BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate passed a $76 million plan to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 and its variants by providing residents with greater access to tests, vaccines, and masks, prioritizing communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as frontline workers. The plan also provides increased flexibility for unemployment-insurance recipients to address overpayments of pandemic unemployment benefits and funds an expanded multi-lingual campaign to notify unemployment claimants of their legal rights. Much of the funding of the bill is expected to be eligible for reimbursement by the federal government.
“Today’s investments reflect the Senate’s commitment to center equity in the state’s ongoing pandemic response,” Senate President Karen Spilka said. “In addition to maintaining public health, key aspects of this bill, like the distribution of masks, will ensure that our COVID mitigation strategy is fair. Teachers, hospital staff, other frontline professionals, artists, and cultural institutions should not be expected to pay out of their own pockets for masks. Such basic protections are essential to doing one’s job, and providing them will give a small but vital relief.”
The legislation includes a $50 million investment to further increase the availability and encourage usage of both testing and vaccination throughout the state. This allocation includes $7 million to assist community organizations promoting vaccine awareness and education in disproportionately impacted communities and $5 million to expand the capacity of community health centers to test and vaccinate, including funding to hire additional staff.
Notably, $5 million is specifically allocated for increasing vaccination rates among 5- 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 also establishes a grant program, in consultation with the Massachusetts Cultural Council, for cultural institutions to help promote vaccine awareness and education.
The bill also allocates $25 million for the state to purchase and distribute high-quality masks in Massachusetts, with priority given to education and healthcare workers.
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 multi-lingual, 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 requires that the department produce a comprehensive report detailing the status of overpayments.
The bill also 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 healthcare providers, remote notaries, flexibility for local governments and nonprofits to hold meetings virtually, outdoor dining, and beer, wine, and cocktails to go. The bill also 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. Finally, the bill sets the date for this year’s state primary election for Tuesday, Sept. 6.
With a version of this legislation having previously passed the House of Representatives, both the House and Senate will now work to reconcile the bill.
“Our families and frontline workers have done everything asked of them to stay safe and make best use of limited resources during the pandemic,” state Sen. Eric Lesser said. “This $76 million in state funds will provide the tools and additional support to expand our testing and vaccination infrastructure, address staffing shortages, improve vaccination-education efforts, and provide high-quality masks with priority to education and healthcare professionals.”