In Op-eds & columns

Dear friends and neighbors, if ever there was a need for government, this is it.

A government that’s relentless in service.

A government that’s visionary, fearless and scrappy as we barrel through the pandemic and the economic maelstrom it has wrought.

A government that represents those on the front lines with the kind of love, compassion and fierce devotion that they, and those they’re caring for, deserve.

I wrote to you about the raging storm that is COVID-19 four weeks ago. And four weeks before that. My columns focused on how government at all levels has attempted to rise to unparalleled challenges.

We’re not nearly there yet, but we have made some important gains in the last weeks, strongly advocated for by constituents in this region. I want you to see yourselves in these gains. Feel the power of your advocacy. I only have space to share four. On weekly community calls, like one scheduled for Saturday at 9:30 a.m., I’ll share more. To participate, call 605-313-5111 and enter access code 378045.   

Safety net

COVID-19 has caused food insecurity rates to spike. March data from Project Bread showed that 38% of people in Massachusetts are now food insecure.

I was appointed to the governor’s food insecurity task force and the first thing I did was seek input from food security experts in our region. Their sharp ideas informed my advocacy for emergency recommendations focused on dramatically breaking down barriers to food access and strengthening the security of our farmers — two complementary goals.

I was also on the Senate floor last week to push through a bill expanding access to two crucial cash benefit programs, Transitional Aid to Families with Dependant Children (TAFDC) and Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled, and Children (EAEDC), to make sure people who now need financial support from the commonwealth are able to receive it. You can watch my defense of the bill here.

Our safety net programs are experiencing record upticks in applications, telling government that much more must be done. That’s why I’ve fought, alongside advocates like Northampton’s Joel Feldman, to strengthen the crisis-driven moratorium on evictions and foreclosures (which has now been signed into law), as well as for bold legislation to expand unemployment — adding both extra weeks and more money for dependents, and funding for our community health centers and hospitals.

Nursing homes

Nursing homes have been hard hit by the coronavirus. While it’s clear that this sector and its workforce have long demanded and deserved in-depth state focus, critical short-term efforts are underway — with patients, their families and staff in mind — to stabilize individual facilities and prevent further infection spread and loss of life.

The Senate COVID-19 working group, urged on by constituents, advocated mightily for a second phase of state financial support to nursing facilities, which was announced this week. The support includes $130 million in additional funding over the next two months, mandatory testing, workforce pay hikes and training, and public data reporting. You can read more here.

Testing, PPE and data

The number of COVID-19 tests being performed in the commonwealth is now trending in the right direction — upward — and a lower percentage of the people tested are positive, though that number has recently plateaued.

To emerge from this crisis, we’ll need to dramatically expand testing through innovation as well as reducing the waiting time for results. And while widespread testing is still not available, I am very glad that members of the essential workforce are now more readily prioritized.

Regional equity for testing and distribution of personal protective equipment for essential workers remains a top priority for our Senate team, as does work with the Command Center to ensure that the state is doing everything it can to both incentivize the commonwealth manufacture and global sourcing of equipment.

We’ve also pushed hard for widespread collection and release of data — across race, ethnicity, age, ability, gender, setting and more, because transparency in reporting will help state officials see, address and be accountable for glaring inequities in health care provision and services. A relatively new dashboard is public and updated daily.

Unemployment for self-employed

When I wrote a month ago, workers in the critical self-employed workforce were not yet eligible for state benefits or the additional $600 per week which all unemployed workers now receive as part of the CARES Act. I am delighted to say that they are today.

Though the system is certainly not without flaws, and the waiting time for a call back can still be quite significant, 573,000 people are currently receiving benefits with more rolling on every week. Our team is deeply engaged in helping constituents navigate this complex world. Please reach out to jo.comerford@masenate.gov if you need assistance and/or check out our continually-updated constituent guide.

Building back better

I recently remembered that the origins of the word government can be found in the Greek and Latin words that aptly mean “to steer.”

While addressing the wrenching pain and turbulence of this time, we must also — all of us — steer our region and our commonwealth into calmer waters. But not back to the status quo.

Gov. Baker just appointed a task force to guide our state’s emergence from COVID-19. People ask me all the time, “When will we get back to normal?” And I often reply, “I don’t want to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t nearly good enough. I want to move forward toward something better. Toward equity.”

Much better for our public health infrastructure. Much better for small businesses and workers. Much better for students and teachers. Much, much better for those who have lived too long on the margins of the commonwealth and who now — and finally — need justice.

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

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