Council grants COVID-19 powers to Mass. public health commissioner

Coronavirus Local Impact

BOSTON (SHNS) – After the COVID-19 state of emergency ends next week, the state’s public health commissioner will still have authority to take actions around COVID-19 testing, vaccination and protections for high-risk populations, under a Wednesday vote by the Public Health Council.

When Gov. Charlie Baker last month signed an order terminating the state of emergency effective June 15, he also issued a new, modified declaration of a public health emergency — which allows the commissioner, with council approval, “to extend or adopt measures to facilitate COVID-19 testing and vaccination of all populations throughout the Commonwealth, to mandate special measures to protect higher risk populations or to effectuate continued surveillance of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth, and to respond as necessary to outbreaks of the virus as they may arise.”

Gearing up for the newest phase of the pandemic, the council in a pair of unanimous votes authorized Commissioner Monica Bharel to continue to address COVID-19 pursuant to that declaration, and rescinded on an emergency basis regulations around the use of masks and face coverings.

The newly granted authority — separate from similar powers the council approved at the onset of the emergency in March 2020 — will apply to Bharel personally for only a short window. She is stepping down from her role on June 18, and Deputy Commissioner Margret Cooke will step into the top job on an interim basis.

“The guiding principle for me has always been on advancing health equity and acknowledging racism as a public health issue that it is and a fundamental cause of so many of the health inequities that we present to you each month,” Bharel said, reflecting on her six and a half years leading the Department of Public Health. “I am proud that this department has fundamentally changed the lens through which we view our public health work, centering it on health and racial equity as we strive to serve the people, all of the people of the commonwealth, especially the most vulnerable.”

Bharel said that among many other lessons, COVID-19 “has taught us that health inequities are not someone else’s problem.”

“The health of our neighbor, whether next door or halfway around the world, can directly impact us,” she said. “The pandemic is and has been an important reminder that barriers to good health are higher for some people than they are for others.”

As of Tuesday, more than 3.87 million people in Massachusetts were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and Bharel noted that new case numbers and hospitalizations have been on the decline. She said that those numbers “don’t tell the whole story” and that DPH plans to “remain focused on targeted, community-based efforts for vaccination.”

“DPH mobile vaccination vendors are expanding their geographic reach across most regions of the state, and as of June 3 have stood up more than 250 mobile vaccination sites and conducted over 25,000 vaccinations, including through clinics and employer and school sites,” Bharel said. “In addition, our vaccine access and administration providers are now being deployed to smaller venues and community settings where we’re able to provide more intensive, one-on-one support to help get individuals vaccinated.”

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