Senate Passes Bill to Increase Access to COVID-19 Testing, Vaccines, and Masks

by | Jan 28, 2022

Yesterday, the Massachusetts State 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.

“Nearly three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still dealing with this virus and it’s variants, as well as the challenges that it has brought with it,” said Senator Michael Moore (D-Millbury). “By passing this legislation, we will broaden access to our most effective tools in the fight against this virus, such as tests, vaccines and masks. This bill also ensures that those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, and our frontline workers, are prioritized in receiving these resources. Thank you to my colleagues for their work on this piece of important legislation, and I hope that we can get it signed into law soon.”

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 five through eleven-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 health care 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 health care providers, remote notaries, flexibility for local governments and non-profits to hold meetings virtually, outdoor dining and beer, wine and cocktails to-go. Importantly, 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 on Tuesday, September 6, 2022.

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.