BOSTON, Mass. (WWLP)–Legislative leaders have no plans to change House or Senate public health protocols amid a string of COVID-19 exposures in the last two and a half weeks tallying at least 21 confirmed cases.
Senate President Karen Spilka’s office informed senators and staffers Wednesday that another four people who were in the State House in recent days had tested positive for the virus, the fourth time in the last 12 days that Senate leaders have announced confirmed cases linked to the building.
The House, meanwhile, has notified its own representatives and staff about State House-related exposures in seven instances since April 1, three of which have occurred since April 25.
Spokespeople for both Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano told the News Service on Wednesday that they intend to keep existing policies, including a mask recommendation that stops short of a requirement, in place. “The Senate is closely monitoring the situation,” a Spilka spokesperson said. “At this time, there is no update to our COVID-19 protocol.”
Both chambers have mandates in place requiring lawmakers and employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend sessions in person, and they continue to enforce those measures. Senate leaders have said all senators and staff in their chamber fulfilled the requirements, while Mariano’s office said Wednesday that two unnamed representatives remain out of compliance, down from the four reported on March 22.
When they reopened the State House to the public on Feb. 22 after more than 700 days of closure, legislative leaders initially required everyone in the building to wear a mask and ordered every visitor to show either proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative test result from the last 24 hours. On March 7, less than two weeks later, Mariano and Spilka lifted the mask and proof-of-vaccination mandates for the public.
The House and Senate have both taken similar approaches when officials confirm a COVID-19 infection among someone who was in the building, notifying all close contacts and informing the rest of their workforces about the dates those people were in the State House. The House’s HR office sent those notices on April 1, April 5, April 11, April 15, April 25, May 3 and May 6, in each case describing between two and four people who were recently in the building and had tested positive for COVID-19. Spilka’s office similarly alerted senators and staffers on April 29, May 3, Tuesday and Wednesday that Senate employees or others who were working in the State House had recently tested positive. Across both chambers, the notifications sent between April 25 and May 11 totaled 21 confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Senate leaders asked lawmakers and staff to mask up during their April 28 debate on a sports betting legalization bill after learning that day of possible additional exposures. Since then, through subsequent formal sessions, Spilka’s office has emphasized that “mask usage remains a good way to protect yourself and others from possible exposure” without outright requiring the practice. The Senate Ways and Means Committee, though, required reporters to wear masks during an in-person budget briefing Tuesday “in light of the recent increase of COVID-19 cases.”
The Senate does not plan to meet again in a full formal session until May 24, when senators will kick off their annual budget debate. House leaders previously advised representatives to plan for formal sessions on May 18 and May 19.
Emergency, pandemic-era rules allowing remote voting will remain in place until at least July 31 in the Senate and through the Jan. 3, 2023 end of the two-year lawmaking session in the House, whose Democrat leaders have set their sights on enshrining hybrid committee hearings as a permanent feature.
COVID’s impact on Massachusetts is once again ticking upward, though so far the rate of infections and hospitalizations both remain well below levels recorded during the most recent winter surge. The seven-day average of newly confirmed cases per day peaked at 23,197 on Jan. 8, fell to 601 by March 13, and on Sunday climbed to 3,095, according to the most recent data from the Department of Public Health. As of Monday, 702 COVID-19 patients are in Massachusetts hospitals, the highest number since Feb. 17.
Unlike earlier days of the pandemic, though, most residents are vaccinated against COVID-19 and treatments are available. More than 5.3 million Bay Staters have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 through Tuesday, reflecting more than three-quarters of the state’s population.