The new speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives is “disappointed.” Nearly the entire congressional delegation has “serious concerns.” And city leaders are sounding the alarm on a slow, unequal start to vaccine distribution.
Governor Charlie Baker, long one of the country’s most popular executives, faces mounting criticism over what officials at every level of government call a flawed vaccine rollout. As national metrics have shown Massachusetts lagging, the second-term Republican is working to reverse early disappointments and maintain his reputation as an expert manager.
The most notable censure to date came Friday from nearly the entire congressional delegation, all Democrats who rarely rebuke the governor, but penned a letter urging him to revamp the vaccine appointment process. Leadership in both chambers of the Democratic-dominated Legislature, as well as in Boston and other cities, have also found fault with Baker’s efforts.
A moderate known for working well across the aisle, Baker has seldom been the subject of such widespread criticism from his state’s political leaders. But a sluggish start to the rollout, persistent disparities along racial lines, and a controversial new “companion” program have left Baker, the face of the state’s COVID-19 response, fielding attacks and questions from many fronts.
Even as the criticism rolls Baker’s way, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Massachusetts is markedly improving. The state now ranks 10th in the country for vaccinations per capita, and ninth according to a New York Times database, and recently marked a major milestone, administering 1 million doses, including 285,000 in the last week alone. The state has administered 76 percent of the doses that have been delivered.
So far, though, that hasn’t been enough to earn the governor a reprieve.
“There’s been a desire to give [Baker] as much running room as possible to respond to the pandemic, and there’s been broad bipartisan agreement on most of the response, but at this point people have had enough,” said state Senator Eric Lesser, a Democrat who represents parts of Western Massachusetts. “The results speak for themselves: Massachusetts has had one of the worst vaccine rollouts. And we don’t like being the worst.”
Baker has acknowledged early challenges and said he is pushing to improve the distribution process. His administration has rolled out new features on the state’s vaccine website and longer hours at its coronavirus call center. Massachusetts’ rollout is improving, state officials point out, and the state now has the capacity to distribute more vaccine doses than it’s receiving from the federal government.
“The Baker-Polito administration believes the vaccine process cannot move fast enough, and the administration is distributing more vaccines more quickly through more locations, despite a constrained federal supply,” spokesman Terry MacCormack said.
Still, some of Baker’s fixes have only brought more criticism — and in one case, a healthy dose of online mockery.
Hoping to get more seniors vaccinated more quickly, Baker last week announced that anyone accompanying a person over the age of 75 to a vaccine appointment could get one, too. The program has the support of senior advocacy organizations, MacCormack said. But as an online market emerged for septuagenarian companions, state lawmakers and city leaders expressed alarm, and even Baker himself acknowledged “disturbing reports” of individuals trying to exploit the new policy.
The companion program may help the state scale up its total number of vaccinations, but it’s not addressing racial disparities, said Representative Nika Elugardo, a Democrat who represents parts of Boston and Brookline. Since the start of the pandemic, she said, Baker has failed to include local leaders who could have helped overcome vaccine hesitancy among the communities of color she represents and coordinate logistics for vaccine deployment.
“[Baker] set these things up where you’re not bringing the right people to the table,” Elugardo said. “I’ve worked on communications and economic development issues. I’ve worked in rural India and seen things roll out better.”
On Tuesday, the Baker administration announced an effort to add resources to improve vaccinations in 20 communities with high “social vulnerability” and virus caseloads.
Members of Congress also took issue with the state’s logistics and in their letter “implored” Baker to create a centralized preregistration system so residents can receive a notification when a vaccine is available for them.
“Nearly two months after the arrival of the first Pfizer vaccine doses, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with its prestigious health care infrastructure and wealth of technological innovation, remains at the bottom of every state’s national vaccine distribution ranking,” 10 of 11 members of the state’s delegation, led by Representative Katherine Clark, wrote in a Feb. 12 letter to Baker. Representative Richard Neal of Springfield was the only one who didn’t sign onto the letter.
They joined a chorus of other state and local leaders who have called on the Baker administration to focus more on teachers, be more transparent about its allocations to different parts of the state, and grant a higher priority status to individuals with conditions like asthma.
House Speaker Ron Mariano, the Quincy Democrat who recently stepped into the powerful role, called the rollout “problematic” and said educators should be moved to the “head of the line.” Senate President Karen E. Spilka has called for better communication from the administration.
The new companion program is “the wrong approach when those who need it most — seniors, essential workers, teachers, Black and Brown residents in communities where infection rates are highest — are still waiting for their chance to be vaccinated,” said Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell. On Tuesday, Campbell, who is running for mayor, pushed for teachers to be prioritized for vaccines.
Those statements amount to a rare level of public pressure for Baker, who has remained popular amid the pandemic. As recently as December, he had a 73 percent approval rating, according to MassINC Polling Group. Baker has faced tough scrutiny before, but nothing compares to COVID-19, “because this is life and death,” said Erin O’Brien, a politics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
The pandemic has proved an unprecedented challenge for his leadership, threatening his reputation as an efficient executive and even the notion of Massachusetts exceptionalism.
“It’s highly unusual for Charlie Baker to be getting this kind of criticism, and he really hasn’t throughout any of his time as governor,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political consultant. “The difference is . . . now Charlie Baker has his first real opponent, and it’s COVID-19.”
The flawed rollout has been surprising, she added, “because this is Massachusetts.”
“We have the best brains and the best health care anywhere. We’ve got the best doctors, the best scientists, the best everything, and a governor whose background was as a health care executive,” she said. “Yet we’re still getting our rear ends kicked by West Virginia.”