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Your Tewksbury Today

Covid-19 Updates #13: Voting Bill, Food Insecurity, Nursing Facility Audits, and More

Tram Nguyen

Correction note: we wrote that the voting bill would expand early voting for the November general election for a period of 14 weeks (10/17 to 10/30, including two weekends). We meant 14 days instead of 14 weeks and have corrected that below.

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

First, I want to thank you for continuing to do your part to slow the spread of Covid-19. It is thanks to you that last week we saw the end of the surge that began in late April. I am sure that our healthcare community is grateful for your help as we were able to ensure that we didn’t exceed our hospital capacity to care for those who got sick.

As a reminder, Governor Baker plans to update the Commonwealth on his plans for Phase 2 of the reopening sometime tomorrow, June 6th. You can follow the latest updates at https://www.mass.gov/covid19-updates.

Next, I am pleased to report that last night the House approved a major bipartisan bill to expand voting access in Massachusetts. Its goal is to allow more people to exercise their constitutional right to vote without putting their health at risk. This is especially important for our 65 and older population and individuals with underlying health conditions, as they are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 infections. The bill now goes to the Senate for review.

The bill includes early voting by mail by sending an absentee ballot request form with return postage to every registered voter before both the primary and general elections; adding for the first time early voting for the September primary election for a period of 7 days (8/22 to 8/28, including one weekend); expanding early voting for the November general election for a period of 14 days (10/17 to 10/30, including two weekends); establishing an online portal for registered voters to request an absentee ballot from their local town clerk; and protecting traditional in-person voting on Election Day with new safeguards.

Voting by mail is not a new phenomenon. Americans have been voting by mail since before the Civil War. Indeed, the right is enshrined in our Massachusetts State Constitution (Amendments XLV & CV). Previously, casting an absentee ballot in Massachusetts required a voter to affirm one of three qualified reasons. This bill, which was approved by the House on a vote of 155-1, removes that burden and makes the process much easier. We've seen voting by mail working well in local elections, and it will work well in the fall elections.

This legislation also includes several amendments that I co-sponsored, including allowing for poll books, streamlining the process to make it easier for our town clerks to process early and absentee ballots, ensuring that voters with disabilities can request an accommodation from the Secretary of the Commonwealth, accepting ballots by postmark date, and expanding the time window for voter registration. These changes will encourage more residents to vote from the safety of their own home and will improve the ability of local election officials to handle an increase of early ballots. Additionally, federal funding will be available to help cover these costs for the benefit of our towns.

Anytime we are talking about something as core as elections and voting rights there are a lot of viewpoints and considerations to take into account. This bill does a good job of balancing issues of access, integrity and safety, while protecting the foundational right of citizens to vote. I’m proud to support it.
Town Halls

On Saturday, June 6th, Rep. Minicucci and I will be co-hosting a discussion on food insecurity with special guests from three local food banks: Lazarus House, Neighbors In Need, and the Merrimack Valley YMCA. We understand that many families are going through difficulty, some relying on food pantries more than ever before and others turning to food pantries for the first time, and we need to work as a community to ensure food security for all of our residents.

For those who would like to donate to these organizations doing great work in our community, please use the donation links below:

https://lazarushouse.org/donate/
http://www.needfood.org/help/donate-money
https://www.mvymca.org/pantry/

As a reminder, we are live streaming the town halls on my Facebook Page. You don’t need a Facebook account to watch the Facebook Live stream or to replay the recording afterwards. You simply need to visit my page at facebook.com/TeamTram.MA and a link to my scheduled live streams should appear near the top of the page. Additionally, if you are not able to watch it live, a recording will be available on my page afterwards.

Additionally, please save the dates for other upcoming Town Halls. On Saturday, 6/13, we will discuss Environmental Protection and Climate Change with environmental activist, Jim Mulloy. On Saturday, 6/20, we will discuss Healthy Relationships with Family Law Attorney Laura Gal from Northeast Legal Aid. Both town halls will take place at 10:00 am.

I hope you can join us tomorrow!
Resources
  • Many families are struggling right now. Know that you are not alone. Please reach out to the 2-1-1 resource hotline to get connected with resources that you may need.
  • If you feel overwhelmed with emotions like sadness or anxiety, or feel like harming yourself or others, Call2Talk is a resource available through the 2-1-1 resource hotline.
  • Massachusetts Network of Care, a searchable behavioral health directory of mental health services and over 5,000 organizations, is available here.
  • Resources for people in need can be found at https://findhelp.org/ and on this map developed by MEMA, MA VOAD, and other partners.
  • Resources for people with disabilities can be found through the Disability Resource Center on their Facebook and this spreadsheet.
  • For Covid housing and emergency needs you can reach out to Community Teamwork, Inc. (CTI) between 8:30 am and 4:00 pm at their general hotline 978-654-5607 or by emailing them at CovidResponseCTI@commteam.orgClick here to check CTI’s website for updates.
  • State Attorney General Healey’s Office (AGO) also has resources here. Note that some individuals and businesses may try to take advantage of uncertainty during the pandemic. You can find more information about protecting yourself from scams and fraud, additional resources, and AGO division hotline numbers.
  • UI Fraud Alert: Criminal enterprises using stolen personal information from earlier national data breaches have been attempting to file fraudulent unemployment claims through the DUA system. This is part of a national unemployment fraud scheme. We have heard from several constituents about potential fraud relating to unemployment benefits. If you have received notification that you've been approved for benefits that you never applied for, please report it right away. Click here for more information and to report DUA fraud online.
  • The COVID-19 Command Center and MEMA have stood up regional isolation and recovery sites located in hotels across the Commonwealth. Providers or individuals from Boston can access isolation sites at Boston Hope or Newton Pavilion by calling (617) 534-5050. Individuals who do not live in Boston can access Isolation & Recovery Sites in Lexington, Everett, Taunton, Northampton, and Pittsfield by calling (617) 367-5150 between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. More information, including clinical and financial eligibility, can be found here.
Latest updates on the State of Emergency
  • Click here for Frequently Asked Questions about Covid-19.
  • Click here for the latest guidance on prevention and treatment.
  • On Thursday, June 4th, we tested 7,115 individuals and had 471 new positive cases (about 7%). In total, 621,248 patients have been tested. There are 102,063 total reported cases of Covid-19 and 7,201 deaths in the Commonwealth. The latest updates can be found here.
  • Hospital capacity: As of June 4th, there are about 17,400 beds statewide and about 54% are currently empty and available. There are 1,637 patients hospitalized statewide for Covid-19.
  • As of May 26th, the surge that we experienced in the Commonwealth is behind us, and as a result, many of the field hospitals that we set up have begun to close. The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center has closed after the final patients inside recovered and returned home. Beds will remain there during the Summer should they be needed later.
  • Contact Tracing: as the Contact Tracing Collaborative continues its work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, it is critical that Massachusetts residents answer the phone when a contact tracer calls or texts. Contact tracers will only reach out from phone numbers with 833 or 857 area codes, and the caller ID will say MA COVID TeamClick here to learn more.
  • On May 30th, Massachusetts sent the federal government our plan to ramp up testing, and we received $374 million in federal funding to do so. Our goal is to expand testing for symptomatic individuals and their close contacts and upgrade our epidemiological infrastructure. We have been able to test about 4.4% of our population each month, and we want to expand that. By the end of June we want to do 45,000 tests per day and 75,000 by the end of December. DPH is expanding state lab testing capacity. Currently, it can perform 1,000 tests per day. It is installing two new pieces of equipment to increase diagnostic tests by 1,300 molecular tests per day and 1,600 serology (antibody) tests per day.
  • DPH will create a strategic testing expansion program (STEP) to identify sites in communities that need additional access to testing. The goal is to open 20 sites in testing deserts by the end of July.
  • Nursing facility audits and testing: DPH began auditing nursing homes on May 4th using a 28 point infection control checklist. On May 29th, they completed the second of four rounds of audits. Audit results directly impact funding a facility will receive. In the first round, 228 nursing facilities passed the audit of the total 360 facilities we have in the Commonwealth. In the second round, which included those that did not pass the first round as well as randomly tested facilities, 180 passed of the 230 that were audited. Those that did not pass will be audited again in the next two weeks. We also required nursing homes to test at least 90% of all residents and staff by May 25th as a condition of receiving additional funding. 353 of the 360 facilities met this requirement. More information about nursing home audits and testing can be found here.
  • Visitation: beginning on June 3rd, family visitation restrictions at nursing homes, rest homes, and assisted living facilities were eased to allow for scheduled outdoor visits. Visits are limited to no more than 2 individuals. Guidance has been issued and applies to all nursing homes, rest homes, and assisted living facilities except Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers Home. Additional guidance to come for congregate care facilities.
  • On June 1st, the Governor signed an order clarifying which businesses and sectors fall into Phase 2 (Cautious) and allowing them to begin preparations for reopening to the public. Phase 2 will include childcare providers, retailers, sports programs for youth and adults, and restaurants. There are restrictions on what services can be offered. More details can be found here.
  • Youth Summer Camps: recreational day camps will be allowed in Phase 2 and overnight camps will have to wait until Phase 3. More details about childcare, youth camps, and summer recreational programs can be found here.
  • On Saturday, June 6th, Governor Baker plans to announce the results of public health data as they inform when and how Massachusetts moves forward with Phase 2 of the Reopening Plan. More information about the Reopening Plan can be found here. People should use this contact form to submit questions and comments. It also outlines the process for reporting non-compliant businesses.
  • On May 18th, the Governor issued a “safer at home” advisory, urging that people should stay at home unless heading to an essential service or a newly reopened facility or activity. Residents aged 65 or older and those with underlying health conditions should stay home except for necessary trips.
  • Face coverings are required in public when physical distancing is not possible. Full details of the order can be found here.
Legislative Updates
The American Red Cross Needs Our Help!
  • Blood drives are being cancelled at an alarming rate. Low donor turnout could hurt U.S. blood supply. The Red Cross understands people may be hesitant to give blood due to coronavirus, but wants to reassure everyone on the precautions their teams are taking to keep you safe. The Red Cross urges healthy individuals to give blood. Learn more and schedule an appointment at rcblood.org/2IAWGba.
Healthcare
  • Health Connector has a special enrollment period for healthcare coverage through June 23rd for those who are uninsured.
  • Buoy Health offers a free 24/7 online tool for Massachusetts residents to give personalized guidance on what to do if residents experience symptoms of Covid-19. Visit Buoy Health Covid-19 Web App to use the tool.
  • Massachusetts launched a Covid-19 test site locator map for people who qualify for testing, which was expanded to include people with mild symptoms and those who are close contacts of a positive case.
  • There is a dedicated phone line operating 7 days a week for any family concerns about loved ones in nursing homes and rest homes: 617-660-5399.
  • People in need of Personal Care Attendant (PCA) services, which support individuals with disabilities and older adults with activities of daily living (ADL), such as dressing, grooming, bathing, and ambulating, can call 1-844-422-6277 to be connected to home health services in your region.
  • MassHealth and the Health Connector will protect coverage for all individuals who have Medicaid coverage as of March 18th and for all individuals approved for coverage during the national emergency.
  • DPH warned of virus-linked syndrome in children. You can read more about this here.
Employment
  • Minors under the age of 18 who have been employed part-time but are not eligible for regular UI should be eligible under the CARES Act for PUA benefits. According to Secretary Acosta, those who are under the age of 18 can file for unemployment insurance under the PUA program, but they must do so over the phone at (877) 626-6800. There is no timeline for creating the ability for minors to file for UI online at this point.
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC): the CARES Act expands unemployment benefits for individuals who may have already exhausted regular unemployment compensation for an additional 13 weeks – this benefit is now available. PEUC will begin automatically for individuals who have been receiving regular standard benefits on an active claim. If an individual's standard unemployment claim has expired, they must file a new standard claim. Individuals who exhausted regular benefits but were receiving benefits through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) established under the CARES Act must apply through the standard unemployment benefits portal here. Individuals will automatically receive the additional $600 weekly through the week ending July 25, 2020. Get more information at www.mass.gov/peuc.
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). The PUA application form for self employed, gig workers, and those who have exhausted their state benefits launched on April 21st. Click here for more information about the CARES Act implementation.
  • Click here for the latest updates and resources to apply for UI Benefits. The application is now available in m English, Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Chinese, and Vietnamese.
  • People experiencing unemployment may also need help with finding health care coverage. Health Connector has a Special Enrollment Period that has been extended until June 23rd. For more information please visit the Health Connector COVID-19 website. Additional health insurance resources for people who have recently lost their employment can be found here (English) and here (Spanish).
  • U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has issued guidance on emergency paid leave pursuant to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), signed into law on March 18th. This includes guidance for employer requirementsemployee rights, and potential frequently asked questions.
  • Here is a Guide for Workers on returning to work, as it relates to unemployment insurance (UI).
Employers
Students, Borrowers, and Parents
  • The Massachusetts Division of Banks (DOB) has joined a multi-state initiative to secure payment relief options for Massachusetts student loan borrowers and issued a Consumer Advisory with important information and resources for private student loan borrowers. Through this initiative, DOB has secured relief options with 15 private student loan servicers to expand on the protections the federal government granted to federal student loan borrowers. These new options stand to benefit over 182,000 Massachusetts borrowers with privately held student loans. This response builds on the federal CARES Act, which provided much needed relief for students with federal loans, including the suspension of monthly payments, interest and involuntary collection activity until September 30, 2020. Check the advisory linked above for more information.
  • In addition, the MA Department of Higher Education (DHE) is deferring scheduled repayments for its No-Interest Loan Program for a duration of four months to support relief efforts during the Covid-19 public health emergency. These deferments will help approximately 12,000 students. All no-interest loan accounts currently in repayment will automatically be placed in a deferment from April 2020 through July 2020. More information can be found here.
  • Student Aid Relief: an administrative forbearance and zero interest loan relief was implemented for certain federal loans from March 13th through September 30, 2020. Click here for more information.
Resources for Survivors of Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault
  • For the latest information, please check mass.gov/covid19.
  • Domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, know that you are not forgotten and we are here to provide resources to support and keep you safe. Physical spaces are temporarily closed, but there are resources available remotely. Also, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners are still available at hospitals to collect forensics.
  • Trial courts can be reached during regular hours at 1-833-91COURT. Judges are available 24/7 to issue 209A restraining orders and 258E harassment orders. These forms have been repackaged as one document to streamline and expedite the process and can be found online. However, please note that you must still contact the trial courts to start the process.
  • The Safelink Hotline is a centralized number to call to talk to someone and receive services for sexual and domestic violence. Calls are confidential and available in many different languages to support survivors and their family. The hotline is available by calling 211 or toll free 1-877-785-2020. For people who are hearing impaired, call TTY 1-877-521-2601.
  • If you are not comfortable calling, you can instant message with a trained advocate at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, www.thehotline.orgwww.loveisrespect.org, or www.rainn.org.
  • If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.
Preventing Child Abuse
  • Child abuse affects every community, whether you are aware of it or not. As adults, there are many things we can do to prevent child abuse, like actively acknowledging the signs of child abuse and knowing when and where to report instances of abuse or neglect. Check out the MA Children’s Alliance Resource Page to learn more.
Advisory Affecting Drivers
  • For the most up-to-date information, visit https://www.mass.gov/info-details/rmv-covid-19-information.
  • Online Learners’ Permit Tests: Class D and M learner’s permit exams are not currently available in Service Centers. The RMV is working on a solution to offer online exams beginning in mid-June. A training update will be distributed when this option is ready to implement.
  • AAA Northeast reopened select branch offices in Massachusetts, while following strict distancing procedures and CDC guidelines for the protection and benefit of employees and AAA members. Members should visit aaa.com/branches and enter their zip code to find the nearest open office.  Everyone will be required to wear a face covering to enter and conduct business at AAA branch offices and will be asked to physically distance. RMV services will be available by appointment only to members who complete an online reservation ahead of time.
  • The RMV is cautioning customers to use only mass.gov/rmv when they are trying to renew a license or registration or process any business transactions online.  Customers may inadvertently come across unofficial third-party websites or “mimic sites” that advertise similar services but have no affiliation with the RMV.
Census 2020
  • The census impacts more than $16 billion in federal funds that Massachusetts receives, from hospitals, to schools, roads, transportation, unemployment benefits, financial aid, healthcare, and more, all receive the federal funding based on Census data. These are tough times for all of us. Help our community receive the federal funding it needs for the next 10 years by taking 10 minutes to complete your 2020 Census. If we go undercounted, we risk missing out on funds. We can’t let that happen. Please fill out your census today - online, by phone, or by mail! Fill out your Census, and tell your family and friends to do so too!
Law-related Resources
  • Volunteer Lawyers Projects Eastern Region Legal Intake (ERLI) is available to callers seeking legal assistance, advice, and referral. If you’re looking for help with a legal matter check out the Get Help page, contact the ERLI helpline at 617-603-1700, or apply online for legal assistance here. ERLI is open on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9AM - 12PM; and Tuesday and Thursday at 12:30PM - 3:30PM. If you call and reach a voicemail, be sure to leave your name and number and they will contact you.
  • Northeast Legal Aid (NLA) has information and resources here.
  • For some law-related updates and help regarding Covid-19, you can visit https://www.masslegalhelp.org/health-mental-health/covid-19.
  • Massachusetts Covid-19 bills, summarized in plain English by the MassTrac Legal Division, are now available to the public for free here.
  • The Trial Court helpline is available. Assistance includes general information about cases & navigation of the court system, while it is closed to the public for all but emergency matters. It's staffed from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Please call 1-833-91COURT.
What You Can Do to Help
  • To donate goods for use in Massachusetts' response to the Covid-19 public health emergency click here.
  • To provide information about goods you are looking to sell to support Massachusetts' Covid-19 response efforts click here.
  • To adapt your business to produce Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) click here.
  • To volunteer to assist in public health, health care, and emergency response click here.
Practicing Self-care
  • Do activities to reduce stress & cope with fear of Covid-19, like physical and mindfulness exercises, planting a garden, cooking, connecting with your friends and family on the phone or video chat, reading a book, and getting plenty of sleep.
  • Here are some resources for maintaining emotional health & well-being.
  • Essex Heritage’s Heritage at Home Initiative: Essex Heritage is rolling out a new initiative, "Heritage At Home", which provides the community with an online database of internet resources as well as natural sites around the county people can visit (when appropriate). You can check it out at www.heritageathome.org.
  • One way to stay connected virtually to our local communities is to watch locally-filmed movies and television series. Here is a list of 50 films and episodic series shot in Massachusetts, in just the last 5 years, that are available now to stream on popular video on demand services.
Finally, a reminder:
Massachusetts declared a state of emergency over the ongoing COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. It is highly contagious and has the potential to completely overwhelm our healthcare system, which is why it’s vitally important that we take proactive steps to prevent community spread and contain the number of cases. The most common way for COVID-19 to spread is by people who are asymptomatic. For this reason, it is important to practice physical distancing: stay home as much as possible. When you are out, wear a face covering, keep 6 feet distance from others (no hugging or handshakes), and wash your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with soap and water.
For the most up-to-date information, please dial the Massachusetts information hotline 2-1-1 or visit mass.gov/COVID19. You can also receive notifications on your phone by texting the keyword COVIDMA to 888-777. Spanish updates are available by texting the keyword COVIDMAESP to 888-777.
Our community is strong and we will get through this if we all do our part and work together for our collective health and well-being.
My team is working remotely. Please do not hesitate to reach out for assistance. We remain available for constituent services and to answer your questions/concerns. Please email Tram.Nguyen@mahouse.gov or call my office at 617-722-2060 ext. 5, and we will respond as soon as we're able.
Sincerely,
Tram T. Nguyen, Esq.
State Representative, 18th Essex District
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