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Massachusetts lawmakers call on Charlie Baker to testify as omicron sends coronavirus cases, hospitalizations surging

Boston Herald logo Boston Herald 1/6/2022 Erin Tiernan
BOSTON, MA. - December 13: Gov. Charlie Baker speaks to members of the media during a COVID-19 briefing at the Massachusetts State House on December 13, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Amanda Sabga/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald) © Provided by Boston Herald BOSTON, MA. - December 13: Gov. Charlie Baker speaks to members of the media during a COVID-19 briefing at the Massachusetts State House on December 13, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Amanda Sabga/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

State lawmakers frustrated over a lack of state-level response to the rapid spread of the omicron variant — and its strain on hospitals and schools — want to hear from Gov. Charlie Baker at an oversight hearing next week.

“Something dramatic has changed. Omicron is superspreading everywhere,” Rep. William Driscoll, D-Milton, said, explaining why lawmakers want to hear from the governor. “Omicron has rewritten the norms and essentially our understanding of how COVID behaves and we’re at a point where we really need more energy around this because the stakes are high again.”

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Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness Co-chairs Driscoll and Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, sent Baker an invitation on Wednesday asking the governor to testify to COVID-19 testing efforts, distribution of personal protective equipment and testing supplies, efforts related to vaccine status verification, and “preparation for possible prolonged or future disruption due to Omicron or other COVID-19 variants.”

The COVID-19 oversight committee is planning its second omicron-focused hearing. Senior Baker administration public health officials skipped the first hearing last month.

Comerford and Driscoll said in their letter Wednesday that they will work with Baker’s office “to find the earliest possible, mutually-agreeable date and time” for the hearing.

A spokesman from Baker’s office said the administration is reviewing the committee’s request.

The invitation comes after House Speaker Ron Mariano and Sen. Adam Hinds this week questioned how the Baker administration has used $200 million in resources intended to deal with another coronavirus surge and whether additional money might be necessary.

The average number of new daily cases has climbed more than twofold since the beginning of December, with more than 27,612 new cases reported on Wednesday alone. A surge in hospitalizations — up more than 133% on average — prompted health officials to issue a “crisis message” in which they said emergency departments “are at critical capacity and things will get worse.”

Driscoll said the Baker administration has so far ignored lawmakers’ calls to institute an indoor mask mandate and other “pretty basic layers” of mitigation designed to prevent surges and help communities exit surges.

Comerford called the omicron variant a “very significant force” and accused the Republican governor of “abdicating” his responsibility to municipalities and school districts looking for uniform policies in an effort to stop the spread.

“I believe the state can and should do much more. I believe that the administration must speak to the people of the commonwealth and say, “We are seeing unprecedented numbers and here’s our plan.”

Comerford credited Baker for activating the National Guard to assist hospitals strapped for resources, distributing tests to hard-hit communities and organizing a bulk purchasing price for at-home tests for Massachusetts municipalities, but criticized other aspects of the omicron response she characterized as “failures.”

Topping her list of failures was the state response in public schools. Testing kits provided to teachers returning from holiday break were delayed and many schools were left to make their own decisions whether to cancel or delay class start times this week. Consistent, widespread testing capabilities are still not available for teachers and students, Comerford said.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association has also been vocal in its criticism of the botched testing effort. On Wednesday MTA President Merrie Najimy called out the “inadequate and incompetent actions in recent days by Governor Charlie Baker and state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley” who she said “have played a role in worsening a public health crisis in our school communities, threatening the well-being of students, educators and families throughout the Commonwealth.”

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