Levels of coronavirus detected in Eastern Massachusetts waste water, a critical indicator of COVID-19 infections, have climbed in recent weeks. Hospital beds in the state now have more patients with COVID than at any time since late May. And some infectious disease experts are worried the state could be in for a third challenging winter with the virus.
But neither major party candidate for governor of Massachusetts has articulated what they would do in the event of another COVID surge.
Republican Geoff Diehl, however, has focused on what he would not do: mandate vaccines for state employees. He would also rehire workers who were fired by the Baker administration for refusing COVID shots, his running mate, Leah Allen, said in an interview. Diehl declined an interview request and deferred COVID questions to Allen.
By contrast, Democrat Maura Healey, the attorney general, said she would “continue to do what the Baker-Polito administration has done in following science, data, and public health and be guided by that.” But she declined in a short interview to detail plans beyond that.
Like Governor Charlie Baker, Healey last year required her employees to be vaccinated. Asked her thoughts now on mandating that state workers receive the new bivalent booster, Healey said: “We have to wait and see. I just know that my focus will be on keeping people safe, making sure that we do everything we can to keep businesses open and kids in school and life as normal as possible.”
Allen said Diehl’s stance against mandates for vaccination extends to all shots, including childhood vaccinations that are currently required to enroll children in school.
“I think we have a good system in place right now in Massachusetts, where we do offer a religious exemption,” said Allen. “There needs to be an option to participate in society without having to show that you’ve taken whatever it is that the government wants you to take.”
Allen has said she was forced out of her job as a registered nurse at a local hospital for refusing to get a COVID vaccine.
For much of the pandemic, Massachusetts was a national leader with high COVID vaccination rates, but has since fallen to 16th nationally and is near the bottom among New England states for the percentage of vaccinated residents who have received a booster shot.
This comes as many Americans acknowledge they don’t understand whether the new bivalent booster is even intended for them. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 4 in 10 fully vaccinated adults say they are not sure if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people like them get the bivalent booster. (The CDC has recommended all vaccinated people 12 and older receive the new shots.)
Many people are now tuning out when it comes to COVID, said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University’s Political Research Center. It explains why candidates for governor in Massachusetts have not felt the need to articulate their plans for addressing the virus going forward, he said. In July, the center polled 500 Massachusetts residents, asking them to list the biggest source of stress in their life. Fewer than 2 percent cited COVID. Instead, pocketbook issues, like inflation, employment, and health insurance costs, captured their attention.
“Candidates are driven by issues that poll the highest,” Paleologos said. “They aren’t talking with any enthusiasm and detail about COVID because there is no enthusiasm in the polling results. It’s a vicious circle.”
Several public health and infectious disease specialists who were asked what advice they would offer the gubernatorial candidates about COVID said the state needs to do a better job promoting the new shots and make them more accessible in communities of color. But they would not recommend a mandate because they don’t think a pandemic-weary public would abide by one.
“A new governor should communicate the importance of a bivalent booster,” said Dr. Jonathan Levy, who chairs the department of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “Those who haven’t heard about it don’t go out to get it.”
What about resurrecting indoor mask mandates, should the state face another COVID surge, with hospitals overflowing as they did last winter? Healey said she is not going to “engage in hypotheticals” at this point.
Allen said masking should be optional.
“If people feel that masking is something that they want to partake in, they absolutely have that option as well,” she said.
John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and a researcher of epidemics, pandemics, and disease control, said that his studies have found that masking can help control transmission of the COVID-19 virus, but that mask mandates can be challenging.
“If the population isn’t behind a mandate, they can be rendered pretty useless,” he said.
Dr. Megan Ranney, deputy dean at Brown University’s school for public health and an emergency room physician, said she does not believe the public would abide by widespread mask mandates, but urges the next Massachusetts governor to maintain a mask rule for health care facilities. Recent revised guidelines from the CDC make mask requirements optional for health care facilities in regions where community transmission is not labeled “high.”
“COVID was the leading cause of death for many age groups and has had a dramatic effect on our life expectancy,” Ranney said. “It should be among our top concerns.”
But Ranney said the next governor will have to balance COVID with the need to address a range of urgent health issues that worsened during the pandemic, such as opioid addiction, lagging cancer screenings, and gun-related violence.
Levy and Brownstein urged the next governor to continue building up the state’s public health data collection and infectious disease surveillance systems. The federal government poured billions of dollars into such infrastructure nationwide, but COVID-related funding has waned.
Last month, President Biden made headlines declaring that the pandemic is over, a pronouncement that drew howls of protest from many public health and infectious disease experts.
The Diehl campaign said it agrees with Biden.
“COVID is here to stay,” Allen said. “I think we need to start treating it as the flu. We need to allow people to determine their own risks for what they feel comfortable doing.”
She said that with various treatments and telehealth options, people are better able to control their risk, compared to earlier in the pandemic.
“I don’t think we should ever go back into closing down the schools, and locking people down, and enforcing all these crazy mandates because it’s an endemic now,” she said. “So businesses, nursing homes, all those places, they should be able to implement policies that they feel comfortable with, as they’ve always done in the past for cold and flu season.”
Healey did not say whether she agrees the pandemic is over, but noted that the country is in “a different place” than it was a year ago.
But Healey noted there remain many gaps in equal access to COVID-related relief and treatment.
“We need to continue to find ways to support people, residents, and businesses around the state,” she said.
“That attention to equity and really being mindful that government needs to apply that equity lens to the work that we do to make sure that resources get to where they need to go is really important,” Healey said.
She did not, however, share specific details on how a Healey administration intended to pursue that goal.