Senator Jason Lewis recently joined his colleagues in the State Senate in passing a $76 million plan to help prevent the further spread of COVID-19 and its variants by providing residents with greater access to tests, vaccines and masks, while prioritizing communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as frontline workers. Much of the funding in this bill is expected to be eligible for reimbursement by the federal government.
“I’m very pleased that the Senate is continuing to address urgent pandemic needs by providing additional resources to improve access to testing, high quality masks, and vaccines,” said Lewis. “This bill will especially help frontline essential workers as well as communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic and where vaccine rates, particularly among children, are lagging.”
The bill includes $50 million to further increase the availability of and encourage use of testing and vaccination throughout the state, including $5 million that is specifically allocated for increasing vaccination rates among five through 11 year olds, an age group now eligible to be vaccinated but whose vaccination rates remain low in comparison to older residents. The bill includes an additional $25 million for the state to purchase and distribute high-quality masks, with priority given to education and health care workers. In addition, the bill establishes a grant program, in consultation with the Massachusetts Cultural Council, for cultural institutions to help promote vaccine awareness and education.
In response to reports that the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) is seeking to collect overpayments in pandemic unemployment benefits that were paid to some Massachusetts residents through no fault of their own, the bill provides funding for the DUA to conduct a multilingual, easy-to-understand public information campaign to notify claimants of their legal rights. The bill also extends the period during which DUA can reconsider a determination of overpayment, and it requires that DUA produce a comprehensive report detailing the status of overpayments.
In addition, the bill extends the authorization for several COVID-19 emergency measures adopted earlier in the pandemic, such as those related to health services in assisted living facilities, liability protections for health care providers, remote notaries, flexibility for local governments and nonprofits to hold meetings virtually, and outdoor dining for restaurants. Importantly, the bill requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a vaccine equity plan and directs the Department of Public Health to publicly post guidance on effective mask usage and recommended testing, quarantine and isolation periods.
With a version of this legislation having previously passed the House of Representatives, the House and Senate will now work quickly to reconcile the differences and send the final bill to Governor Charlie Baker for his signature.