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Two years into the pandemic, the impact of COVID on Mass. is still being assessed

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A doctor at a hospital in Italy during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
Alberto Giuliani
Creative Commons
A doctor at a hospital in Italy during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

As of Monday, officials with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health will be scaling back the number of deaths in the state that are attributed to the disease.

Plenty of decisions made over the last two years were directly related to those rising daily numbers of residents dying of COVID.

Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to talk about whether this course correction two years into the pandemic is concerning to lawmakers.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: It hasn't generated a tremendous amount of concern — at least, that we've heard.

The Department of Public Health will update the criteria used for identifying COVID-19 deaths to align with guidance recommended by national epidemiologists and the CDC, who would prefer to see states counting deaths in a uniform manner.

But when applied in Massachusetts, we're going to see about 4,000 deaths previously counted as COVID-19-related taken off the count. About 400 deaths will be added in.

And we're going to see the total, when the state reports today, drop by about 3,700 people.

So there is certainly some grumbling that this is being deployed to make it look like the pandemic is not as severe as maybe some had thought. But overall, I think this is a move that is being accepted as one that will put Massachusetts in line with what pretty much most other states are doing.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Do we know if the state is being penalized for having fewer deaths than first reported in terms of federal aid or other relief measures?

Not to the best of my knowledge. No federal money or rules were predicated on how many deaths a state had experienced or counted.

Lawmakers have slow-walked setting Remembrance Day, a time to remember victims of COVID. A bill filed six months ago by Natalie Blais of Sunderland and Mindy Domb of Amherst has stalled out. WGBH reports some families who've lost loved ones are frustrated by the delay. Lawmakers are looking at reconciling a soldiers' home reform package, setting a budget, and much more. Is Remembrance Day likely to emerge before the end of the session?

It's really hard to say. It certainly could. Sometimes these are bills that seem very noncontroversial. But because they're noncontroversial, they get lost in the shuffle a bit until the end of the session, when leadership takes stock of what they really want to finalize before they break for the year.

This is also a bill filed late in the session that's been taken out of turn, essentially. It was filed last fall.

The Legislature did rush a hearing late last year, and the committee has extended a deadline to report on this bill, whether recommend or not, until April. So that is a good sign by the committee.

It is still very much under consideration, but certainly the legislative process can be frustrating sometimes, when it seems like this is a rather uncomplicated matter to make a decision on.

On an unrelated note, the rising cost of fuel has forced some residents to scale back their driving. Have Massachusetts lawmakers signaled any interest in taking up any sort of relief measures at the state level that could provide savings to consumers?

It's obvious a suspension of the state's gas tax, of course, would help. Last week, a Republican-led effort in the House to amend a budget bill and suspend the state's 24-cent gas tax was turned down by House leadership. It does not seem any more popular in the Senate.

But over the past week, as inflation and gas prices continue to rise, we have heard leadership talking more and more about the idea of relief, and looking for ways to help people who are seeing more of their household budgets go out the door.

Now the question is what sort of short-term relief things they can do, and what is more long-term. The governor is pushing his $700 million package of tax cuts. The Speaker last week said he was interested in reforming the estate tax — which is not something that would deliver immediate relief to a lot of families — and perhaps coupling that with breaks for renters. There could be other ways to help people, but Speaker Mariano and Senate President Spilka both say they're talking with their members about things that can be done in the short term. We'll have to see if any of those come to fruition.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.