Marty Martinez: Boston’s pandemic point man
Massachusetts has the third highest number of COVID-19 cases in the United States and Boston is at the epicenter of the state’s pandemic. As chief of Health and Human Services, Marty Martinez is the point man for the Boston’s response to COVID-19. The Banner caught up with Martinez last week to discuss his perspective on the pandemic. The following interview has been edited for brevity.
What has the city done particularly well during the COVID pandemic?
I think that what the city’s done well is be able to respond quickly and with urgency to the pandemic in a way that has allowed us to be coordinated, efficient and responsive to what we’ve seen on the ground. The city has let facts and science lead us with what we’re trying to accomplish, and I think that’s a really important thing to do when there’s media and a national leader that’s saying all kinds of things that aren’t based on facts or reality.
Massachusetts is one of the states with the highest rate of infection in the U.S. What might be some of the contributing factors to that?
It’s a great question and I’m not sure it’s something we can know. There’s all kinds of speculation. There’s speculation that the initial growth of the virus was tied to travel. There’s some question about travel from Europe and the amount of folks who go back and forth. But it’s all speculation. No one really knows. Our population isn’t that much older than that in other states. No one really has hard facts.
What some of the major challenges the city has run into in fighting this pandemic?
I think one of the challenges the city has, and it’s true for every city, is the way that we see the disproportionate impact that COVID is having in communities of color and in our more densely-populated urban neighborhoods. That’s true across the country and we’re seeing it in our data — we see that in who’s getting access to testing. We’re working every day to address it. It also speaks to the fact that when you see the co-morbidities — those with the underlying health conditions at risk for the most severe impacts of coronavirus — that’s also concerning.
I think that like most cities, we’re seeing a disproportionate impact on the African American community — I think it’s 40 percent of cases. It’s disproportionate. I think the same is likely true, but harder to quantify, for our immigrant and foreign-born neighbors also being disproportionately impacted, given essential jobs, who’s still working and access to care. I think that every city can do a better job of focusing on these disparities. And as a public health guy, this is the challenge of public health in our country. I think the city is really focused on this. The city has an equity lens to our public health work, and we also have an equity lens to how we’ve been thinking about all the other supportive work we’ve had to do around food and rent — that’s a challenge every city has to face, and I think we can do better. Every city can.
How well are average Boston residents doing in complying with social distancing and wearing face masks? Is everyone getting the message?
I’m not sure we can say that everyone’s getting the message and everyone’s complying, but I am proud of Bostonians who have heard the messaging about staying home, whether you do it for yourself or you do it for people who are more vulnerable — those over 65, those with underlying health conditions. The virus can take your life. I think that people are hearing the message, but I think we have to double down on it. We have to continue with it.
You see images across the country of restrictions being loosened. We all want to be in that place where we can be with people we love and people and do the things we’ve always done. But more than ever, we need to make sure that people are wearing facial covering, sanitizing and cleaning spaces, washing their hands, maintaining social distancing. Not only does that message need to be heard loud and clear, but we also have to make sure that that message goes out in a culturally competent way so that we’re not just using public-health-speak.
You probably hear this a lot, but how soon do you think it will be before restrictions are lifted?
I think, thankfully, the city and the state are following public health guidance and following science, data and facts. That tells we need to see a decrease in our cases, we need to see an increase in access to testing, we need to make sure that our hospitals can care for our most vulnerable and take care of folks. We’re still seeing all of our hospitals in Boston operating at surge levels right now, and we need to make sure people can get the care they need if they’re seriously sick. That’s going to take some time.
Even if those indicators start to show us that we’re getting over this surge, it’s going to be a phased approach of loosening restrictions, so we don’t go from these stay-at-home orders and facial covering orders to all the sudden we’re back to the way everything was. It’s going to take patience so we can make sure we don’t put more people in harm’s way. Facts and data are going to drive this.
You’re working a lot of hours. What do you do to maintain your physical and psychological wellbeing?
Self-care is so important, and it’s easy right now to forget about self-care. I’ve had a couple folks on my own team say, ‘Don’t forget to take a day off,’ or, ‘Don’t forget to spend time with your family and friends, with your husband.” For me, I try to make sure I spend time thinking about other things. I’m the chief of Health and Human Services and there are many human services in our city that are not about COVID. My goal is to make sure that I’m healthy. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. I’m just working hard and making sure that I have a healthy mind and can do this work.