Plans to create day of remembrance for COVID-19 victims are languishing
State and federal proposals for commemorations remain bottled up amid partisan divide.
By Robert Weisman Globe Staff,Updated September 27, 2022, 8:47 p.m.
(FYI: Dignity Alliance MA members, Senator Dick Moore and Paul Lanzikos and Arlene Germain are all quoted below.)
Should we have a day to remember COVID-19′s victims?
More than 1 million Americans have succumbed to the virus, surpassing the combined total who died in the two world wars, Vietnam, and 9/11. The pandemic, which continues to smolder, has taken a heavy toll on the nation’s most vulnerable — its old, its poor, and its Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities.
But over 2½ years after COVID overwhelmed a blindsided population, state and federal proposals to establish a day of remembrance are languishing on Beacon Hill and in Congress. Even the lawmakers behind the proposals were too busy to talk about them with the Globe this week.
“Some people just want to move on,” said Dick Moore, a former state senator from Uxbridge who chairs a working group for Dignity Alliance Massachusetts, which backs the state legislation.
Unlike the nation’s wars and the 9/11 attacks, which united Americans, the pandemic has sparked divisions on everything from masks and vaccination to lockdowns and school closings. Republicans have ridiculed Democrats for enacting drastic COVID safety protocols; Democrats have chastised Republicans for downplaying the deadly disease. President Biden — who lit up the Lincoln Memorial last year at a ceremony for those who died — is being lambasted for recently declaring “the pandemic is over.”
Supporters of an annual Day of Remembrance in the first week of March, the anniversary of the initial US outbreaks in 2020, say it would recognize those who once sat in what Biden has called the “empty chairs around the dinner table.” The backers also say it would encourage reflection on the failures of the government and the health system to adequately prepare for the pandemic and protect citizens, particularly those at highest risk.
“When you have a disease that has torn the fabric of our community, it makes sense to honor those we lost, just as we do for 9/11,” said Michael Curry, president of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, whose patients include many people of color and immigrants. “These were the Black and brown people in the poorest communities, the immigrants, the working people who couldn’t shelter in place.”
Large numbers of victims were also senior care residents, who accounted for more than one in five COVID deaths nationally and an even higher share in Massachusetts. “This shouldn’t be controversial,” said Paul Lanzikos, coordinator of the Dignity Alliance, which supports older adults, people with disabilities, and caretakers. “Especially with the devastation we saw in nursing home settings, we can’t forget these people.”
More than 20,000 state residents have died from COVID during the pandemic, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Public Health. Over a third, 6,894 in the latest tally, lived in nursing homes, rest homes, and assisted living facilities. Nationally, federal data show the toll in long-term-care facilities has been more than 209,000.
Certain communities have been disproportionately hurt. As of last week, Chelsea, a city of about 40,000 people that’s among the state’s poorest, had suffered 219 deaths from COVID. Early in the pandemic, it had one of the nation’s highest infection rates.
“Having some recognition of the lives lost seems like a fine thing,” said Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino. “We’re in recovery mode now, and we’re trying to make some systematic changes so we’re better prepared next time.”
But efforts to designate a day to memorialize the victims remain bottled up in legislative gridlock. Democrats, including every member of the Massachusetts delegation, introduced a bill in February 2021 in the House of Representatives and a resolution was entered in the Senate in August 2021, cosponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey. Neither has moved forward in over a year.
Democratic sponsors of the remembrance day bills have yet to find Republican cosponsors, even though national trade groups for the nursing home and assisted living industries support it.
A bill to create a Massachusetts COVID-19 Remembrance Day was filed in the state House last March, but it adjourned in July without a vote. It’s not clear whether it will come up in informal sessions by year’s end.
Advocates blame the inaction on a combination of political inertia, lack of legislative bandwidth on Beacon Hill, and rampant partisanship in Washington. Lead sponsors of the state bill, Representatives Mindy Domb of Amherst and Natalie Blais of Sunderland, didn’t respond to phone and e-mail inquiries. Warren and Markey also declined interview requests.
Warren’s office released a statement that quoted her as saying:, “A memorial day honoring lost loved ones and those who continue to be affected by this pandemic is powerfully important. I’m going to keep pushing to pass this.”
Supporters say Democrats and Republicans are open to the idea but have been unable to work together to make it happen. When visiting Republican lawmakers in Washington this year, members of the advocacy group Marked by COVID said they were chagrined to learn that many Republicans hadn’t heard of the proposal until the advocates told them about it.
“The polarization of members of Congress is so extreme that they’re not even looking at one another’s bills,” said Kristin Urquiza, the group’s San Francisco-based cofounder and chief activist whose father died from COVID in June 2020.
Family members of those who died from COVID are upset and perplexed by the legislators’ inaction. Their painful memories of nursing home outbreaks, lack of protective equipment, lockdowns, visitation restrictions, and state policy failures — such as an abortive move in Massachusetts to relocate residents to make room for recovering COVID patients — remain all too fresh.
“Those poor people didn’t even get calling hours because of the virus,” said Holden resident Ralph Trotto, who had to wave to his 92-year-old mother Frannie through an open window as she lay dying in a Westborough nursing home in 2020. “They didn’t even get a funeral Mass in a church. So as far as I’m concerned, no tribute is too much or too big.”
Melinda Cox of Providence, whose 73-year-old mother, Janice Cox Pratillo, died in the same Westborough facility, said a day of remembrance could “highlight the scale” of the tragedy. “I feel like it’s disappeared from the conversation,” Cox said.
But she expressed concern that a remembrance day could become another yet divisive issue. “I wouldn’t want to see my mother’s death and all the other deaths hurt by” the increasingly polarized dialogue, she said.
Some of that partisan bickering was on display at a House committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington last week that focused on the pandemic’s impact on nursing homes.
Republican committee members peppered a panel, which included Alice Bonner, senior adviser at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Boston, and David Grabowski, health policy at Harvard Medical School, with off-topic questions: whether they thought Biden had erred in pronouncing the pandemic over, how they viewed the performance of chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci, and if they believed the virus originated in a Chinese lab.
“Obviously the Democrats don’t care about finding out how the virus started,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio.
A day to reflect is especially important because COVID continues to spread in the state and nation, said Arlene Germain, cofounder of the Massachusetts Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. State public health officials reported last Thursday that there were 9,091 confirmed new coronavirus cases and 45 deaths from the virus in Massachusetts in the prior week.
“We need to remember, and to do better going forward,” Germain said.
Read the entire article, Plans to create day of remembrance for COVID-19 victims are languishing, in the Boston Globe.