BOSTON — Funeral directors were on the front lines of the pandemic, burying the dead and consoling survivors, but they weren't among the high-priority groups given early access to COVID-19 vaccines.
A bill heard by a key legislative committee Monday would change that in future public health emergencies, grouping funeral workers with those in health care as top priorities for vaccine distribution.
During the pandemic, funeral directors entered hospitals, nursing homes and even homes to collect the dead. In many cases, they were exposed to family members and survivors who were infected but concealed their illnesses.
"As part of the continuum of care, our risk during the recent pandemic was definitely at a high level — maybe not in the same way as doctors and nurses, but certainly at a critical state," Barbara Kazmierczak, president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, told the panel.
While funeral protectors took precautions, family members and survivors of COVID-19 victims in some cases didn't tell them they were infected, which led to many funeral workers also getting sick.
"Some told us they had tested positive after the fact," Kazmierczak said. "Others were not even that kind."
The legislation was originally filed as the state was rolling out the vaccine and debating who should be at the front of the line.
Supporters of the measure say the changes are still necessary to protect funeral directors in any future outbreaks.
Clarence R. Lyons, a Danvers funeral home director, pointed out that workers at the state medical examiner’s office were given priority over funeral home directors who interacted with the dead more often.
"Our risk exposure is identical, if not more prevalent than theirs with the work we do,” Lyons said. “All we ask for is vaccine equity in distribution."
Massachusetts was hit hard by COVID-19 with 664,575 confirmed cases to date and more than 17,640 deaths.
When vaccines became available in December, drug makers weren't able to produce enough doses to match demand, so federal and state officials prioritized high-risk groups such as health care workers, the elderly and others at greatest risk for severe infection.
Funeral workers were among those lobbying for priority access. They said state leaders ignored their concerns..
"This information was presented to them on multiple occasions, through multiple channels, and there was no official response," said Brian Faidell, whose father, a Lakeville funeral director, died from COVID-19 after getting infected on the job. "The vaccine advisory board ignored all of our pleas as well.”
Faidell said the state needs to do more to support those who care for the dead.
"Funeral directors were out there working each and every day during the pandemic. It cost my dad his life," he told the panel. "We as a commonwealth benefit from them in so many ways, and we need to help protect them."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.