Massachusetts Health Council emerged from pandemic a century ago


CEO David Martin (SHNS)

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BOSTON (SHNS) – A century ago and just on the other side of the 1918 flu pandemic, a “pandemic of tuberculosis that was ravaging the globe” sparked the founding of the Massachusetts Health Council, the nonprofit’s current CEO said.

Since 1920, the council has worked on public health issues including vaccines, tuberculosis hospital funding, milk pasteurization, pollution prevention, anti-smoking — and, more recently, anti-vaping — campaigns, health education and seat belt use.

This week, amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic that’s claimed more than a million lives worldwide, the pandemic-forged organization is marking its 100th anniversary.

“The irony is really thick here,” said David Martin, who has led the council for the past five years.

The council was originally created “in awareness of the need for everyone who worked in health care and civic life to be able to come together and take on these big issues,” Martin said.

Over the past decade or so, he said, there’s been an increasing recognition of a need to help people lead healthier lives and prevent them from getting sick or hurt, rather than just treating them once they need care. He said that’s always been the council’s goal, though it wasn’t necessarily the historical focus of the health care system.

“If you’re a hospital president, it wasn’t your job to pass a seat belt law. Your job is to help people once they get in an accident,” Martin said, describing the mindset he’s seen a transition from as more work focuses on creating healthier environments.

To mark its centennial, the council planned a virtual gala for Tuesday, honoring former governors and first ladies Michael and Kitty Dukakis and Deval and Diane Patrick as “champions of the century” for their work around health equity, and recognizing a suite of others for work to improve lives of Massachusetts residents both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Originally, the council had envisioned an in-person celebration at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where historical headlines depicting its work through the years would be digitally displayed on walls. The COVID-19 crisis forced a shakeup to the event, and to the council’s efforts.

Since the virus struck, issues like nutrition and youth vaping “just fell aside,” Martin said.

“Kids aren’t in schools, so something like talking about anti-vaping becomes much less of a priority when they’re just trying to keep classes going at all,” he said. “We had to find a way to adapt, and start working on things that are relevant to people’s lives right now.”

That work includes an equity and education project around vaccines, he said, attempting to combat different kinds of skepticism — doubts that can be directly rebutted by scientific facts, and others arising from a legacy of medical racism experienced by Black people in America.

“What we’re trying to do is create a trusted information network, for everyone but in particular communities of color,” Martin said.

The council is reaching out to community health centers, YMCAs and nursing homes to identify workers there who can, for a stipend, serve as a point person around vaccine safety and efficacy, providing information in a way that resonates with their particular community.

As the council moves into its second century, combating health inequities will be a major focus, Martin said.

“It’s tragic that what we see is if you allow these health inequities to fester, a pandemic like this comes along and it hits Black people and Latinos so much harder because they don’t have access to the healthy food and recreation opportunities and they work in industries that make it harder to socially distance,” he said.

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