Governor Charlie Baker bowed to federal pressure Wednesday and made about 400,000 teachers, school staffers, and child care workers eligible to book COVID-19 shots at Massachusetts vaccination sites on March 11.
But with vaccines in short supply, the move will thrust educators into a furious competition for coveted appointments. Seniors and residents with chronic health conditions already are desperately vying for a limited number of slots at the state’s 170 injection sites.
Although they have to wait until next week to sign up at the state sites, teachers and related workers became eligible Wednesday at 47 of the CVS pharmacies in Massachusetts that get vaccine doses directly from the federal government. But those outlets had few appointments available.
Baker, on a visit to West Parish Elementary School in Gloucester, said he was adding educators to the eligibility pool to comply with President Biden‘s directive on Tuesday to vaccinate US teachers by the end of March. Baker estimated it will take a month for the teachers and related workers in Massachusetts to receive first shots.
The governor said the first shipments of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, sent mostly to hospitals this week, contained just 58,000 doses for Massachusetts — fewer than half of what state officials had initially been told was coming.
Baker said he doesn’t expect the next batch to arrive until the end of the month, too late to use to inoculate teachers under Biden’s timetable.
“That’s obviously not what we wanted to hear,” Baker said.
The governor framed his decision to move up teachers in the priority queue as a bid to avoid confusion with federal rules.
“We will follow suit with the feds to be consistent,” Baker said. “But we obviously need a lot more doses a lot sooner . . . if we’re truly going to make our way through this group as quickly as possible.”
His announcement marked the latest pivot in the fast-changing vaccine rollout. In January, Baker moved residents over 65 ahead of educators, citing fresh guidance from federal officials. Last month, his administration halted vaccine distribution to hospitals and doctors, only to reverse course a week and a half later.
The new course correction buoyed teachers. Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said they were euphoric Wednesday.
“As an educator of 30 years, I can tell you with confidence that educators across the state are feeling joyful,” Najimy said. “We’ve just had a huge victory for our students, our school employees, the entire school community.”
The move was also welcomed by Chhimi Gurung, owner of Diki Shining Star child care center in Somerville, who said vaccinating her seven preschool teachers will help keep her business afloat.
“This is real good news,” Gurung said. “We’re already seeing parents being more comfortable. We’re telling our people how they can sign up. Child care workers are teachers, too.”
Behind the scenes, state officials were scrambling to adapt to the federal call to prioritize teachers. The move wasn’t broached at a conference call between governors and White House officials on Tuesday.
“The first time we heard about it was the tweet [from the president] yesterday afternoon,” Baker said.
Baker said the state will designate certain days for teachers, likely on weekends, at seven mass vaccination sites, such as Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium.
But he balked when asked if teachers will get a “fast lane” to vaccinations just to inoculate them ahead of the state’s goal of having elementary school students return to in-person learning by April. Baker said older adults and those with underlying health conditions remain at the highest risk of dying if they become infected with the coronavirus.
“We’re not getting new doses, okay?” 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.”
State lawmakers, who have pressed Baker to give teachers priority, seized on Wednesday’s news to call for a rapid and locally based distribution of the vaccine to educators.
Acknowledging supply constraints, House Speaker Ronald Mariano, a former teacher, said he was confident the federal government can ramp up the state’s allotment by month’s end. In the meantime, he said, he’s working with the teachers association on a plan to distribute vaccine doses, preferably through local health officials rather than the mass vaccination sites.
”I’m not trying to judge who should get the vaccine,” said Mariano, a Quincy Democrat. He said older people and those with co-morbidities are “more apt to die from this, and if you’re a 30-year-old sixth-grade teacher, you’re probably not going to die from this.” But the best way for parents to feel confident in schools, he said, is to get teachers vaccinated.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka said she also wants to see Baker offer a more localized plan to distribute vaccines to educators and school staff. ”If they have to wait on the website and wait in line someplace else, it’s not going to work,” the Ashland Democrat said. “Most of these people we’re talking about are teaching during the day. They do not have hours and hours to wait on a website.”
Teachers had been part of a broader group of essential employees — ranging from grocery clerks to sanitation workers — that was next in line for vaccines in Massachusetts. The decision to move up teachers prompted calls to give others in that group faster access to vaccines.
Jim Evers, president of Carmen’s Local 589, which represents MBTA workers such as train, trolley, and bus drivers, said he thinks his members deserve the vaccines as well. Evers said the Baker administration rejected a proposal to vaccinate workers at a former Lowe’s site owned by the MBTA in Quincy.
“Baker’s been putting transit workers in the back seat for a long time,” Evers said. “Our members have been putting themselves at risk from day one of this pandemic.”
When teachers qualify next week, Massachusetts officials estimate, there will be about 1 million residents who will be eligible but haven’t yet gotten shots. That includes the 400,000 educators and those from previous priority groups such as seniors and residents with underlying medical conditions.
That will present another stress test for the state’s much-criticized web portal, where residents seeking vaccine appointments have spent long stretches in virtual waiting rooms only to learn there were no slots available.
State officials plan to post 12,000 new appointments for first shots at the mass vaccination centers on their website, www.mass.gov/covidvaccinemap, on Thursday morning. The number of postings will be smaller than previous weeks, officials said, because of a high volume of second shot appointments. The first authorized vaccines, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, require two doses.
Aside from the new J&J doses, Massachusetts is still receiving only about 150,000 first doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines each week and hasn’t been told when its allotment will increase. The allotment includes a varying number of doses, about 50,000 this week, that the Biden administration funnels directly to CVS outlets in Massachusetts through a federal retail pharmacy program.
Mike Festa, director of AARP Massachusetts, said a large chunk of residents over 65 — who became eligible for vaccines two weeks ago — remain unable to book appointments despite their daily efforts.
“It’s still an extraordinary, frustrating, herculean task to get a vaccine,” said Festa, who’s been unable to book an appointment himself. “Common sense tells you that adding new groups exacerbates the challenge of getting the priority populations vaccinated.”
Felicia Gans and Alexa Gagosz of the Globe staff contributed to this story.