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Gov. Charlie Baker has agreed that the state will pay $56 million to the families of veterans who contracted COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in the spring of 2020, one of the nation’s worst outbreaks of the virus. 

Families of 84 veterans who died from COVID will each receive a minimum of $400,000, with an average payment of $500,000, according to lawyers who brought the federal lawsuit in July 2020. The lawsuit on the veterans’ behalf was filed in July 2020, arguing that the Commonwealth “failed in its promise and obligation to care for those veterans.” 

Gov. Baker plans to file legislation seeking $56 million for the claims fund in the coming weeks, according to a statement from his office. 

“No amount of money can bring back the veterans who died or erase the pain and suffering that this tragedy needlessly caused those veterans and their families,” said Thomas Lesser, who represented the families, along with partner Michael Aleo, in a statement. “But justice required that those wrongs not go unaddressed. This settlement recognizes that the tragedy was preventable and never should have happened.” 

Daily News

BOSTON — On Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker signed Executive Order 597, which directs all executive-branch agencies to review and terminate any contracts with any Russian state-owned company. The executive order also directs agencies to review any partnership, affiliation, or exchange with any Russian state-owned company, Russian government-controlled entity, or Russian governmental body.

“With this order, we hope to build on the sanctions the federal government has already placed on Russia for their unjustified attack on Ukraine,” Baker said. “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts condemns the actions of Russia and stands firmly with the free and democratic nation of Ukraine.”

The governor’s executive order encourages independent agencies and authorities, public-education institutions, and other constitutional offices to adopt similar policies.

The order also directs the Office for Refugees and Immigrants to work with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and other stakeholder agencies to support Ukrainian immigrants and refugees fleeing the conflict.

“The Commonwealth will continue to offer its support Ukraine and stand with them in the face of Russian aggression,” Lt. Governor Karyn Polito said. “My thoughts are with all the Ukrainian people during this horrific time.”

Daily News

BOSTON — Today, the Baker-Polito administration announced additional measures to address a recent rise in COVID-19 cases and to ensure acute-care hospitals have sufficient capacity to care for both COVID and non-COVID patients.

The Commonwealth’s healthcare system is facing a critical staffing shortage which has contributed to the loss of approximately 500 medical/surgical and ICU hospital beds since the beginning of the year. Hospitals are also seeing a high level of patients, many due to non-COVID related reasons.

Residents are reminded that getting a vaccine and booster remain the best way to protect against serious illness or hospitalization from COVID. The Department of Public Health (DPH) released updated COVID breakthrough data this week showing that 97% of COVID breakthrough cases in Massachusetts have not resulted in hospitalization or death. Unvaccinated individuals are five times more likely to contract COVID than fully vaccinated individuals and 31 times more likely to contract COVID than individuals who have a booster.

Massachusetts is a national leader in COVID-19 vaccinations, with more than 94% of eligible residents having received at least one dose. More than 89% of the entire Massachusetts population has at least one dose, and 74% of the entire population is fully vaccinated. Massachusetts also leads the nation in vaccinating communities of color, with 68% of all black residents and 67% of all Hispanic residents receiving at least one dose, compared to 42% of black residents and 52% of Hispanic residents nationally.

DPH released an updated mask advisory today, recommending that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask or face covering in indoor, public spaces.

DPH particularly urges this recommendation for individuals who have a weakened immune system or are at increased risk for severe disease because of age or an underlying medical condition, or if someone in their household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated.

All people in Massachusetts (regardless of vaccination status) are required to continue wearing face coverings in certain settings, including transportation and healthcare facilities. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s current mask requirement is not impacted by this advisory.

Gov. Charlie Baker is activating up to 500 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to address the non-clinical support needs of hospitals and transport systems. Up to 300 of these Guard members will begin training this week and will support 55 acute-care hospitals, as well as 12 ambulance service providers across the Commonwealth.

DPH surveyed all hospitals and ambulance service providers and, in concert with the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Assoc., has identified five key roles that non-clinical Guard personnel can serve in support hospital operations for up to 90 days: driving ambulances used to transfer patients between two healthcare locations, such as when patients are discharged from a hospital and transferred to a long-term-care facility; providing continuous or frequent observation of a patient who is at risk for harm to themselves; helping to maintain a safe workplace; bringing patients via wheelchair or, if needed, stretcher, from their patient room to tests such as X-ray or CT scan, or from the emergency department to their inpatient floor; and delivering patient meals to their rooms. Guard personnel will be deployed to the field beginning Dec. 27.

DPH also released updated guidance to hospitals concerning non-essential, elective, invasive procedures. To preserve healthcare personnel resources, effective Dec. 27, all hospitals are directed to postpone or cancel all non-essential elective procedures likely to result in inpatient admission in order to maintain and increase inpatient capacity.

Patients are reminded to still seek necessary care at their hospital or from their healthcare provider.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration is filing legislation to establish a sales-tax holiday for the months of August and September. This plan aims to support Main Street businesses and local economies and promote economic growth and opportunity as the Commonwealth continues to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State-tax revenues for fiscal year 2021 continue to significantly exceed projections, with revenues to date 14.9% above benchmark. Strong revenues across the board have allowed the Commonwealth to grow the size of its Stabilization Fund and be poised to end the fiscal year with a significant surplus for the FY21 budget. As a result, the Administration is proposing to support the Commonwealth’s taxpayers and downtown economies by designating the entire months of August and September as sales-tax-free.

“A two-month sales tax holiday will provide a boost to Massachusetts’ taxpayers and Main Street economies as we continue to recover from COVID-19,” Gov. Charlie Baker said. “Massachusetts’ economic recovery is off to a good start, but it’s crucial that the Commonwealth takes action now to spur more economic activity in communities and support taxpayers. Thanks to stronger-than-expected tax revenues, the Commonwealth has managed to grow the Rainy Day Fund to a balance higher than it was at the beginning of the pandemic, and we can also afford to return these tax dollars to our residents and small businesses.”

Through May 2021, FY21 tax revenues collections are $3.938 billion, or 14.9%, more than the year-to-date benchmark. Additionally, Massachusetts has been awarded significant federal resources since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars through the CARES Act, which have helped reduce pressure on the operating budget.

“A two-month sales-tax holiday is a smart, exciting, and progressive economic incentive that will benefit our small businesses and our consumers just when they need it,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers of Massachusetts Assoc. “Consumers represent 70% of our economy, and it is important that we encourage them to invest in our Main Streets, small businesses, and communities. And for our lower-income families, this tax cut is all about temporarily suspending the most regressive tax on the books just as their children are heading back to school. Retailers and small businesses across the Commonwealth thank the Baker-Polito administration in proposing this important economic-growth incentive, and urge the Legislature to pass it into law.”

If enacted, this proposal would be an expansion of the annual sales tax-free weekend, which the administration is also officially designating as Aug. 14-15 this year. In 2018, Baker signed legislation that makes the annual sales-tax holiday permanent.

The governor’s proposal has already drawn some opposition. For instance, state Sen. Eric Lesser noted that “this proposal would cost $900 million and do almost nothing to help our local retailers. Now that COVID is ending, demand is at record levels. Our local businesses need more workers and better infrastructure, not political gimmicks. Extra funds should be used to reduce class sizes, repair crumbling roads and bridges, improve broadband internet, or use to pay down debt.”

Daily News

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker signed “An Act Financing the General Governmental Infrastructure of the Commonwealth,” which authorizes up to $1.8 billion in capital funding for key investments in public safety, food security, and information technology (IT). This includes programs to enhance the security of the Commonwealth’s IT assets, improve the delivery of state and local services, and continue responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are pleased to have worked closely with the Legislature to sign this bill into law and continue investing in information-technology improvements, public-safety upgrades, and food security across the Commonwealth,” Baker said. “We are continuing to support critical capital investments that modernize our technology infrastructure and allow us to deliver effective and reliable government services for the people of Massachusetts during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.”

Authorizations totaling $660 million in the legislation will support IT-infrastructure needs throughout the Commonwealth, strengthening cybersecurity and improving how state agencies serve their constituents. The bill authorizes $90 million for public safety, including $10 million to establish a new fire-training facility in Southeastern Mass.

In addition, $346.5 million is authorized for municipal grant programs, including $25 million for firefighter-safety grants, $10 million for a municipal ADA-accessibility grant program, and $5 million for the Community Compact program. The legislation also authorizes $37.3 million in capital funding to ensure food security for residents across the Commonwealth.

Other notable authorizations in the bond bill include $115 million for library-construction grants, $20 million for a program to enhance fiber-optic connectivity in key municipal buildings, and $375 million for repairs and improvements to facilities across the Commonwealth.

Opinion

Moving Beyond the Blame Game

Family members of veterans living at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home didn’t need a 174-page review by a former federal prosecutor to tell them that something went terribly wrong at that facility in March and April, leading to the deaths of 75 residents.

But the report did what it was commissioned to do — analyze the facts concerning what happened at the home and come to a conclusion as to how this tragedy was allowed to play itself out and answer what was, for a time, the most pressing question about all this: ‘who is to blame?’

Indeed, in the wake of the deaths and hospitalizations at the Soldiers’ Home, Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature both used the phrase ‘get to the bottom of this’ (unofficially or unofficially) as the scope of the tragedy grew, as did the thirst for answers. And the report has certainly identified some people to blame.

Starting with state officials for not only giving the job of running the home to a veteran (Bennett Walsh) who had no experience leading a long-term-care facility, but then failing to provide adequate amounts of oversight to Walsh and others charged with the care of veterans. But Walsh is also singled out for triggering a series of decisions that allowed COVID-19 to race through the home, affecting residents and staff members alike.

With language that can only be described as heartbreaking, the report recounts the thoughts of one staff member after management merged two locked dementia units on March 27, a decision investigators described as a catastrophe: “[I] will never get those images out of my mind — what we did, what was done to those veterans … my God, where is the respect and dignity for these men?” Other staff members were quoted as saying, “all in this room will be dead by tomorrow.”

While the report is certainly a valuable document, the veterans who died, their families, and staff members who lived through this horrible tragedy want so much more than a document that chronicles what happened and assigns blame. They want and need for this catastrophe to lead to meaningful and permanent changes that will ensure that no one will ever say, ‘where is the respect and dignity for these men?’ again.

That is our hope as well, and while the governor and legislators sound sincere when they say this is their overriding concern with the regard to the Soldiers’ Home, we know from history that when stories disappear from the front pages of newspapers, the will to implement meaningful change dissipates.

We can’t allow that to happen in this case.

Changes proposed by the governor, including several not in the report, include creation of a consistent policy at Holyoke and its sister facility in Chelsea for the hiring of a superintendent; creating more oversight by hiring an assistant secretary within the state Department of Veterans’ Services who would serve as an executive director for the state’s two soldiers’ homes and report directly to the secretary of Veterans’ Services; expanding the board of trustees at both the Holyoke and Chelsea facilities from seven to nine and requiring that the two additions each have either a clinical or administrative background in healthcare; and, most importantly, perhaps, making immediate and long-term capital improvements to modernize residential units and furnishings to address infection control — renovations are currently underway on one floor, but a more comprehensive plan of modernization and improvements is certainly needed.

History also shows us that, following some of the worst tragedies in history — the Triangle fire in New York City, the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, and even the Titanic’s sinking — reviews that initially focused on laying blame eventually led to serious, and often historic, reforms.

If that can happen with the case of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy, then perhaps those veterans who bravely served their country will not have died in vain.

COVID-19

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker announced a statewide ban today, March 13, on all gatherings of 250 people or more to combat the spread of COVID-19. The ban is effective immediately.

The order includes, but is not limited to, community, civic, public, leisure, faith-based events; sporting events with spectators; concerts; conventions; fundraisers; parades; fairs; festivals; and any similar event or activity that brings together 250 or more persons in a single room or single space at the same time in a venue such as an auditorium, stadium, arena, large conference room, meeting hall, theater, or any other confined indoor or outdoor space.

Baker said the order does not apply to normal operations at airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, libraries, shopping malls and centers, polling locations, grocery or retail stores, or other spaces where 250 or more persons may be in transit.

The order also does not apply to restaurants, “provided that they should, when possible, encourage social distancing,” or typical office environments, government buildings, or factories.

Nor does the order apply to higher education or K-12 schools, as long as assemblies or classes of more than 250 people are avoided.

“That guidance gives schools very specific advice about when to close individual schools and for how long,” Baker said. “Our public-health officials do not recommend school systems shut down systemwide at this time. They recommend careful monitoring of students and temporary closures to allow for schools to clean and reopen.”

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