Massachusetts Officials announce first case of P.1 COVID-19 variant; urge continued protective measures

The Department of Public Health (DPH) today announced that the first case of the P.1 COVID-19 variant of concern, which originated in Brazil, has been detected in Massachusetts. The individual is a woman in her 30s who resides in Barnstable County.

DPH was notified of her test results from genetic sequencing conducted through the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national surveillance system. Currently, there is no information available on the woman’s illness or whether she has recently traveled. She tested positive for COVID-19 in late February.

As of today, there have been 213 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, originally found in the United Kingdom, and 6 cases of the B.1.351, which originated in South Africa, reported in Massachusetts. The B.1.1.7 variant is known to spread more easily and has caused a rapid surge of cases in the UK, several other countries, and parts of the United States.
The best defense against variants of concern is to prevent the spread of COVID.
This includes wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding groups, staying home when you are sick, getting tested if you have symptoms or are identified as a close contact of someone with COVID, and getting vaccinated when it is your turn.
Learn more about variants of concern at New Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19 | CDC and track their presence in both Massachusetts and the US at US COVID-19 Cases Caused by Variants | CDC.

New Bedford’s 25th annual “Day Of Portugal” canceled due to COVID-19

The popular “Day Of Portugal” celebration has been delighting locals for well over two decades. Last year at this time organizers canceled the celebration and most of us at that time thought that COVID would pass in a few weeks or months.

Unfortunately, the Day Of Portugal, or as some colloquially call “The Mini-Feast,” has been canceled for a second year in the best interest of “..safety and well-being of the population as well as the restrictions imposed by the authorities,” according to Dulce Matos, president of the New Bedford Day of Portugal Committee.

“Given the continuing situation we are all experiencing due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I regret to have to inform you that the Day of Portugal celebrations in New Bedford, scheduled for June 11, 12, and 13, 2021, are canceled.”

Certainly not news anyone wanted to hear, especially considering that the larger Feast of the Blessed Sacrament has not made an official statement on whether there will be a “Feast” this year. A year after COVID first reared its head, most of us were looking for some normalcy after months of lockdowns, stay-at-home advisories, social distancing, and having healthy interactions with others rescheduled or canceled altogether.

Every June tens of thousands of people from the South Coast and beyond eagerly look forward to the “Day Of Portugal” celebration, a chance to soak in Portuguese history, music, culture, and of course, cuisine. Alas, we’ll all have to wait until next in when Matos hopes the event “…will return stronger than ever in 2022.”

Assuming we are not in a lockdown because of COVID-20.

Baker spars with teachers union over vaccine access

By Matt Murphy
State House News Service

In an escalating battle over vaccinations and a full-time return to the classroom, Gov. Charlie Baker and the state’s largest teachers’ unions butted heads Thursday over the unions’ request to allow teachers to be vaccinated in schools, with the administration refusing to divert doses away from mass vaccination sites and other clinics.

A war-of-words erupted after a morning meeting between union officials, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and Education Commissioner Jeff Riley to discuss vaccinations.

A day earlier, Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy had said the state’s vaccine rollout for teachers had been “poorly timed” with plans to bring elementary students back to the classroom full-time by April 5, followed by middle schoolers on April 28.

The meeting led to a searing condemnation from the administration of the union’s request for doses to be redistributed and administered to teachers and staff locally at schools.

“I am not going to be in a position where I take vaccine away from people who are extremely vulnerable, have multiple medical conditions and are over the age of 65 to give it to a targeted population. We’re just not going to play that game,” Baker said at an afternoon press conference.

The comments from the governor came after the governor’s senior advisor Tim Buckley issued a statement saying the administration “implores the unions to do the math,” noting the state receives just 150,000 new first doses a week.

“Diverting hundreds of thousands of vaccines to an exclusive, teacher-only distribution system would deny the most vulnerable and the most disproportionately impacted residents hundreds of thousands of vaccines,” Buckley said.

The unions, including the MTA, the American Federation of Teachers and the Boston Teachers Union, accused the administration of “pitting one vulnerable group against another” after what it described as a “cordial” meeting with Sudders.

“The administration’s mischaracterization of educators as somehow seeking to take vaccines away from the sick and elderly is untrue and defamatory,” said Najimy, AFT-Massachusetts President Beth Kontos, and BTU President Jessica Tang.

The three union leaders said they suggested using doses that had already been designated for teachers at mass vaccination sites and instead deploying them at schools where they could be administered to teachers by firefighters and nurses with minimal disruption to the school schedule.

“The administration is entitled to its opinion on how it has handled the vaccine rollout, but the administration is not entitled to their own facts. From the onset, our unions have advocated for classifying educators as essential workers and for vaccinating them at the same time as others who are eligible within the current phase of the rollout,” Najimy, Kontos and Tang said.

Baker saw the request from the unions differently.

“They were looking for their own vaccine and to not participate in the process that everyone else participates in,” Baker said.

Baker only opened the state’s vaccination program to teachers on Thursday after the White House last week urged states to begin vaccinating educators in March and began making doses available to teachers through the federal pharmacy vaccine program.

The administration then announced on Wednesday that it would set aside four weekend days in late March and early April at the state’s seven mass vaccinations when teachers exclusively could book vaccine appointments. The governor also said he was encouraging regional vaccine collaboratives to also specify days for educators.

Baker and Sudders both cited vaccine supply constraints as limiting their ability to set aside more vaccines.

“We don’t have more doses to give,” Sudders said Wednesday. She estimates teachers unable to book an appointment on Thursday through the normal system will have access to about 20,000 to 25,000 doses at mass vaccination sites on March 27, April 3, April 10 and April 11.

The administration noted that 95 percent of teachers are under the age of 65, putting them at reduced risk from COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control has said vaccinations are not a prerequiste for a return to in-person learning, and Baker said experience in Massachusetts has shown that students, particularly young students, can be taught safely in a classroom.

“Building an entirely new, exclusive, teacher-only, school by school distribution system would make Massachusetts’ vaccination system slower, less equitable and far more complicated,” Buckley said.

Baker also defended his reliance on mass vaccination sites to distribute vaccine, saying most states were using similar sites, provider organizations, pharmacy chains and community health centers to administer COVID-19 vaccinations.

“The process we’re pursuing in Massachusetts is completely consistent with the process that’s being used in virtually every other state in the county. Why? Because it’s effective, it’s efficient and it gets a lot of shots in people arms in a short period of time,” Baker said.

House Speaker Ron Mariano, who is a former teacher himself, was an early advocate for giving teachers higher priority status for vaccinations.

Asked about the back-and-forth Thursday between the governor and the unions, Mariano said the governor invited it.

“It’s a problem that was created by the administration in setting a date certain to have schools reopen and raising the issue of safety in our schools and not having a plan on how to make sure that they can guarantee that the schools are safe,” he said.

Massachusetts education officials will force districts to bring students back into the classroom next month

As posted on the the MA DOE Website:

News from Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley & the
MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Guidance on In-Person Learning Requirements

Dear Superintendents, Charter School Leaders, and Leaders of Collaboratives,

On March 5, 2021, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted amendments to the Student Learning Time regulations on an emergency basis. These amendments provide me with the authority to determine when hybrid and remote models will no longer count toward meeting the required student learning time hours. 603 CMR 27.08(2)(d). Consistent with these amendments, and following consultation with medical experts and state health officials, I am exercising that authority as follows:

Elementary school phase (grades K-5): For elementary schools, hybrid and remote learning models will no longer count towards meeting the required student learning time hours as of Monday, April 5, 2021. As a result, districts and schools are required to shift their learning model for elementary school grade levels to full-time, in-person instruction five days per week effective Monday, April 5, 2021.

Middle school phase (grades 6-8): For middle schools, hybrid and remote learning models will no longer count towards meeting the required student learning time hours as of Wednesday, April 28, 2021. As a result, districts and schools will be required to shift their learning model for middle school grade levels to full-time, in-person instruction five days per week, effective Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

High school phase (grades 9-12): We will announce the details and timing of the high school phase of the plan in April. Districts will be provided with at least two weeks in advance of the date for high school students to return to full-time, in-person instruction, but should start making such plans now.

Importantly, families will retain the choice as to whether to send their children to school in-person or have them learn remotely through the end of the school year. Districts may also apply for a waiver from DESE. Waivers will be considered in a limited set of circumstances described later in this document.

These regulations are legally binding. Any district that does not comply with the regulatory requirements or receive a waiver by April 5, 2021 (for the elementary school phase of the plan) will be required to make up any missed structured learning time. This time could be made up during this school year, over the summer, or into next school year if necessary. In addition, G.L. c. 71, § 4A links Chapter 70 funds to structured learning time.

Dartmouth Police Department announces milestone: 4,000 COVID vaccinations in town

“Congratulations to Dartmouth Board of Health Director, Chris Michaud, as well as to all of the other workers and volunteers, who made our final vaccination clinic such a GIANT success yesterday at Dartmouth High School.

As a result of their collective efforts over the last couple of months, nearly 4,000 individuals were successfully vaccinated at the numerous town of Dartmouth clinics 👏🏻.

Though we realize they are all busy, sadly, no state officials accepted the invitation to come and see just how important it is to keep these non-profit, locally run clinics up and running 😢.

Great job Dartmouth ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐”-Dartmouth Police Department.

Nursing home, senior living visitation allowed in New Bedford due to vaccination of residents

Mayor Jon Mitchell and the Board of Health have rescinded an earlier restriction on nursing home and senior living visits, due to the widespread vaccination of residents at those facilities.

On December 14, the Mayor and Board of Health prohibited visitation at nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and senior living facilities, with limited exceptions, to protect residents from the spread of COVID-19. An emergency order by the Mayor and Board of Health effective March 8 will now rescind that restriction and allow safe visitation, but continues to outline stringent public health protocols and reporting requirements to ensure the health and safety of all senior residents.

“Our goal during the surges in virus transmission was always to protect the most vulnerable among us until they had the opportunity to be vaccinated. Now that the initial phases of vaccinations of residents at nursing homes and senior living facilities have taken place, we can once again permit visitation with health and safety protocols so that families can visit their loved ones,” said Mayor Mitchell.

The state’s and City’s latest guidance allows for in-person visitation with social distancing, screening, mask-wearing, and other protective measures.

Last spring, Mayor Mitchell and the Board of Health first announced emergency orders to keep residents of all senior living settings safe through the requirement of stringent public health and sanitation requirements, and instituted limits on visitations in December to protect the health of senior residents.

City of New Bedford, Mayor Jon Mitchell, mourn loss of longtime carpenter Pierre Tremblay due to COVID-19

“I’m saddened by the news that Pierre Tremblay, a longtime carpenter in the City’s Department of Facilities and Fleet Management, passed away this week from complications of Covid-19.

It was shocking news to all of us who called Pierre a friend and colleague. Pierre was a masterful craftsman, whose skill was exceeded only by the pride he took in his work. With each of his projects, he believed he was making an enduring contribution to the city, and he was right.

His uncompromising commitment to excellence will continue to shine through the masterpieces he’s left behind. I will miss him for his optimism, his pleasant and engaging personality, and his selflessness. I offer my heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, and the DFFM team.

If you’ve been to City Hall, you’ve likely admired some of Pierre’s fine work and will recognize it in these photos — including in the Election Commission Office and Treasurer’s Office, and the temporary customer service station in the Ashley Room.” -Mayor Jon Mitchell.

City of New Bedford photo.

City of New Bedford photo.

More than 600,000 people in Massachusetts fully vaccinated

Colin A. Young
State House News Service

More than 62,000 vaccine doses were administered in the 24-hour period between updates from the Department of Public Health.

As of Thursday, there were 1,316,691 people in the Bay State who had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, an increase of 35,011 from Wednesday’s report, and there were 614,589 people who are considered fully vaccinated, an increase of 27,422 from the previous day.

Overall, there were 62,433 more doses administered as of Thursday than there were as of the day before. In all, Massachusetts has administered 1,931,280 of the 2,399,100 doses delivered here by the federal government, roughly 80.5 percent.

Massachusetts Teachers Now Eligible For Vaccines on March 11

By Colin A. Young
State House News Service

Starting March 11, teachers, early educators and school staff members will be able to try to sign up for COVID-19 vaccine appointments through any of the state’s 170 vaccination sites and mass vaccination sites plan to block off certain days to vaccinate educators, Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday morning.

The governor’s announcement from the West Parish Elementary School in Gloucester comes as Baker and Education Commissioner Jeff Riley push for full-time, in-person education at all Massachusetts elementary schools by next month and after teachers unions ramped up a campaign backed by legislative leaders to get more of their members vaccinated sooner. One union official said teachers around the state were euphoric about the governor’s announcement Wednesday.

It also followed President Joe Biden’s decision Tuesday to prioritize the vaccination of pre-K-12 teachers and staff and child care workers through the federal pharmacy program and his direction to the roughly 20 states that had not already made teachers eligible to do so.

“My challenge to all states, territories, and the District of Columbia is this: We want every educator, school staff member, childcare worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March,” Biden said on Tuesday afternoon, adding that not every teacher would be able to secure an appointment in the first week.

By Wednesday morning, before Baker’s announcement, CVS had added K-12 teachers to the list of populations eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at its clinics, including those in Massachusetts.

Baker pointed out on a few occasions Wednesday that teachers were “next on the list” to become eligible under his administration’s plan and defended his approach that has focused on vaccinating people whose age or medical conditions “put them in significant risk of hospitalization and death associated with COVID.” But he said he would make educators and staffers eligible next week so there is no confusion “between federal eligibility guidelines and state eligibility guidelines and to coordinate with the feds.”

“I don’t want people to get confused about where they can go and where they can’t go if the federal rules associated with some of this are different. So we’re gonna move up the educator community, give them the ability to start booking appointments starting next week,” he said.

As soon as Baker made his announcement, Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken let out a loud exclamation, “Yes!”

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said Wednesday that the governor’s decision represented “a huge victory for our students, for our school employees and the entire school community.”

“As an educator of 30 years, I can tell you with confidence that educators across the state are joyful,” she said outside Watertown High School, though WCVB reported that she would not say whether she expects teachers will be back in classrooms five days a week by the early April deadline Riley has targeted.

On Friday afternoon, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will meet to hear a presentation and vote on the emergency adoption of regulatory amendments that would prioritize in-person instruction by giving Riley the authority to decide when hybrid and remote learning models will no longer count towards the state’s requirements for student learning hours.

The governor said there are about 400,000 teachers, early educators and school staff members who will become newly eligible for the vaccine next week. They will join everyone 65 years old or older and people with two or more certain health conditions in the competition for a limited supply of doses and appointments.

“The 65-plus group and the two health conditions group between them represent about a million residents. So far, we’ve received enough vaccine to vaccinate, so far, about one-third of the folks in that category,” Baker said. “The math on this is pretty straightforward: If we add 400,000 people on March 11 to the eligible pool, that’ll mean we’ll be back to having about a million people who are eligible to receive a vaccine. And as I said, we currently get about 150,000 first doses per week from the federal government.”

The governor said his team’s estimates are that first dose appointments should “start to cover pretty much everybody in that group about a month after they’re eligible.”

The demand for vaccine shots has vastly outpaced the supply, causing frustration and chaos as the hundreds of thousands of eligible people compete for the tens of thousands of available appointments each week.

Both Pfizer and Moderna are expected to increase their production in March and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine approved last week is making its way to clinics in Massachusetts and around the country, offering hope of an accelerating vaccination effort.

But Baker said Wednesday that the White House told states not to expect any substantial increase in supply until the end of March and that the state would get less of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine than it was expecting.

“Massachusetts has been notified by the feds that we’re only scheduled to get one shipment, which we got this week, of 58,000 doses for the month of March and that has been distributed primarily to hospitals, health systems, some community health centers,” Baker said, adding that the news was “a big surprise to everybody.”

Baker said Johnson & Johnson is now expected to deliver “way less than half of than what was originally presumed to be coming in the month of March” and said he’s hoping the timeline can be accelerated. If it is and the number of doses delivered to Massachusetts increases substantially, the governor said the state will be ready to put them into people’s arms.

“I can promise you this, we have plenty of capacity to put every dose we get to work,” he said.

It’s been a little more than two weeks since people 65 and older became eligible for the vaccine, and teachers were slated to be a part of the next group, which also includes other “essential workers.”

Already, other groups that were slated to become eligible for a vaccine on the basis of their occupations at roughly the same time as teachers are making their cases to be similarly moved up in the line.

MBTA workers represented by Carmen’s Local 589 said Wednesday morning that Baker “is jeopardizing their lives and public health by letting red tape and a lack of planning delay the administration of coronavirus vaccines to local bus and train operators.”

The union said the MBTA has a vaccination site established in Quincy and that workers who were given a tour of the site “hoped” that transit workers could be moved up in the state’s prioritization since the MBTA was setting up the infrastructure to vaccinate its workforce.

“We walked through the Quincy site and got the tour, and we were promised they’d have a coordinated rollout and plan where frontline transit personnel would be vaccinated in an orderly, coordinated fashion that helps ensure scheduling continuity and safety for the benefit of the riders,” union president Jim Evers said. “We are praising MBTA management for having the infrastructure in place, but it seems the Governor just isn’t paying attention so now we’re among the last frontline workers to get vaccinated. It’s a dangerous oversight by Baker, especially as schools reopen.”

Massachusetts COVID Vaccination Totals Catch Up With Infections

By Colin A. Young
State House News Service

As Massachusetts enters the second month of March to be shaded by the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people here who have been fully vaccinated is roughly equal to the number of people who have been infected with COVID-19 over the last year.

The equivalent of the population of Methuen — roughly 51,000 people — got their second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine between Friday’s report from the Department of Public Health and Sunday’s update. There are 550,000 people fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday morning, compared to 550,302 total confirmed COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic.

With more than 1.2 million residents having received at least one vaccine dose, Massachusetts is again beginning to reopen its economy more widely and a third vaccine approved by federal officials over the weekend could help alleviate some of the tensions that come with the limited supply of doses.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization Saturday for the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was developed in part by a group at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. It joins the Moderna and Pfizer two-dose vaccines in the public health arsenal and states are expected to receive an initial batch of the doses this week.

“Our healthcare leaders and clinicians see the authorization of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as a significant step forward in the effort to vaccinate residents of the commonwealth,” Valerie Fleishman, senior vice president and chief innovation officer at the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, said. “This vaccine has been shown to be highly effective in protecting against COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths, and those who receive it should have every confidence that they are protected against serious illness due to COVID-19 and its variants.”

Johnson & Johnson is expected to deliver about 20 million doses of its single-shot COVID-19 vaccine to the federal government for distribution by the end of March. The New York Times reported Monday morning that Biden administration officials speaking on background said that the company will deliver 3.9 million shots this week but none next week.

Baker said last week the combination of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine getting approval and the plans Pfizer and Moderna have to increase their production “could be a really big moment.”

On Monday, Baker said the new vaccine “will certainly dramatically boost” the state’s vaccination efforts and “should mean a big increase” in the amount of vaccine available.

On Feb. 24, Baker estimated it would take about a month, barring an increase in vaccine supply, to get through the roughly 1 million people who at that time were becoming newly eligible to receive vaccines, including the large group of residents in the age 65 and older group.

Also on Monday, Baker said about 68 percent of residents 75 and older had been vaccinated. In the long-term care sector, 90 percent of residents and about 70 percent of staff had received vaccines, he said.

As of Monday morning, Massachusetts moved back to Step 2 of Phase III of the administration’s reopening plan, which means that occupancy limits broadly increase to 50 percent for most businesses and indoor performance venues and indoor recreational activities can reopen. Restaurants no longer have a percent-based capacity restriction but must adhere to six-foot social distancing, limits of six people per table and 90-minute limits.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who was the head of Massachusetts General Hospital’s infectious disease division before being tapped for her federal role, was specifically asked about Baker’s newest rules for restaurants Friday and said her agency “would really encourage people and states to not expand and release restrictions.”

“Given the trends that we’ve seen in just the last couple of days, I would say, you know, we can’t be in a place where we’re lifting restrictions right now,” she said, according to a transcript provided by the White House. “If we level off at the level of 70,000 cases a day, we are just at the level where — where we had the peak before — or base before we have the fall peak.”

Over the weekend in Massachusetts, 2,944 people were newly confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 and the state announced the recent COVID-19 deaths of 93 more people. There are 760 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Massachusetts and the state estimates that just more than 30,000 residents currently have active and contagious cases of the respiratory disease.

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