GLOUCESTER — Reacting to a new directive from the Biden administration, Governor Charlie Baker announced Wednesday that the state will open vaccine eligibility to about 400,000 K-12 educators, other school staff, and child-care workers next week, but warned it could take a month to vaccinate all of them without more doses from the federal government.
The policy change, which will allow teachers and related workers to sign up for vaccination appointments on March 11, came on the heels of a new federal directive that led CVS to open its own vaccine appointment system to educators Wednesday morning, including those in Massachusetts.
On Tuesday, President Biden directed states to prioritize vaccinations for teachers, urging them to have all their educators inoculated with at least one dose by the end of March. Biden pledged Tuesday that vaccines would be made available for eligible educators at pharmacies through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.
Baker’s decision to add educators to the state’s eligibility list means teachers also will be allowed to get the vaccine at any of the state’s 170 vaccination sites. Plus, Baker said, the state’s command center is expected to designate specific days at mass vaccination sites for educators to get their vaccines.
But vaccine supply remains a concern for Baker, who estimated that it could take a month for everyone in the latest eligibility group to get their first vaccine appointment. The state has been receiving about 150,000 first doses per week from the federal government, Baker said, and that volume isn’t expected to drastically change this month.
Baker attributed his pivot on how quickly to vaccinate teachers to Biden’s end-of-the-day directive. The White House’s change to federal pharmacy rules meant that Massachusetts teachers would be able to sign up for shots at a handful of pharmacies in the state; Baker said he felt compelled to change state rules to avoid confusion.
Baker said the president’s announcement surprised even state officials, who had an hourlong conference call with the Biden administration on Tuesday.
“The first time we heard about it was the tweet yesterday afternoon,” Baker said.
It also came on top of other bad news: Massachusetts wouldn’t receive any more than the 58,000 one-dose vaccinations produced by Johnson & Johnson they’ve already received until the end of month, effectively leveling the state’s weekly supply of roughly 150,000 doses. The state, Baker said, had expected to initially receive more than double that of the newly available vaccine.
“That’s obviously not what we wanted to hear,” he said. The Biden administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Baker, who has continuously called the state’s constrained supply its biggest problem, said his administration estimates it will likely take a month for the 400,000 educators and school staff being made eligible next week to receive their first doses.
And by adding them to a pool of people that already includes those 65 or older and those with two chronic health conditions, Baker said that the state, as of March 11, will have about a million people eligible to be vaccinated who have yet to receive a shot.
“We obviously need a lot more doses a lot sooner than the current guidelines that have been applied to us by the feds if we are truly going to make our way through this group as quickly as possible,” Baker said.
Baker pushed back on questions of whether teachers would be given a “fast lane” to vaccinations in order to meet Biden’s directive and the state’s goal of having elementary school students return to in-person learning by April, saying older adults and those with underlying health conditions still remain at the highest risk of dying if they become infected with the novel virus.
“We’re not getting new doses, OK? I can’t make that point clear enough,” he said. “I don’t see how we can choose to take vaccines away from people who are over the age of 65 … or people who have two co-morbidities, many of which have been proven time and time again to be terribly dangerous when it comes to COVID, and not include them going forward in the process.”
Baker made the announcement Wednesday at a Gloucester school, where students and staff members were celebrating the school’s 101st day of in-person learning this academic year. Her excitement boiling over, Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken yelled “Yes!” when Baker announced the vaccine eligibility change.
Pressure has been mounting for Baker to move teachers up in the vaccination prioritization list, an issue that has become even more urgent for educators after state officials announced plans to force school districts to reopen elementary schools for full-time, in-person learning in April.
Both House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka have said the Baker administration should focus on vaccinating educators, rather than forcing school districts to quickly reopen full time. In a letter sent to the governor on Monday, 21 state legislators voiced similar concerns over forcing teachers back into classrooms next month before they’re vaccinated.
Some or all educators already are eligible for coronavirus vaccines in 34 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico as of Monday, according to Education Week.
In Massachusetts, teachers were slated to be part of the next group on the state’s COVID-19 vaccine eligibility list, which includes a wide swath of essential workers. Food service and transit employees, sanitation workers, court system employees, funeral directors, and many others are in that group.
It’s not clear when the next group will be made eligible for the vaccine.
The Baker administration had defended its vaccination timeline for teachers, pointing to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and comments from CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky — that vaccinating teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening schools, as long as other mitigation methods are followed.
But Massachusetts teachers unions have been fighting for weeks for their members to be moved up in the state’s vaccine eligibility process, even pitching a pilot program to the state that would have rapidly vaccinated teachers in up to 20 high-needs school districts.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said Wednesday that teachers were feeling euphoric about the news.
“As an educator of 30 years, I can tell you with confidence that educators across the state are feeling joyful,” she said. “We’ve just had a huge victory for our students, our school employees, the entire school community, and this victory was won through the efforts of a village.”
She said the next step is for the state to accept the pilot program for vaccinating teachers and for higher education faculty and staff to be included in the prioritization.
Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang also said her union will “continue to advocate for a more effective overall vaccination rollout from the state for the benefit and safety of all frontline workers such as transit workers who are still being left behind in the governor’s plans.”
“I haven’t been this hopeful in a really long time,” Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, told the Globe Tuesday afternoon after Biden’s announcement. She said at the time she hoped Baker would soon turn a corner and prioritize educators, too.