Governor Baker had a good vaccine distribution plan. Under his leadership, Massachusetts reasonably tiered its population by level of risk and prioritized groups accordingly. The first phase, for example, included health care workers and other COVID response teams, emergency staff, and, notably, prisoners — a decision that this editorial board commended.
But drafting a plan and implementing it are two different steps, and Massachusetts has, unfortunately, failed in the latter so far. As of this week, the Commonwealth is lagging behind the rest of New England when it comes to vaccinating its residents, and it ranks among the slowest states in the country relative to its population. Even more alarming was Massachusetts’ effort to get the vaccine to long-term care facilities, home to some of the state’s most vulnerable people, which started a week later than in neighboring states.
Any good plan has to adapt to unanticipated roadblocks or demands, and to his credit, Baker has made some adjustments. He announced this week that residents ages 65 and older will move forward in line (following a new recommendation from the Biden administration), and that more vaccination sites will crop up across the state. But there’s more that the governor can and should do in order to improve what has turned out to be a lackluster vaccine rollout. Specifically, there are three major areas that need to be addressed by the governor, and the sooner he acts, the better off Massachusetts — and the region as a whole — will be.
First, the state must create a centralized registration website. At a press conference on Monday, Baker pushed back against criticism of the state’s website, saying that it’s already easy to navigate and that it can’t get much more streamlined than it already is.
But that’s simply not true. In order for someone to register for a vaccine, they have to go onto the state’s website to determine if they’re eligible, use a map to find the vaccination location closest to them, and then start the process of registering for an appointment through that location’s website, be it a CVS, a Wegmans, or some other private business or health care facility.
That’s a lot of steps to take for such an important task, and it has the potential to cause widespread confusion, particularly among those who are less proficient on the Web. Baker announced Wednesday that the state will provide “additional resources” to help people, especially senior citizens, register, but he stopped short of committing to streamlining the website or centralizing the registration process.
Given that so many people are not yet eager to sign up to get the vaccine, a registration process with so many friction points is only likely to further discourage them from doing so. A centralized registration website would not only address that by streamlining the process — giving people fewer opportunities to change their minds and back out — but it would also allow the state to more effectively administer extra doses to lower-tiered groups.
One of the problems that Massachusetts is facing right now is that it isn’t administering enough vaccines, which are perishable, because a good number of eligible people are hesitant to sign up. (While nearly 876,125 doses had been shipped to health care providers as of Sunday, only 448,892 had been administered.) If the state had a centralized registration system, it could notify those next in line to be eligible that they could get inoculated early so that as few doses as possible are actually left to expire. This has worked well elsewhere; states that have a centralized registration system, like New Mexico and Oklahoma, have vaccinated more residents per capita than most of their counterparts.
Second, Baker must create clear goals that the state intends to meet. While defending the rollout at the Monday press conference, the governor argued that by carefully going after the most vulnerable groups first, Massachusetts had a “slower ramp up than you would see if you took big groups by age and said go.” That may very well be true, but if a slow ramp up was anticipated, then when does the state intend to have, say, 10 percent of the population vaccinated? (Only 5.5 percent of Massachusetts residents have received their first shot so far, and only about 1 percent have received both.) It makes sense that speed isn’t the state’s sole goal (if it were, there’d be no need for tiers or priorities at all), but by articulating clear targets, the state could more easily be held accountable by the public if distribution begins to again go sideways. Clearly outlining how and when the state intends to meet its goals also means failures and potential weak spots can be more easily identified by experts.
And third, Massachusetts must improve community outreach by starting its public awareness campaign as soon as possible. As polls have shown for months, Black and brown people are still far more skeptical of the vaccine than white people. In Massachusetts, only 11 percent of Black residents and 32 percent of Hispanic residents are willing to get vaccinated as soon as possible, compared with 59 percent of white residents, according to a poll conducted by Suffolk University and the Globe.
The state has a $2 million plan to release targeted multilingual ads in the coming weeks, but it’s clear that it should have already started airing them before vaccine distribution began. While some vaccine hesitancy was always expected, the state seems to have been caught off guard by the refusal of even many health care workers to get the shot, which hospital officials have cited as a factor in the delayed vaccine rollout. The Governor’s office says the state plans to have offline community outreach as well; the governor should also ensure that any public awareness campaign includes working with trusted community leaders and community-based organizations in order to have broader reach and influence among marginalized populations. It’s critically important to address this problem quickly before the vaccine becomes more widely available.
These are crucial steps that the state must take in order to improve the pace of vaccination. And while Baker is confined by the federal government’s ability to deliver enough vaccines to meet demand — something that both he and Dr. Anthony Fauci said is unlikely at this time — the rate at which the state actually uses its doses is squarely under his control. The governor must ensure that the state is best prepared for when the federal government ramps up supply, and he can only do so by being willing to deviate from the state’s vaccination plan when new hurdles present themselves. He has already made some promising adjustments, like opening more vaccination sites across the state, but he can do more. The vaccine rollout is arguably the most important phase of the pandemic to get right. The state — and the governor’s legacy — can’t afford another botched response.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.