Boston Public Health Commission board, long quiet, plans Tuesday meeting on coronavirus restrictions - freetxp

Boston Public Health Commission board, long quiet, plans Tuesday meeting on coronavirus restrictions

The Boston Public Health Commission will meet Tuesday to discuss mask mandates and pandemic-related metrics — not a day too soon, critics say of the board that meets rarely and has had little to do with recent coronavirus decisions by the Wu administration.

Wu’s said for more than a week that the Boston Public Health Commission’s board will meet to determine what to do about the city’s indoor mask mandate, which has been in place since last summer after a brief hiatus.

The virtual Board of Health meeting will happen at 4:30 pm, running for an hour, with 45 minutes devoted to “COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Updates and Discussion.” The mayor has said will focus on metrics related to the mask mandate and other restrictions.

That’s sure to be a highly publicized meeting — a rarity for the Board of Health even in the middle of the global pandemic and recent omicron-variant-driven surge, when power instead has been concentrated in City Hall, rather than created the statutorily board that features well-known medical professionals.

Indeed, the board last met Jan. 12, and the agenda only slotted 15 minutes for “COVID-19 Updates,” even though it was right in the middle of the omicron surge and just a couple of weeks after the mayor had introduced a raft of mandates, including requiring vaccines for city workers and that many public-facing businesses such as restaurants require patrons to provide proof of vaccination.

The board normally meets every two months, though it’s able to call a meeting with 48 hours’ notice. It hasn’t all that much during the pandemic, holding an emergency meeting in March 2020 in addition to a normally scheduled meeting that month, and then convening five times in the rest of that COVID-dominated year and six times in 2021. January meeting is the only one it’s had this year, meaning it’s met 13 times since the start of March 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic forced widespread restrictions and overwhelmed hospitals.

The BPHC declared a public health emergency that month, empowering the city’s top health officials more license to take action. That declaration remains in place — a reality that prompted a testy City Council hearing this past week in which several councilors questioned how long that’s going to be the case.

City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who was one of the city councilors in the hearing who took aim at the dynamic between the Wu administration and the board of health, told the Herald that the city needs “to completely overhaul the board.”

“The board abdicated their responsibility during a public health crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen,” Flaherty said. “I have zero confidence in them — they should have been meeting weekly, if not daily.”

Following questioning in the hearing, BPHC official PJ McCann told councilors that scheduling the board meetings can be “a challenge” given that some of the members, who are largely appointed by the mayor, are health-care executives.

“We certainly take the point that, you know, as we think about future pandemics, what we might do differently or better,” McCann said, acknowledging that some people take issue with the board dynamic.

Wu told the Herald as part of a broader interview about her first 100 days in office, “During the pandemic, Boston has had a state of emergency order on that has empowered the director of the Boston Public Health Commission to move particularly on issues in the surge that was unfolding day by day.” The current director of the BPHC is Dr. Bisola Ojikutu — who Wu’s further elevated to a cabinet-level position, so she’s heading up the BPHC and serving as the city’s health commissioner.

That, Wu said, has given her and Ojikutu the authority to make calls like implementing the mandates, which she did in a December press conference alongside the leaders of other cities, who announced similar intentions. But some of them, as Somerville under then-Mayor Joe Curtatone, saw their mandate plans run into opposition from the local boards of health, which voted them down.

Pressed on why in Boston it was all in the hands of City Hall, Wu said, “It was necessary in the height of a public health emergency. And it’s important that we can move quickly in those emergencies. That won’t be the permanent dynamic for every issue moving forward.”

Wu, in the interview, called the Board of Health a “key partner in many of the most decisions the city has to make.”

“It wouldn’t have been possible to go through the usual notice and comment periods that the Board of Health by law is required to include for every single decision that is made,” she said, defending the dynamic.

State Sen. Lydia Edwards, also a city councilor who attended the Thursday hearing, told the Herald of the upcoming meeting, “The Board of Health needs to meet and show leadership. We need clear standards for a state of emergency. We also need them to set a date and qualification for ending the mask mandate in Boston.”

Boston First Responders United, a group that came together to oppose the mandates and testified in the hearing, said in a statement, “It appears that Mayor Wu’s lack of interactive leadership trickles down. Just as she has failed to communicate with the Board of Health, many City Councilors chose to be absent from Thursdays Council hearing, where Boston First Responders United presented a diverse panel of expert witnesses ranging from medical doctors, lawyers, Jewish faith leaders and other community stakeholders to speak on the handling of Covid-19 in Boston.”

Wu, in the interview, did say she does intend for more power to move back to the Board of Health.

“We are transitioning now into a sustainable, long-term view of living with COVID-19 and how we will continue to need to add and then lift restrictions as necessary according to metrics, and we’re building in how we can do so without leaning on the state of emergency moving forward,” Wu said Friday. “So having the Board of Health in this meeting that will happen next week, it’s going to be a good step.”

Leave a Comment