An Open Letter to the Honorable Governor Charles D. Baker on COVID-19

December 8, 2020

The Honorable Governor Charles C. Baker
The State House

Dear Governor Baker,

We urge you to you pay heed to the warnings and counsel of experts in public health and act now to stop the spread of COVID-19, specifically by preventing gatherings that have been shown to enhance the spread, and by ongoing monitoring and enforcement of mandates.

It is unconscionable that while cases surge and hospitals fill up, you are keeping casinos, restaurants, gyms, and tanning salons open. We ask that you work with Monica Bharel, Commissioner of Public Health, to enforce mandates in all multi-unit residential settings for the elderly and disabled, including but not limited to public and subsidized housing. These settings are petri dishes for infection and we who live in them are highly susceptible to COVID-19. The Department of Public Health should publish daily reports covering site-specific, non-personal, data on COVID-19 infections. The Department already has that data.

I am the Coordinator of the Stop Bullying Coalition working on behalf of 92,000 tenants in 1,400 facilities for elderly and disabled. I was honored when you appointed me as Commissioner to represent the Coalition on the Commission on Bullying. In the extensive research which I helped to lead and carry out during that service, I discovered a lack of oversight and enforcement over the actions of landlords and tenants with respect to bullying and mobbing. This is the same problem which today endangers tenants and staff in housing: the mandates and protocols for the prevention of COVID-19 are not carried out and there is no oversight and no enforcement.

As the chief executive officer of the Commonwealth, I should expect your primary concern in the COVID-19 epidemic would be to provide for the protection and safety of every resident and citizen. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, reminds us that “The longer you wait to act, the more your hand is forced into lock-downs.”

It appears that the two conflicting principles underlying your current policies are to avoid overwhelming hospitals and to keep business flourishing. There is no proper balance with the lives of citizens who are needlessly exposed to illness and death. We should be concentrating on reducing the incidence of COVID-19. Every new case is a source of new infections. It is not sane to allow cases to rise week after week, do nothing, and expect the epidemic to end.

I have watched over the last weeks and months as the spread of infection has led to daily increases in positive tests, confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. The country has reached the status of a daily 911 disaster.

We don’t have to choose between inaction and draconian measures. Why do you wait until the situation is running out of control, when it is so clear and predictable what is happening?

Why do we allow people to endanger others by not wearing a mask and social distancing? They pose a threat to the safety of all around them. The Coalition is striving to educate our peers, but we can’t do it alone, and we can’t enforce mandates. Only the health departments and possibly landlords have the authority to sanction non-compliance; why don’t they?

Experts in public health bemoan the futility of trying to influence policy. I urge you to consider the advice of the many public health professionals who can bring innovative as well as time-tested methods to mitigate the epidemic. For example, why not do a pilot study using imperfect rapid testing to help find and isolate cases, as proposed in the New England Journal of Medicine. Rethinking Covid-19 Test Sensitivity — A Strategy for Containment, Michael J. Mina, M.D., Ph.D., Roy Parker, Ph.D., and Daniel B. Larremore, Ph.D.

I have sent a letter to Monica Bharel, your Commissioner of Public Health. In it we state our petition for two actions that, with your support, Commissioner Bharel would likely be able to implement. I urge you to provide her and the Department of Public Health with every resource needed to mitigate and end this epidemic.

  • First, we ask that the Department of Public Health and local health departments shall actively investigate and enforce the COVID-19 mandates on tenants and landlords of multi-unit housing for elderly and disabled persons, people who are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.

  • Second, we ask for transparency in publishing data on specific sites where there are any COVID-19 infections.

Public health professionals can advise on other strategies, including innovative ideas for using rapid tests to locate cases and isolate carriers. The Stop Bullying Coalition is engaging with tenants to understand and overcome barriers to compliance, and we must have the cooperation of landlords and public health agencies. And the Commonwealth or the landlords must provide sufficient masks and sanitizer as well as free, on-site testing for elderly and disabled persons who do not have the means to do for themselves.

Like the public health experts who are frustrated that their warnings and advice are not heeded, I have been striving to understand and communicate the methods that can best protect tenants in multi-unit housing for elderly and disabled. I warned that even a single case of COVID-19 exposure in these settings can lead to rapid spread.

I was dismayed to learn that my warnings have come to actuality. A friend and colleague in Lowell Public Housing now has COVID-19. She lives in an apartment building where about 20% of the tenants have COVID-19, including one in hospital on a ventilator. What allowed this to happen is a lesson for action: Never Say Never, by Lynn Costello.

Thank you for your consideration. Please do not hesitate to get in touch for any further clarification.

All the best,

Jerry Halberstadt and Michael Siegel

Coordinator, Stop Bullying Coalition

Michael Siegel, MD, MPH
Professor, Department of Community Health Sciences
Boston University School of Public Health

Note added after letter was delivered to Baker:

Baker does too little, too late

Baker's action on December 8, rolling back the phase level, is really a half-hearted effort, both literally and symbolically. Reducing the exposure time in restaurants to 90 minutes is hardly going to contain virus transmission. The virus doesn’t somehow know to infect people only after 90 minutes of exposure.

What the hospitals are facing is literally a humanitarian crisis. You don’t respond to such a crisis with half measures.

We need a full return to phase 1 if we have any interest in alleviating the suffering being caused by COVID-19.

There remains much more for Baker to do and we will continue to press for all of the changes that we have recommended.

Jerry Halberstadt & Michael Siegel