My Life in the Age of COVID: Boston Health and Human Services Chief Marty Martinez

The city’s leading public health official shares how he’s holding up while serving as the point man for Boston’s coronavirus pandemic response.

marty martinez marty walsh

Marty Martinez with Marty Walsh. Photo provided

As the COVID-19 pandemic upends every aspect of Boston life, we’re checking in with some local residents to learn how they’re processing our new normal. They’ll share serious thoughts on their concerns for the city—and yes, some silly recommendations on what to binge-watch, too. For the rest of the series, click here.

It is rarely a slow day for Boston Health and Human Services Chief Marty Martinez. As Boston’s top public health official, he’s spent the last two-and-a-half years spearheading the city’s response to numerous crises, including the opioid epidemic. But now, Martinez is tasked with leading the city’s effort to combat one of the worst pandemics in history. The emotionally draining work has brought him to tears in the shower, but also given him additional gratitude for the purpose of his office. Martinez says he is motivated each day to work for the common good, and is more cognizant than ever about the impact of each decision his team makes on the lives of every Bostonian.

What is your level of concern right now?

My level of concern is moderate. I’m concerned that we have a bunch of mixed messages coming from our federal government. People every day are seeing images of people rushing to get back to what they call “daily life,” and yet, the facts on the ground don’t match.

But I am moderately concerned, because we have seen improvements. We’ve seen cases level off, we’ve seen hospitalizations level, if not go down. So we’re making progress. But we’re nowhere near the place we all want to be. So I’m moderately concerned, and hope we can stay on the course.

How have you been coping so far?

It’s tough. It’s COVID-19 all day, every day, for the most part. It’s difficult. I want to be able to care about the things I care about in the city I love, and that’s why I do the job that I do. I also want to be able to spend time with my husband and enjoy my life, and also spend time with my friends, and do all of the things we care about deeply. That can be tough, but you have to take care of yourself. You can’t take care of someone else, unless you’re taking care of yourself. That’s been an important part of it.

What is the most important thing we need to navigate us through the end of this crisis?

One is patience. For your average person, COVID is not what it is for some of our most vulnerable Bostonians. For most people, COVID has been a mild or moderate physical illness. They’re not in the hospital. They’re not sick. Gratefully, they don’t die. But I do think that people need patience to understand the most vulnerable of us can be greatly impacted. And people have been greatly impacted economically. Can they go to work? Can they travel? Can they see family? Can they see friends? From the economic side, in terms of being able to work and make money, many people have been greatly impacted. And then, from the emotional well-being and health side, it can be lonely, it can be isolating, and it can be challenging to not be with people, especially the people you care most about.

So I think patience is what people really need to have, and trust, which can be hard, but trust that at least in Boston, your leaders are working hard to have your best interests at heart, while we get us to a place where we can go back to some of the things we all desperately miss.

How do you tell someone who’s been severely economically impacted that we still need to continue these social distancing measures?

That’s what it’s about: understanding we are all working for the common good. The common good is to make sure those folks who might have heart disease, or might have diabetes, or some underlying health conditions—who might be struggling in cancer treatments right now—they’re very vulnerable. For the common good, we have to make sure those folks don’t potentially have a severe reaction to coronavirus. The same is true of our seniors and aging population. Across the country, the majority of deaths have been from older folks, and that’s also true across the state here in Massachusetts. We also need to think of the common good for them. Everyone right now is probably being the most selfless they’ve had to be in a long time, and I think that’s a really important message, and for the most part, I’m really proud of Bostonians and really proud of my neighbors. We’re doing it for the common good and trying to take care of each other. But in no way do I think it’s easy, especially to those business owners who are struggling to survive. This is a real sacrifice for them. We’re all in it together, and we’re going to come out of it together, but we’re going to need support to do that.

Walk me through your average daily routine right now, starting with the first thing you do when you wake up.

Every morning, we have an 8:00 a.m. crisis response call. It’s seven days per week. We’ve had it for two months, maybe longer. Even before that, we were having daily calls with the public health team only, looking at what we’ve been struggling with and seeing on the ground. But that call is at 8:00 a.m., and I do a couple hours of work before that call, tackling issues from the night before and prioritizing issues that need to be prioritized in the quiet of the morning. Then all day, it’s working through phone calls, meetings, conversations. I come into City Hall pretty much every day, because again, we need to tackle the issues we need to tackle. That work doesn’t really stop until the day stops, and usually that’s 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. There’s no question we have to think about the long-term, and not just the short-term. There are challenges every day to make sure people are safe and healthy.

What have you learned about yourself during this unprecedented period?

I’ve learned the actions we take and the work that we do is meaningful and impactful to others, and I appreciate that. I’m not sure you always see that or feel that, and I’m grateful for the opportunities to feel like the work is making a difference. I’ve also learned as hard as I’m working, we can’t solve everything every day, and sometimes my frustration that we can’t solve that or can’t figure that out makes it a challenge, and I think I’ve learned a lot on how to balance that out, and how to be focused on some of those things. Maybe you don’t see the instant success to it, but you know you’re focused on it, and you continue to work on it. It’s trying to balance that all out.

I definitely had a moment right around when we ended up closing the schools down. It was a late night. I went home, and went in and showered, and sort of scrubbed down, and when I came out from showering, my husband was like, “Were you crying?” And yeah, I was, because it was so emotionally draining, and I think it’s understanding the decisions we make are truly impacting the lives of so many people. I’m proud of that, and the work we’re doing every day, but it doesn’t mean it’s not emotional, and that it doesn’t take a toll.

What do you miss most about your former, pre-social distancing routine?

I miss being able to spend time with family and friends. To be honest with you, I’m a very relational person, so even through work, I’d much rather have an in-person meeting in the community or the office than on the phone. I really like to talk to people and connecting and seeing what’s going on. I really miss that. I’m eager to spend more in-person time with people, because I think that’s how you get things done, by building relationships.

How have you been navigating relationships and staying connected?

I’ve been trying to navigate it with phone calls, Zoom meetings, some apps I’ve never used before. In terms of talking to people, I’ve tried to text less and call more, even through work. I’ve been trying to be more deliberative about it. It’s hard to have space with people and feel them, if you will, when you can’t see them, so I’ve been trying to be mindful of that at work, and in my personal life as well.

What has been a task, hobby, or back-burner project that you’ve been wanting to pursue, that you are now finally going to get to?

To be honest with you, I can’t think of one.

What have you been keeping in your fridge for comfort food?

My comfort food has always been Mexican food. I am Mexican by descent, so that always makes me think of family and home and friends and all of that good stuff. I love it when I can get it.

What’s been your binge-watch/read/listen go-to to take your mind off things?

I have not read anything for fun in quite some time. TV-wise, I think I’ve watched a couple of shows. I can’t think of very much I’ve done.

Have you made any interesting changes in your personal or work routine that you want to keep doing even when things return to normal?

My husband and I have been spending more time on our outside deck and sitting there, which I’m not prone to do under normal circumstances. But in this situation, I’ve been able to hop out there at 8:00 p.m. or 8:30 p.m., and kind of stare into the trees, which is taking my mind off things. That’s been nice.

What’s a habit you’ll use this time to break? What’s a habit you’ll use this time to develop?

A habit that I’m developing that I’m going to break as soon as this is done is, I’ve always been a gym person. Usually in the morning, I go to the gym before work. With no gym, I haven’t been able to figure out the whole home workout routine, that’s for sure. So I’m going to break that as soon as this is over. I can feel the extra button on the shirt feeling tighter than it should. I’ve got to fix that when this is over.

What are the biggest factors you are looking when assessing how to reopen the city?

There are numbers and metrics, but to plain-speak it: Can we contain the spread of the virus, and can we take care of those who are most severely impacted? Do we have the ability to make sure we know who has it, do we have the ability to make sure we can connect with those who have it to make sure they don’t spread it, and can we also take care of the health of those who will get it and it will become a much more serious condition than for most people? Those are things we have to do. We have indicators that help us look at that. That’s what it’s about. We have to make sure we reduce the impact of the virus, because it’s serious, and can spread quickly. That’s what city leaders are determined to make sure we can do for all Bostonians.

What advice would you give to others?

Remember that we are working towards a common goal and the common good. We’re staying home for our neighbors, our families, and those who need it most. We’re skipping out on Sunday Funday, because we know other people need to stay home, because they’re at risk. We’re making sacrifices—all of us are. I just want people to know that that’s appreciated, acknowledged, and so vital for Boston to actually have a true recovery that keeps the most people healthy and safe.