Metro, Politics, Newton

Newton City Council Reflects on City’s Handling of the Pandemic and Looks Toward Future

The Newton City Council Programs and Services Committee met on Feb. 9 to provide an update about the future of the city’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s time again to shift our focus to try to get back to normal,” Linda Walsh, commissioner of Newton’s Health and Human Services department, said in the meeting. “So understanding a pandemic and when that changes to endemic and when we learn to live with a certain level of virus in our community. What we do know is our best protection is vaccination [and] testing.” 

Walsh reported that 88 percent of Newton residents are fully vaccinated, and 95 percent of residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. She also stated that the city has a 3.6 percent positivity rate as of Feb. 5, down from 13 percent on Jan. 8. 

Michelle Pizzi O’Brien, human resources director for the City of Newton, described how the city worked with unions and city officials to implement a mandatory vaccine policy for government employees, with a compliance deadline of Jan. 14th. 

Ninety-five percent of the workforce is fully vaccinated, with the remaining five percent either in the process of receiving vaccination or having an exemption. Those that aren’t vaccinated undergo weekly testing and are required to wear masks at all times while at work. 

“We allowed our employees an opportunity to meet directly with the representative of HR to discuss in a private setting their medical conditions or their religious beliefs,” O’Brien said. “And that certainly proved to be complex, but a successful process that our employees and our union leadership were really happy with.”

Walsh also reported that the city fired two people for not complying with the policy. Four resigned or retired in response to the policy. 

Liam Hurley, assistant superintendent of Newton Public Schools (NPS), discussed the school district’s efforts to keep staff and students safe during the pandemic. In addition to offering booster clinics for staff and students, NPS also offers a program for staff and students who opt in to receive weekly antigen tests from the state of Massachusetts.

Fifty-nine percent of students and approximately 81 percent of staff have opted in to the antigen testing, according to Hurley. He said he expects the percentage of students opting in to grow. 

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller reported that approximately 80 percent of eligible elementary school students, 85 percent of middle school students, and 93 percent of high school students have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. Fuller also said in the meeting that the Newton Medical Advisory Committee will meet on Feb. 15 to discuss lifting the current school mask mandate. 

Much of the city’s COVID-19 relief efforts have been funded through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Jonathan Yeo, chief operating officer for the City of Newton, explained that the city is holding $40 million of ARPA funds that serve as a contingency plan for any future COVID-19 surges. 

“The mayor has been very careful about spreading out the use of those funds and keeping it flexible over the next several years,” Yeo said. “So certainly, if something happens in this calendar year or the next calendar year, we will still have some ARPA funds available for the highest priority needs of the city at the time.” 

Walsh expressed confidence in the city’s preparation for any future surges or new variants..  

“I think we’ve learned a lot,” Walsh said. “Mostly what we’ve learned is we are stronger together if we have the same goal of safety and having in-person learning and making sure people have the tools that they need to stay safe.”

Featured Image by Keara Hanlon / Heights Senior Staff

February 13, 2022