Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday subjected Governor Charlie Baker to the most public — and intense — vetting of his administration’s handling of the coronavirus vaccine rollout to date, highlighted by testy exchanges between the Republican and Democratic legislators with whom he’s rarely jousted so openly.
The six-hour, all-virtual oversight hearing provided few major revelations despite lawmakers’ prodding into Baker’s decision-making and plans as he leads the effort to vaccinate more than 4 million eligible residents against COVID-19.
But it laid bare the divergent views Baker, Democratic leaders, and other officials hold on the rollout’s progress and, perhaps more dramatically, its biggest shortcomings. Members of the Legislature’s Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management repeatedly criticized the state-run website for booking appointments that crashed last week and questioned Baker’s decision to curtail doses that had been going to local boards of health.
“You’re missing how broken the system is right now,” state Representative William Driscoll, the committee’s House chairman, told Baker, saying his approach has been hobbled by “pivots and course corrections” in how vaccines have been administered. “The approach is not working for the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
Baker, testifying for roughly an hour from his State House office, repeatedly framed the state’s most pressing problem as the limited supply of vaccines it’s receiving from the federal government — now about 139,000 doses per week — in the face of tremendous demand.
The second-term governor touted the state’s improving metrics after it lagged behind most of the country in shots delivered; Massachusetts now ranks in the top 10 nationally of doses given per capita. And he said his administration is asking local health officials to identify homebound residents who need to be vaccinated — evidence, state officials said, the administration is trying several ways beyond mass vaccination sites to put shots in people’s arms.
“One of the great challenges . . . is recognizing that until we see significant increases in supply, which I’m hoping starts in March, we’re constantly going to be dealing with issues of frustration and anxiety — which I totally get,” Baker said. “This is, what I would call, a work in progress.”
Legislators, however, seized on what they described as a mismanaged operation and a lack of focus on equity — arguments echoed by a string of public health officials, community advocates, and others lawmakers invited to testify.
During one exchange, Baker and Senator Eric P. Lesser spoke over each other several times after the Longmeadow Democrat dismissed the governor’s description of the rollout. It’s not “lumpy and bumpy,” Lesser said, quoting Baker. It is “a failure.”
“My constituents and all of our constituents are justifiably asking why the governor of Massachusetts, in the health care and technology capital of the country, cannot figure out how to operate a website,” Lesser said.
Baker said preparing the state’s website for appointments last week for newly eligible groups in Phase 2 of the state’s program — residents 65 and older, and those with two qualifying health conditions — “was a nightmare for many, for which there is no excuse.”
Baker’s comments came as many users seeking newly available appointments Thursday morning reported encountering absurd estimated wait times, with 50,000 slots drying up by midmorning.
Baker reiterated that the state is limited in the appointments it can deliver, and that the state ultimately booked tens of thousands appointments the morning the site crashed. His administration had initially released a statement from the state vendor that created the software, known as PrepMod, saying it took responsibility for the crash, though a day later they traded blame.
“What happened to the website is on us,” Baker said Thursday.
State officials also argued that a pre-registration option Tiffany Tate, the vendor’s executive director, said PrepMod offers — and that she suggested the state had signed onto — did not have the “automated capabilities” promised, nor had the state purchased it.
Lawmakers peppered Baker’s health secretary, Marylou Sudders, about the state’s decision to curtail the doses it was giving local boards of health. Sudders — at times snarled in crosstalk with senators — said the administration is now trying to “leverage” local officials to form regional sites, 11 of which Baker announced on Wednesday.
She disputed complaints that the state has been overly focused on providing doses to its seven mass vaccination sites, including those at Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium. She said roughly half of the doses the state receives are going to hospitals and health providers, while 9 percent go to the mass sites.
“We understand and completely concur that there can’t be one channel,” Sudders said, “but there also cannot be unlimited channels when there’s a constrained supply.”
Senator Cindy Friedman, who sits on the COVID-19 committee and also chairs the committee on health care financing, said she believed the state needed to put greater emphasis on local distribution options. Relying on state and national rankings to assess the rollout — as Baker has, especially as those figures have improved — “does not promote equity nor in the long run does it ensure efficiency,” Friedman said.
In other panels, lawmakers and experts said that despite the administration’s commitment to prioritize 20 of Massachusetts’ hardest-hit communities, the state is lagging in delivering an equitable distribution of doses within communities of color.
Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa, showed lawmakers through her live feed the line of people at its Chelsea headquarters to visit its food pantry. Vega called it evidence of the nonprofit’s ability to connect with the hard-hit community, including as it operates a vaccine site.
“I convince them” to get vaccinated, she said of members of Chelsea’s predominantly Latino population. “But they have to wait for an appointment in a system that doesn’t work.”
Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, likened the state’s vaccine sign-up process to a raffle, where those with more time and reliable Internet access to hunt for slots have more “tickets” to win.
“You could not find a more textbook case study of structural racism,” she said.
Lawmakers indicated they plan to hold another hearing within two weeks, including asking Baker if he was willing to again testify. With an air of sarcasm, Baker agreed, saying how “this one was so much fun.” He also stressed that a successful rollout falls on more than his own administration.
“This thing is a bear to wrestle to the ground, and we all have had to deal with that,” he said.
An hour later, as the hearing — and criticisms — continued, Baker arrived in Salem to unveil something that drew perhaps even more attention: plans to dramatically loosen restrictions on businesses and allow fans back into professional sports stadiums and arenas by March 22.
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Emma Platoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff. Amanda Kaufman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.