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Aiming To Address Disparities, Mass. Gov. Baker Agrees To Enhanced COVID-19 Reporting Law

Sixty-six residents of JGS Lifecare in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, have died of COVID-19, according to data released by the state. A large proportion of coronavirus deaths have been at nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
Hoang 'Leon' Nguyen
The Republican / masslive.com/photos
Sixty-six residents of JGS Lifecare in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, have died of COVID-19, according to data released by the state. A large proportion of coronavirus deaths have been at nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Elder care facilities in Massachusetts will have to make daily reports on their COVID-19 cases, and a new task force will be formed to recommend ways to address health disparities during the pandemic under a law Governor Charlie Baker signed Sunday night.

Communities of color and the elderly, particularly those living in long-term care settings, have been hit hard by the respiratory disease, and the law aims to better track and respond to the impact on those populations.

The task force will need to get to work quickly. It has until August 1 to make a report on how to better address the needs of underserved populations, with an interim filing due by June 30.

The group is charged with making recommendations to improve safety for populations facing greater risks from COVID-19, including essential workers, people living in group homes or congregate housing, incarcerated individuals, those with underlying medical conditions, and residents of cities and neighborhoods disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Its recommendations, the law says, shall also touch on removing barriers to equitable health services and treatment, increasing access to medical supplies and COVID-19 testing, and providing informational materials in multiple languages to underserved populations.

"This pandemic has been particularly devastating for Black, brown, and immigrant communities across the state, and this bill is a vital step towards helping us craft an equitable recovery," Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said in a statement after the bill's passage.

The law also spells out COVID-19 reporting requirements for the Department of Public Health, which started with minimal reporting but has updated and expanded its data reporting multiple times since the pandemic began to include more information on the infectious disease. Several newly required elements are already included in the data the department maks available online.

A daily report published Sunday showed 103,436 cumulative confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, 7,316 deaths, 648,616 tests conducted for the virus and 51,146 for antibodies, 1,442 current hospitalizations, and 22,191 cases to date among residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

Race and ethnicity data was unknown or missing for 36% of cases and 2.1% of deaths.

Under the new law, elder care facilities — including nursing homes, the state-run soldiers' homes in Chelsea and Holyoke, elderly housing, and assisted living facilities — must make daily reports to their local department of health, detailing the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths among residents and staff. Such facilities will also need to notify residents and every resident's health care proxy or emergency contact by 5 p.m. the next day if there is a new COVID-19 case or death.

The Department of Public Health is required to include elder care data in its reporting, along with information on COVID-19 in state and county correctional institutions.

Along with information on the number of people tested for COVID-19, positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths, the department's daily reports will now need to include demographic information on COVID-19 cases, according to Senate President Karen Spilka's office — gender, race, ethnicity, municipality, occupation, disability, age and primary language.

The data reporting provisions are set to expire after Baker certifies in writing that the Department of Public Health has not received a report of positive COVID-19 test within the previous 30 days.

The bill (H 4672) landed on Baker's desk on May 28, after bouncing between the Senate and House several times. While cases surged and then receded, the branches traded amendments. Baker took the full 10 days he is permitted to review the bill before acting on it. A spokeswoman said he signed the bill Sunday evening.

Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo issued a joint statement on April 16, pledging that lawmakers would "act to ensure a mechanism for robust data collection and establish a diversity task force to make recommendations around equitable access to care during this public health emergency."

From there, finding common ground on exactly how to do so took several weeks. The House originally had sought to handle issues around health disparities and elders in two separate bills, while the Senate combined the two areas into one piece of legislation.

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