From the Beacon, January 2022

2022 has finally arrived. Thank goodness.

Despite this year’s inauspicious start (yes, I’m referring to the latest COVID surge), the good news is that better days are ahead, and the next 12 months will reveal the remarkable long-term benefits of the outstanding programs, initiatives and public health interventions that cities and towns have delivered for the people of Massachusetts.

Switching out the old calendar and replacing it with a fresh one has not changed the pandemic’s dynamic or artificially leapfrogged us over present-day difficulties. That process will be a transition without a distinct start or end date, with many of last year’s ordeals enduring as acute challenges for some weeks or even months to come.

I’m sure there are some who will disagree with my optimistic outlook, that we are closer to the end of the pandemic than to its beginning. Yet we can agree that hindsight is much better than foresight. Looking back, we can now see that the coronavirus has turned out to be a more dangerous and slippery opponent than we originally hoped. And understanding that can give us a new perspective.

Nations developed and distributed effective vaccines at unprecedented rates, and last year at this time, in the early weeks of 2021, we predicted a turning point around the corner. It turns out that this was premature, as mutations — delta followed by omicron — altered the equation and lengthened the battle.

The more deadly and contagious delta variant hit the U.S. this past fall, and numbers started to rise again, including some breakthrough cases. Although vaccinated individuals remained well-protected, optimism about vanquishing the virus stalled, as the public health threat and tragic deaths remained stubbornly persistent. Public leaders became understandably frustrated by a low but chronic level of vaccine resistance that has left too many residents vulnerable.

The next step was the deployment of boosters and the extension of vaccines to younger populations, powerful tools to provide high protection from delta for vaccinated individuals and further protect households, lighting a path forward to withstand the surge.

And then, in the space of weeks, not months, the omicron variant started its late-year sweep around the globe. This highly mutated version is much more contagious than earlier strains, yet in general produces milder illness, especially among vaccine-protected people. Almost overnight, the new surge moved into Massachusetts. Breakthrough cases are more common, and due to community spread, more unvaccinated individuals are being exposed to the virus and getting sick. Thankfully, a much smaller percentage of the ill require medical treatment or hospitalization (again, especially among the vaccinated), although the sheer numbers are straining our health care facilities and stretching resources in exhausting ways.

As I wrote last month, communities have navigated through this public health crisis because of two remarkable traits that are on display in every one of our 351 cities and towns: perseverance, the quality that allows someone to continue moving forward even though it is difficult, especially if the outcome or timeline is uncertain; and resilience, the ability to become strong, healthy or successful again after something bad happens, the ability to absorb, adjust and rebound from hard times.

There are no better words to explain how local government officials have led the way for their residents during the past 22 months. Over the course of the pandemic, you, your fellow municipal leaders, and your colleagues in state and federal government have taken extraordinary steps to put in place unprecedented resources and interventions that are making it possible for most parts of society to function during this latest stage.

Again, hindsight is much better than foresight. Looking back, we can see that this latest surge is not a step backward in the fight against the virus. This latest challenge demonstrates that all the gains, advances and interventions that have been put in place since March 2020 have moved us forward to a better position.

If omicron had hit as the first wave in February 2020, without the production and delivery of vaccines and boosters, without accurate testing (at-home, lab-based and pooled), without contact tracing and public awareness of how to respond, without virtual communication platforms to keep operations open, without health protocols and policies in place, without emergency funding packages and massive new resources, omicron’s impact would have been unfathomably deeper and more tragic.

Today, in the face of this surge, governments, schools and businesses are open and functioning. Using vaccines, testing, masking, distancing and other adaptations, people are figuring out how to move forward.

It is in this spirit of determination and adaptation that we look forward to the MMA’s Annual Meeting later this month, on Jan. 21 and 22. While we are very proud of the virtual conference we produced last year, our team is putting in place the gold-standard of practices and protocols to enable the return to a fully in-person experience. Just as city and town halls are open for business with residents, and as schools are operating with students and teachers in classrooms, it is important for local leaders to get back together and show that we can adapt and move ahead in difficult times.

Following the city of Boston’s vaccine requirement for public facilities, every attendee at Annual Meeting will be required to provide proof of vaccination to enter the Hynes Convention Center and must wear a mask indoors. Then, everyone will be screened daily by on-site staff using a high-quality rapid antigen test (the type used by Homeland Security) before entering the meeting. The Hynes has the best ventilation and air purification systems in place and is allowing us to shift sessions and workshops to larger spaces for greater distancing. In short, everyone at the meeting will be vaccinated, negative for COVID, masked, and distanced.

Why would hundreds and hundreds of people want to gather in this way? The answer is obvious: Annual Meeting is a time for public servants to connect and learn, to inspire and inquire, to share and borrow ideas, and develop a common agenda to propel our communities and neighborhoods forward even in the most stressful times.

Looking back, the trail that local government has blazed is deeply inspiring. You’ve stood up massive public health and safety programs and initiatives, protected and saved thousands of lives, prioritized the most vulnerable among us, redesigned public services, streamlined your governance processes, informed and calmed the public — all while enduring the same stress in your own personal lives.

This is my New Year’s reflection: Many years from now, with the benefit of future hindsight, I am convinced that we will be able to see the historical growth trajectory of our communities’ resiliency and protection against COVID, and recognize that in January 2022 we were much closer to the end of this battle than to the beginning, because of the relentless efforts of public leaders at every level.

For this, and everything you do, all of us on the MMA staff are deeply grateful for your service and leadership.

May 2022 be safe and bountiful for you and your loved ones.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO