Lawmakers surface pandemic response bills after emergency ends


BOSTON (SHNS) – On Feb. 19, when Rep. Nika Elugardo filed her bill to create a COVID-19 funeral and burial aid fund and Sen. Diana DiZoglio filed legislation that would add an expiration date to states of emergency, Massachusetts was still under the state of emergency declared in March 2020 and the federal government had not yet begun reimbursing funeral costs for the pandemic’s victims.

Sen. Walter Timilty filed his personal protective equipment data bill (S 253), which would require health care facilities to designate a PPE inventory manager and provide documentation of their supplies, on Feb. 4, when 1,503 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized across Massachusetts. Now, that number is down to 104.

The Legislature’s COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management Committee held a hearing Tuesday on the 34 bills that have been referred to it since it was created near the start of this session.

Despite the changed dynamics, several lawmakers asked the committee to still advance their proposals as a way to ensure Massachusetts learns from the past year and a half and prepares for what may come next.

“While Massachusetts continues to lead in vaccination rates, we must remain vigilant as COVID-19 variants emerge,” said Timilty, a Milton Democrat. “For instance, health care workers continue to practice medicine in close quarters, caring for infected and in some cases unvaccinated individuals. Finally, we must learn from the experiences of this pandemic to ensure we are prepared for future public health risks.”

Elugardo’s bill (H 483) would create a COVID-19 Funeral and Burial Assistance Fund, administered by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, to provide grants to low-income families to help defray costs related to COVID-19 deaths.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency in April began accepting applications for funeral assistance. Elugardo, a Boston Democrat, said she believed there will still be “a very small number of Massachusetts residents” who will incur expenses in excess of the FEMA aid levels and be unable “to pay even another single dollar because of their poverty.”

“I wonder if we could work together to make some edits to this bill to just provide that type of catch-all,” she told the committee.

Under a DiZoglio bill (S 249) before the panel, a state of emergency would expire 60 days after its declaration, unless the governor requests and the Legislature approves an extension.

Similarly, a bill from Billerica Republican Rep. Marc Lombardo would cap a state of emergency at 30 days’ length, unless at least three-fifths of both the House and Senate vote to continue it.

The state of emergency that Gov. Charlie Baker declared on March 10, 2020 lasted for 462 days and became the basis for an array of executive orders, including ones that closed school buildings, limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, restricted gathering sizes, allowed remote public meetings and provided flexibility in health care.

DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, said her bill would “bring the Legislature back into the fold.”

“I know that the state of emergency has ended, but I don’t believe that we should end the conversation around reining in some of the governor’s authorities and examining those authorities that he had and could have again for an indefinite period of time,” she said.

Bill Gillmeister of the Renew Massachusetts Coalition read the committee a petition, which he said was signed by more than 3,000 registered voters, in support of the Lombardo bill (H 497). The petition said the bill would “place checks and balances on the governor’s power” and that “no law should provide the governor with an indefinite ability to restrict our rights without review and action by the legislative, judicial or both branches.”

The committee is also considering bills (H 499, H 500) filed by Reps. David Rogers and Jon Santiago that would create commissions to investigate the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The two bills, which propose different structures for the panel, aim to produce a report that could help guide preparations for future pandemics or other crises.

“We’d be naive to think there won’t be — three years from now, 10 years from now, 15 years from now — some other pandemic, so I think we need to study how we’ve responded,” said Rogers, a Cambridge Democrat. “I think the state’s been so caught up, understandably, in the day-to-day management that there hasn’t been time yet to kind of step back and look at the totality of the response and learn from it.”

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