the Legislature that a lot about omicron is still unknown. There is some early data that has shown a higher prevalence of breakthrough cases.

There is some data that suggests people get less sick, perhaps, but still a lot of people are waiting to get more clear answers.

And that's exactly what we're hearing from Commissioner Jeff Riley. The school mask mandate, with the vaccination threshold requirement at 80% for schools if they want to unmask, is in effect through January 15.

The commissioner is saying he's waiting. He's going to wait closer to the date to see what happens over the next few weeks with the holidays with the variant, whether or not they get a better idea of how transmissible this is, and then he will make the call.

It's nearly the end of the year. Lawmakers are still on recess and holding only informal sessions. Is there some legislation that could still get wrapped up with a bow and delivered in time for the holidays?

Sunday night, the six House and Senate lawmakers negotiating a compromise on animal cruelty legislation announced that they had struck a deal to avert what some people in the egg industry had been warning would jeopardize supply and potentially drive up cost of whatever eggs remain on the shelves after January 1.

I would expect that to come before the Legislature as soon as Monday. It will require unanimous consent because of the informal situation that you just referenced, but that should be doable, we would expect.

This bill is an update to the 2016 law that required a certain confinement standard for egg-laying hens, as well as pork producing sows.

The Legislature struck a deal to delay the requirement on pork until next summer, mid-August, but the cage requirements put Massachusetts more in line with some of the standards we've seen adopted around the county — and should avoid, if they can get it passed, any disruption to people being able to import eggs into Massachusetts.

Copyright 2021 New England Public Media. To see more, visit New England Public Media.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of Morning Edition at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment Beacon Hill In 5 for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.