Top News

COVID Updates In Mass.

Payments Totaling $109 Million Going Out To Shortchanged Cities

After being thrust into the middle of a spat between legislative Democrats and Gov. Charlie Baker, four cities that were hit hard by the pandemic but shortchanged on federal relief funding will get a cumulative $109 million on Friday, the governor's office announced.

Chelsea, Everett, Methuen and Randolph were all due to get disproportionately less American Rescue Plan Act aid than other similar cities due to the way a federal funding formula was applied. Baker in March pledged to deliver at least $100 million in aid to those cities and said Friday the money will come from the pool of almost $5.3 billion in ARPA aid to the state that had arrived in mid-May.

Mass. Will Shut Down Mass Vaccination Sites In Coming Weeks

The state announced Thursday that the mass vaccination sites that were so critical earlier in the pandemic will be shutting down over the next several weeks as the fight against COVID-19 in Massachusetts adopts a more targeted strategy.

With nearly 3.7 million residents fully vaccinated and over 4.3 million people having received at least a first dose, the Baker administration said it’s now focused on ramping up community-based vaccine efforts to reach remaining unvaccinated populations.

All mass vaccination vendors will continue to work closely with state health officials as they wind down operations, administration officials said Thursday.

Gillette Stadium, the Hynes Convention Center, the Reggie Lewis Center, Natick Mall, and the Doubletree in Danvers will finish operations by the end of June.

The Eastfield Mall in Springfield and the former Circuit City in Dartmouth will remain open into July. CIC Health and Curative will continue to support community mobile sites, including on-site employer and school clinics.

The mass vaccination sites have jointly administered over 1.7 million doses and played an instrumental role in getting residents vaccinated.

There are over 900 vaccinations locations still available in every region of Massachusetts. The COVID-19 vaccine is free, and individuals do not need insurance or an ID to get the vaccine.

Rhode Island also plans to close two of its mass vaccination sites. The sites at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence and at the former Benny’s store in Middletown will both close on June 26, the Democratic governor said at a news conference.

Supporters Hope To Make Virtual Public Hearings Permanent

Members of the House Financial Services Committee are seen via videoconference during a House Financial Services Committee oversight hearing. (Getty Images)
Members of the House Financial Services Committee are seen via videoconference during a House Financial Services Committee oversight hearing. (Getty Images)

In pre-pandemic days, attending a public hearing typically meant setting aside a chunk of time — maybe even asking for time off work or scheduling a babysitter — and schlepping down to a city or town hall, or even the Statehouse, and waiting for a chance to speak.

When COVID-19 hit, that changed almost overnight as state and local government bodies — including the Massachusetts Legislature — abruptly began providing remote access.

Many lawmakers, activists and members of the public are hoping to avoid a full return to crowded meeting rooms by making virtual access to public hearings across the state a permanent option.

Lifting Restrictions, Baker Declares COVID-19 'On The Run'

Gov. Charlie Baker made it official early Friday afternoon: the great majority of the state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions that have shaped life in Massachusetts since last March will no longer be in effect starting Saturday.

The governor said the progress of vaccinations here — 78% of adults have gotten at least one dose and more than 3.5 million people have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus — made it possible to repeal government restrictions and allow businesses to start getting back to normal operations.

"Thanks to the people in Massachusetts who've made enormous sacrifices over the course of the past year to get us to this point, brighter days are very much upon us," Baker said Friday in the State House Library. "We've been battling the virus for too long, but today we have an opportunity to put an exclamation point on all the hard work that so many people have done."

Moderna Says Its COVID-19 Shot Works In Kids As Young As 12

Three nearly empty bottles of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine which can not be mixed to provide an addition dose for a vaccination shot. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Three nearly empty bottles of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine which can not be mixed to provide an addition dose for a vaccination shot. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Moderna said Tuesday its COVID-19 vaccine strongly protects kids as young as 12, a step that could put the shot on track to become the second option for that age group in the U.S.

With global vaccine supplies still tight, much of the world is struggling to vaccinate adults in the quest to end the pandemic. But earlier this month, the U.S. and Canada authorized another vaccine — the shot made by Pfizer and BioNTech — to be used starting at age 12.

Moderna aims to be next in line, saying it will submit its teen data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other global regulators early next month.

On A Mission To Heal After Exposing Her Dad To Deadly Virus

Michelle Pepe looks at the last family portrait taken with her father, Bernie Rubin, before he died of the coronavirus in April 2020, in Sharon, Mass., on April 14, 2021. Pepe has felt tremendous guilt and regret after unknowingly contracting and transmitting the coronavirus to her parents. Her mother survived, but her father, Bernie Rubin, died in Florida on April 13, 2020. (Jessie Wardarski/AP)
Michelle Pepe looks at the last family portrait taken with her father, Bernie Rubin, before he died of the coronavirus in April 2020, in Sharon, Mass., on April 14, 2021. Pepe has felt tremendous guilt and regret after unknowingly contracting and transmitting the coronavirus to her parents. Her mother survived, but her father, Bernie Rubin, died in Florida on April 13, 2020. (Jessie Wardarski/AP)

For a year, Michelle Pepe awoke every day, recited the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, and kissed a photo of her father. And coped with her guilt.

“’Dad,” she says, “I’m so sorry that this happened.”

“This” was COVID-19. In March 2020, just as the pandemic bloomed in the United States, Pepe traveled from Boston to Florida for her mother’s 80th birthday. She believes she gave the coronavirus to her father; Bernie Rubin died weeks later.

“At the beginning, people would say, ‘Well, how did he get it?’ From me. That’s how he got it — he got it from me,” Pepe says, sobbing.

“Nobody’s ever said, ‘This is your fault and you gave it to him,’ but I know it’s true. I know I couldn’t save him. It’s just something I’m going to have to go to the grave with.”

Hers is a common sorrow of the times. Around the world, countless people are struggling to shake off the burden of feeling responsible for the death of a loved one due to COVID-19. They regret a trip or feel anguish over everyday decisions that may have spread the disease — commuting to work, hugging parents, even picking up food.

Michelle Pepe tries to smell her late father's wallet while going through his belongings one year after he died of the coronavirus, in Sharon, Mass., on April 14, 2021. After contracting the virus herself, Pepe lost and has not regained her sense of smell. She keeps her father's belongings in hopes that one day it comes back and she can smell him again. (Jessie Wardarski/AP)
Michelle Pepe tries to smell her late father's wallet while going through his belongings one year after he died of the coronavirus, in Sharon, Mass., on April 14, 2021. After contracting the virus herself, Pepe lost and has not regained her sense of smell. She keeps her father's belongings in hopes that one day it comes back and she can smell him again. (Jessie Wardarski/AP)

On the eve of the anniversary of her father’s death, Pepe’s hands tremble as she holds a framed portrait of Bernie and Phyllis Rubin, smiling and surrounded by their 10 grandchildren. Taken on March 8, 2020, it’s one of the last images of the couple with their family.

After the celebration, Pepe stayed in Florida to take care of them during the pandemic. She believes she caught the virus while shopping for groceries for her parents. Then her father and mother sickened. Worried about his worsening condition, she called 911. He died alone at Delray Medical Center; family members were unable to visit him.

“I shouldn’t have given up and called the ambulance,” she says. “That’s what haunts me, and thinking about him, alone in that room ... I know he was terrified.”

There was just a brief, socially distanced graveside burial. Pepe watched on Zoom while she continued to care for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis and was recovering from COVID-19.

Pepe has been battling despair ever since.

“I was in a real funk for a real long time,” she says. “And then one of my daughters said to me, ‘Mommy, we thought that we lost our grandfather, but ... we didn’t realize we also lost our mom.’ I figured I have to snap out of it.”

Pepe joined online support groups where she met other grieving survivors; went to a psychic medium, searching for signs; and sought guidance from a rabbi who taught her how to recite the Kaddish.

On April 13, she awakens to say the prayer and light a yahrzeit candle marking the one-year anniversary of her father’s death. “We just have to get through this day,” she repeats on the drive to the cemetery. She wears her father’s gold chain and high school graduation ring.

At his grave, she places yellow flowers on a tombstone that reads: “Loving husband, father, pup” — his nickname — “and great grandfather.” In the Jewish tradition, family members leave behind small stones.

They remember a man who adored his grandchildren, calling them daily to catch up on the latest Red Sox news or to invite them to games at Fenway Park. In recent years, “he couldn’t walk very fast — unless it was for a baseball game. Then he’d turn into Carl Lewis!” says Bob Pepe, Michelle's husband, who worked with his father-in-law and remained his close friend for 30 years.

The furniture store that Rubin founded with his wife in 1983 grew into the Bernie & Phyl’s Furniture chain, with nine locations across New England.

The couple were featured in TV commercials best-known for their catchy jingle. Strangers would often recognize them at restaurants and recite the catchphrase: “Oh, are you Bernie from Bernie and Phyl’s, quality, comfort and price?”

And Bernie Rubin would chime in, as in the ads: “That’s nice!”

After the cemetery, Pepe visits the company’s headquarters in Norton. She admires the walls adorned with hundreds of autographed photos of baseball players her dad began collecting as a kid. She takes a deep breath and walks into his office, decorated with another, equally prized collection: photos of his family on cruise vacations, at bar mitzvahs, college graduations and weddings.

Michelle Pepe places a bouquet of yellow roses on her father's grave as family and friends watch in Sharon, Mass., on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.  (Jessie Wardarski/AP)
Michelle Pepe places a bouquet of yellow roses on her father's grave as family and friends watch in Sharon, Mass., on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.  (Jessie Wardarski/AP)

She picks up her dad’s work phone, leaning in close to take a whiff as she often does with his wallet, his shirts and his cologne, hoping to sense his presence. But she smells nothing — COVID-19 robbed her of her senses of smell and taste.

At lunch, the family walks to Rubin’s favorite restaurant and orders the “Bernie Reuben,” a sandwich named after him. Every day, Rubin would walk into Kelly’s Place to order a cheese omelet and go through the same comedic routine with a waitress.

“‘Carol, I have to stand here for 20 minutes? There’s 10 empty tables. How do you run a business like this?’” Bob Pepe says, imitating Bernie's voice. “And she’d go: ‘Will you shut up? You know where you’re sitting, go sit down!’”

Sitting next to her husband, Michelle Pepe bursts into laughter. Later, she wipes away tears.

“It was torture,” she says. “But a year later, here I am, and I can laugh at these stories.”

The next day, she awakens to kiss her father’s photo. She looks at the calendar and heaves a sigh of relief. The ritual year of mourning is over.

“My father would be so tortured if he thought about how tortured I was, and I want him to be happy and at peace,” she says. “And he’s only going to be that way if I’m that way here.”

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Life In The Time Of Coronavirus