State leaders and municipal CEOs from across the state convened on Zoom to discuss continuing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured are (clockwise from top left) MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith; Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health; Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; & Samantha Aigner-Treqorgy, commissioner of Early Education and Care.)

As the state nears the six-month mark for the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency, state officials and 200 local leaders from across the state discussed recent progress and a number of continuing challenges during the 19th regularly scheduled conference call convened by the MMA.

With statewide COVID measures remaining stable, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito thanked local officials for their partnership in mitigating the spread and urged them to keep up the messaging “reminding people about their choices and their behaviors and that we can’t let up.”

“We’re really at the lowest point of the presence of the virus, which is terrific,” Polito said. “It didn’t just happen. It took a lot of effort to get here. Right now we have to stay focused on enforcement and intervention.”

Referencing the most recent COVID-19 Weekly Public Health Report, she said all but 38 Massachusetts communities are designated as either white or green, meaning their average daily case rate per 100,000 people over the previous two weeks is less than four. Ten communities are designated red, with case rates above eight, and 28 are designated yellow, with case rates between four and eight. The red and yellow communities are receiving more concerted state and local efforts, including, in many cases, free testing sites through the Stop the Spread program.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is recommending that white and green communities offer in-person or hybrid learning models when schools reopen this fall, with hybrid or remote learning for yellow communities and remote learning for red. When schools see COVID cases, the state would, under certain protocols, deploy a rapid response testing program so the district can quickly assess conditions and determine appropriate actions, Polito said. The program would resemble what has been used for long-term care facilities.

As an added precaution, the administration announced last week that the flu vaccine will be required for all children attending Massachusetts child care, preschool, K-12, and college and university programs. Polito said the requirement will reduce flu-related illnesses and ​their impact on the health care system during the COVID pandemic. In a typical year, about 80% of students get the flu shot, but, she said, “We’d like to focus on getting that number up a little higher this year.”

Students must get the vaccine by Dec. 31 unless they provide a medical or religious exemption. Also exempted are students who are homeschooled and off-campus college students engaged in remote learning only. Teachers and staff are not required to get the vaccine.

Polito reviewed updated state rules governing gatherings, effective Aug. 11. State and local police are now empowered to help local health departments enforce the revised outdoor gathering limit of 50 people for a single event on either public or private property (reduced from 100). She added that state and environmental police are redoubling efforts to enforce park curfews and to monitor waterways, which have seen numerous violations of the gatherings and face coverings orders as well as guidance regarding distancing.

She said the administration was announcing today the allocation of nearly $10 million in federal emergency grants to 100 local and state public safety agencies for preventing, preparing for and responding to the COVID pandemic, including the procurement of personal protective gear, deep cleaning sanitation equipment, video technology, and materials to reconfigure office space to enhance social distancing.

Polito also highlighted the administration’s attention to the economic health of the Commonwealth, with the annual sales tax holiday weekend coming up along with the launch Friday of an advertising campaign called My Local MA intended to provide a boost to locally owned retailers, restaurants and attractions.

“The idea actually came from you,” Polito said of the campaign, which is funded by the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund and the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. “Please get the word out. We need your help with that.”

Child care
With the school year about to begin and parents scrambling for child care assistance, Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy discussed updated guidance released last Friday for child care centers this fall. She said the new health and safety requirements are similar to those that proved successful over the summer, and are meant to align with school standards issued by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, so families can learn and abide by the same rules in either setting.

Face coverings are required for adults at all times, as well as for children over age 2 whenever 6 feet of distance cannot be maintained. Only essential adults are allowed in the buildings.

Aigner-Treworgy announced that there is now “an expedited process” to license child care centers to provide services during the school day for school-aged children who are learning remotely and can’t be with an adult at home.

“We have started relicensing our programs, helping them adjust their capacity or license new spaces to be able to accommodate those children who may be in virtual learning settings … [and] need non-parental supervision,” she said.

Asked about municipal recreation departments that are looking to offer child supervision during the school day in order to support working parents, but are limited to 20 hours per week unless they are a licensed facility, Aigner-Treworgy recommends that they connect with a licensed provider to operate a program within their facility. She said her department is working quickly to license providers to address these needs.

Other matters
With schools preparing to reopen, Polito and Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health, were asked whether the state intends to provide rapid testing at schools on a proactive basis. They said testing resources will be deployed only when there is evidence that COVID transmission has been happening within a school.

State officials were asked for clarification about the state travel order requiring quarantine or a negative test result for out-of-state visitors and residents returning from travel to states with higher COVID case rates. Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health, said all information gathered from the Massachusetts Travel Form is entered daily in a database that is available to local boards of health, so they can see who has travelled and is in their community.

Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, said the Round 2 application date is not set yet for COVID-related reimbursement under the federal CARES Act, but the expectation is sometime in October. In their applications, he said, communities will need to project their expenditures through Dec. 30, the end date of the program established in federal law, but could not include costs anticipated in 2021.

He said Congress has not yet approved a bill that would allow for federal aid to offset local revenue losses due to the pandemic.

Cronin was asked if or when grant funding might be available to help communities study development of a regional health district to be better prepared in all areas of public health, or whether such a proposal might be eligible under the Community Compact program. He said the Department of Public Health may have funding available for such endeavors. Such a proposal “would be a perfect fit” for a Community Compact grant, he said, but that funding is subject to a final state budget for fiscal 2021, which is not yet approved.

Asked about live music performances at a drive-in theater, Elizabeth Denniston, deputy legal counsel in the governor’s office, said they must comply with the gatherings order, not the business-specific guidance for drive-in movie theaters.

Audio of Aug. 25 call with administration (35M MP3)

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