A group of disability advocates and doctors are calling for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and other health care institutions to maintain masking requirements in all health care settings.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity's action call was prompted by Gov. Maura Healey's decision to end the state’s public health emergency on May 11 — signaling the end of full-time masking in healthcare settings. The group is also asking that all Massachusetts health care institutions provide free N95 masks. The coalition has collected more than 700 signatures in an open letter urging the Department of Public Health, local boards of health, and Massachusetts health care institutions to maintain masking requirments.
The organization also launched a petitionurging the state to ensure free PCR COVID tests for all residents.
Dr. Lara Jirmanus, a primary care physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School, said at a virtual event Wednesday that removing masks in health care puts people at risk in the very place that they are accessing vital health care services.
“It also exposes people to COVID without their informed consent, especially babies and children who can't mask,” she said. “People can bring these infections home to their loved ones and hurt them. And I will say personally, as a parent of a 16-month-old baby, this is part of my calculation.”
The Department of Public Health said they spoke with hospitals and infection control experts ahead of the decision to lift the masking order, and that no one they spoke with shared major concerns about lifting the mandate. In fact, some of those stakeholders requested the mandate be lifted earlier than planned.
“This decision is aligned with CDC guidance and federal requirements based on transmission rates, and was made following extensive conversations with health care experts,” a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said in a statement to GBH News. “The Department of Public Health will continue to carefully track COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts and adjust as circumstances change.”
Jennifer Ritz-Sullivan is the COVID justice leader for Marked by COVID Massachusetts, a nonprofit that advocates for people who the pandemic has deeply impacted. Her mother was 66 years old and disabled, and died in the intensive care unit from COVID-19. She feels her mother’s death, and the deaths of others, could have been prevented by the wearing of masks.
“Millions who have died from COVID have been treated as disposable,” Ritz-Sullivan said. “And I feel the need to remind you nobody is disposable. Tens of millions throughout the country and hundreds of thousands right here in Massachusetts are grieving these losses as our community continues to grow unnecessarily daily.”
Ritz-Sullivan said she is constantly worried about the risk of getting COVID herself, since she is disabled, along with her husband, who is an essential worker.
“I should not be forced to subject myself to further disability or death to meet my basic needs and receive the medical care that I need to survive,” she said. “The pandemic is not over. These losses were and continue to be the result of policy choices and will only worsen if our government continues to ignore this pandemic.”
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, author of “The Future is Disabled,” said the lack of COVID precautions in hospitals can prevent disabled people from feeling like they can safely get the care they need.
“We are valuable and we deserve to be able to be in public, go and access health care without wondering if we're going to die or get sick or get even more disabled than we already are,” they said.