Grind of pandemic affecting local officials

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (State House News Service) – Twenty-one months into the COVID-19 pandemic, a Franklin County official flagged burnout among local public health workers, New Bedford’s public health director called for stepped-up communication to hard-to-reach populations, and Arlington’s director recommended the state adopt a uniform set of minimum standards for municipal health departments.

At an oversight hearing Tuesday examining the current status of the pandemic and the state’s latest response measures, lawmakers heard from local health officials who outlined what they saw as potential areas of improvement.

Both Phoebe Walker of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and New Bedford Public Health Director Damon Chaplin said they’d like to see Massachusetts re-impose a mask mandate at the state level. While masks remain required in some settings like hospitals, public transit and most schools, a statewide mask order ended on May 29.

Gov. Charlie Baker has said he does not plan to put another statewide mask mandate in place and said Thursday that “if locals believe it’s appropriate for their community, they should go ahead and go for it.”

Walker said that a state mask policy would add weight behind the decisions made at the municipal level, where she said board of health members, faced with mounting case counts, are “just trying to do the right thing, and they are taking a beating at their meetings.”

She said she has heard of board of health members quitting over pressure from mask mandate opponents and that the pushback can become “very personal and very intense.”

At a time when Franklin County is experiencing its highest level of COVID-19 infections to date, Walker said there is generally “intense exhaustion at the local public health level” as workers juggle demands related to contact tracing, vaccination and keeping the public informed.

She said there have been challenges around efforts to vaccinate the most recently eligible population, kids aged 5 to 11, with health care providers in her rural region not having sufficient staff to stand up clinics. Walker said the ability to deploy the state’s mobile VaxBus clinics has been key, and she recommended additional investments in mobile clinics along with more quality controls for private and nonprofit vaccination vendors.

In Arlington, Department of Public Health data show a 70 percent vaccination rate among the 5-11 population as of Dec. 9, with 2,346 kids having received both doses of the Pfizer shot that was made available for their age group in early November.

Natasha Waden, the town’s public health director, said Arlington “pre-planned” pediatric vaccine clinics — including setting floor plans and securing staff and volunteers — in anticipation of the final authorization. A survey the town had conducted indicated there would be high demand among parents to get their kids vaccinated, she said.

Waden said Arlington is fortunate in that its residents, town manager and select board place a “high value” on public health and noted that not every community is able to maintain a full-time health department. She said it would be helpful if the state were to “establish a baseline” for local public health by setting minimum standards, like requiring a certain number of staff in a health department.

“As you know, there’s 351 cities and towns, not quite as many health departments as that, but I do believe that we’re all doing the best that we can with what we have,” she said. “But what we have, we need to advocate for fairness across the board.”

In New Bedford, where last week’s DPH report showed 340 of 8,681 5- to 11-year-olds had been fully vaccinated and 884 had received at least one dose, Chaplin said the city is working with the school department on parental consent forms and developing community clinics, along with engaging influential voices like coaches, teachers and community organizers to help boost the pediatric vaccination rate.

He said the city has been partnering with the DPH on “depot clinics” where an entire family can get whichever shots they need — first or second doses, boosters, and the pediatric vaccine — and asked for continued state support in those efforts.

Chaplin said that if parents are not vaccinated, their kids also likely will not be. He recommended trying to build dialogues with hard-to-reach communities through secondary forms of communication like word of mouth and social media. He pointed to programs in other parts of the country that engage with barbers and hairstylists, whom he said are a “significant part of that word-of-mouth community.”

He also asked for “meaningful inclusion” of local public health officials as the state continues making funding and programmatic decisions around COVID-19.

“There is a disconnect between policies and decisions made at the state level and what is actually happening at the local level,” Chaplin said.

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