In the race to protect the lives of its residents from the deadly coronavirus pandemic, Massachusetts is lagging rather than leading. Facts are hard to ignore — especially when the numbers represent deaths of those who were family members, friends, and neighbors. The most brutal fact is that many of the 15,200 deaths in the state from COVID-19 in the year since this novel virus claimed its first victim were preventable. Many of these deaths probably would not have occurred if the Baker administration and Legislature had taken actions they could have — but failed to take, such as protecting senior citizens since they account for 80 percent of the deaths.
The good news is that, going forward, vaccines are available that provide effective protection from variants of COVID-19. But as public health 101 reminds us: Vaccines don’t save lives; only vaccinations do. Here again, and tragically for those who are dying as a consequence of poor vaccination performance, evidenced by 500,000 doses sitting on shelves rather than in people’s arms. Massachusetts continues to lag behind other states. Our Vaccine Report Card published by Harvard’s Belfer Center this week explains why on the four key performance indicators Massachusetts is currently earning grades of D and F.
Like each of the other states, Massachusetts receives weekly deliveries of vaccine from the federal government proportional to our population. How it distributes those doses and the standards it sets is the Baker administration’s responsibility. Yet Massachusetts is behind 41 other states in administering those vaccines.
Many of us have friends and relatives in other states who have already received their first, and, in some cases, second shots. But fewer than 13 percent of eligible Massachusetts residents aged 18 and older have been vaccinated, leaving the state 32nd in that ranking. Despite obstacles posed by a population that is widely dispersed across a state 60 times the size of the Commonwealth, Alaska has managed to vaccinate nearly twice as many residents per capita as Massachusetts.
If Massachusetts had as competent a coronavirus czar as West Virginia’s Dr. Clay Marsh, how many more of us would have been vaccinated? Hard as it is to believe, the number is 300,000. Most of these would come from our senior citizens, those 65 and older — the group that accounts for 80 percent of all the deaths caused by COVID-19. Thus, if Massachusetts continues at the current rate, failing to administer vaccines as rapidly as West Virginia and a majority of other states, the result will be thousands of additional deaths among these senior citizens.
Looking ahead to the spring and summer in the hope of resuming a more normal life, on the current pace, 30 states will have vaccinated their populations, welcomed their students back to school, and reopened their businesses before we do. North Dakota, for example, is likely to reach the goal line of 75 percent of its eligible population vaccinated before July 4, while at the current pace, Massachusetts will be struggling to get there by Labor Day.
That Governor Baker, his secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, and their colleagues care, no one can doubt. That they are working hard on this problem is also evident. But when the stakes are life and death, the results are what matter.
No one likes to receive a report card with failing grades. But accounting encourages accountability. One of the great strengths of our nation is that the 50 states are, in effect “laboratories of democracy.” Lessons learned in one can be adapted and applied to others. Decisions and actions Baker’s team and local health care providers are making today and tomorrow and the day after can move us from the rear and improve our vaccination rates.
What can Massachusetts residents do? If this were the Boston marathon, we would all be cheering from the sidelines, shouting our words of encouragement: Run, Charlie, run! Personally, we expect that in the weeks ahead we will see the grades our state earns showing marked improvements. Indeed, we are looking forward to the day it includes more A’s than D’s and F’s.
Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. Hugo Yen is a research assistant at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.