State officials designated Governor Charlie Baker’s public safety secretary as a “first-line responder,” allowing him to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in the early wave of doses given to police, firefighters, and other law enforcement.
Thomas A. Turco III, who has served in Baker’s cabinet since late 2018, was vaccinated at one of the sites the state created for state law enforcement personnel, who were cleared to be vaccinated during the initial phase of the state’s rollout in January, according to a state official.
“In the Commonwealth, the Secretary of Public Safety and Security, the lead public safety official in state government, is considered a first-line responder to emergencies,” said Jake Wark, a spokesman for Turco’s office.
His designation underscores a debate public officials have juggled for months about who should be prioritized for vaccinations and the optics of those decisions when millions of anxious residents wait their own turn.
Front-line health care workers were given the first doses as part of state rollouts across the country. That also meant hospital administrators and backroom researchers were also vaccinated in many facilities. In Massachusetts, some workers were upset that Children’s Hospital president, Dr. Kevin Churchwell, was the second person to be vaccinated when the shots rolled out in December, the Globe reported.
In Massachusetts public safety circles, vaccination of high-profile officials also isn’t uniform. For example, Attorney General Maura Healey, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, has not yet been vaccinated, she told the Globe this week.
“If you decide that a group is eligible, then you’ll get people in there who people may say, ‘They don’t deserve it,’” said state Senator Cindy Friedman, an Arlington Democrat who serves on Baker’s vaccine advisory group.
“If I were him, would I have gotten it? I probably would have said no,” she said of Turco. “But he didn’t do anything wrong.”
In Turco’s case, the secretary was vaccinated “as part of the first responder eligibility group,” Wark said. Beyond 45,000 EMS, police, and fire employees who were eligible, the group also included 911 dispatch employees and inspectors for the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, who police the state’s alcohol industry.
As secretary, Turco oversees the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which handles policy development and provides oversight of more than a dozen agencies, including the State Police, Department of Fire Services, and the state Parole Board.
The US Centers for Disease Control recommended front-line workers be among the first to be vaccinated, considering them to be likely among the highest risk for exposure because their work must be performed on-site and “involve being in close proximity to the public or to coworkers.”
Baker’s aides did not address a question Friday of whether the governor agreed with Turco’s designation, saying only that he’s “made clear that only eligible individuals should receive doses.” State public safety officials said the secretary has been classified as a first-line responder under other state policies, including who is allowed to take a state vehicle home.
No one else in Baker’s nine-person Cabinet carries that classification. But a Baker spokeswoman said his office would not discuss whether other Cabinet members or administration officials have been vaccinated, adding that those with chronic medical conditions are now eligible and “doing so could divulge personal medical information.”
Baker, 64, himself has repeatedly said he has not yet been vaccinated, nor would he seek to until he’s eligible. “While we work a lot, we are not — from our point of view — worthy of cutting the line,” Baker said in late December of him and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.
Turco, 56, tested positive for COVID-19 in April, and told the State House News Service in September that he still has “some effects from it and I have some good doctors that monitor my condition and all.”
The same month, he told state officials that he planned to retire at the end of 2020, saying at the time that his decision came “following many long discussions with my family,” without offering a further explanation. His office said Friday that he remained on to assist in responding to the COVID pandemic, implementing new policing legislation, and other issues, and that he has yet to finalize a new retirement date.
More than two dozen of the executive staff at the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security were also offered vaccines because they worked at a Department of Correction facility or at one of the COVID testing or vaccination sites located at a DOC and State Police facility. Their tasks there included “guiding and directing” vaccine or testing recipients, a state spokesman said.
Those 26 staff members were offered the vaccine through one of those vaccination sites and “did not fill appointment slots intended for the general public,” according to Turco’s office.
Offers to get vaccinated have expanded to other state employees as well. The state made doses available to staff at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, also overseen by Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which said the workers are considered “COVID-facing health care workers,” given they respond to death scenes and are in close contact with decedents and potentially infectious tissue and fluids.
But it came as the state rebuffed calls to also make eligible those working in funeral homes, who the CDC recommended be vaccinated with health care and hospital workers in its own guidance.
As the state’s rollout has broadened, members of the public have jockeyed to land appointments at state-run or other sites, including navigating a state website that crashed last week and enduring excruciating wait times in a scramble to scoop up one of the coveted spots.
For example, less than 90 minutes after a new batch of 50,000 appointments went online Thursday, the state announced that nearly all of them had been filled.