In Op-eds & columns

Dear friends, what we’re experiencing is unprecedented. Brutal.

That’s why I’m breaking the norm of this column, as we face down COVID-19 together. I’ll address some of the most frequently asked questions our Senate team is fielding with the understanding that the following is not an exhaustive list. Please email jo.comerford@masenate.gov to share your questions or feedback.

How is the state preparing for the projected surge in the number of COVID-19 cases?

The projections are sobering as state government, municipalities, hospitals and the wider health care community work around the clock to build capacity and amass the necessary resources.

In the past weeks the state has taken measures to bolster the health care delivery system, including sending hundreds of millions of dollars to hospitals, community health centers and public health teams. It isn’t enough, so we’ll keep pressing for more.

The state has relaxed regulations, making it easier for health care professionals to get licensed in the commonwealth, including a wide range of those who are retired or are licensed in other states. The state has also set up an online volunteer portal for licensed or certified health care providers, public health professionals, retirees, respiratory therapists and those with an interest in helping the community. Visit MAResponds.org.

As the state works to procure more ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), we are no longer just relying on the federal government. The Baker administration and legislators are working with state agency heads to ramp up manufacturing in Massachusetts.

Yet we need beds as much as we need personnel and equipment, so the state is also working quickly, in partnership with some hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, to expand the number of beds we have available. Hospitals are also racing against the clock, with speed and urgency, to make various other necessary arrangements.

Check out this tracker (updated daily) to see a full list of regulatory and legislative changes: senatorjocomerford.org/covid-19-state-federal-updates/

Why aren’t we testing more people?

Massachusetts has increased testing capacity significantly, albeit more slowly than many people, including me, would have liked. Testing is a public health imperative as it helps the state drive resources to the right places. Yet tests are still quite limited. I talk in depth about the arc of testing in the commonwealth during weekly constituent calls. There are two this Saturday. More information is available here: senatorjocomerford.org/covid-19-community-conference-calls/.

Securing an equitable distribution of PPE for western Massachusetts has been a top priority of mine, and the Senate’s. What’s true is that our state’s efforts to secure the necessary supply have been hampered by the Trump administration. That has meant every entity delivering health care services has suffered dangerous shortages.

If you’re providing services and need PPE, email jo.comerford@masenate.gov, and our team will make sure you have the right protocols to request it. The state is currently prioritizing hospitals and first responders with a limited supply, but you can get on the list, and we can make sure you know the right place to report your requests

If you want to donate or sell PPE, visit mass.gov/covid-19-ppe-procurement-and-donation-program. Kudos to Massachusetts manufacturers and the University of Massachusetts, which have begun retooling their production sites and labs to make masks, face shields and gowns.

I need health insurance. Where can I sign up?

You can enroll in MassHealth at any time. The Health Connector (our state’s virtual marketplace for reduced-cost coverage) has also extended its enrollment period until May 25. And there’s a free help line that can sort through all of your options, including options for those who are uninsured. Visit senatorjocomerford.org/constituent-guide-to-covid-19/ for more information. And remember: Massachusetts insurers are prohibited from charging co-pays, deductibles or fees for testing or treatment of COVID-19.

I’ve lost my job. I’m self-employed. How can I get help? I run a small business and need help paying my bills. Is there any support?

This public health crisis is also a seismic economic gut punch.

With the recent passage of the federal CARES Act, more Massachusetts residents (including the self-employed) will soon be able to access financial relief and unemployment benefits. We’ll also see more resources made available for small business support.

I’m proud to say that our state Senate, through the working group process I’m chairing, is bringing legislation forward to expand these unemployment benefits by covering all child dependents (removing the cap), extending the number of weeks of eligibility and easing the cost of unemployment contribution rates for employers.

My team set up a webpage to connect workers and businesses with the resources they need. It’s here: senatorjocomerford.org/constituent-guide-to-covid-19/. We are also available to help any time at jo.comerford@masenate.gov.

What about social safety net provisions? What is the state doing?

This crisis has exposed and exacerbated gross inequities in our commonwealth. I’m heading up the safety net subgroup of our Senate working group, and we are working to broadly expand access to basic needs like shelter, food, health care and financial support for those who need help the most. I don’t have space here to detail all our efforts, but I welcome your strong advocacy around issues that are important to you.

What are the most important actions I can take?

Here are three ideas (of many):

1. Stay well and help those you love stay well by practicing social distancing.

2. Send love and appreciation to those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response — our health care workers, first responders, municipal officials, nursing home staff, educators, service providers of all kinds, employees in businesses deemed essential through executive order.

3. Support (in any way you can) local businesses and our farmers, hard-hit by the closures.

Seeing this through

I like to look forward, even in the midst of a crisis, so I can help set a course in the most positive direction possible.

But for now, I’m in the trenches. Know that our team rises to the challenges of this crisis every single day, to fight for our district and its people.

State Sen. Jo Comerford represents 160,000 people living in 24 cities and towns in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district in the Massachusetts Legislature.

Read this article at the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Have a question for Jo? Submit yours to the Dear Jo column!

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