Governor Charlie Baker has been called to testify at a second legislative oversight hearing exploring Massachusetts’s COVID-19 rollout, according to state lawmakers, who intend to drill down into his administration’s decision to entrust a handful of private companies with running its seven mass vaccination sites.
The March 23 hearing will explore what lawmakers called the rollout’s “technology infrastructure” as well as the public health and emergency response plans the state had spent two decades and millions of dollars creating ahead of the pandemic, legislators said Friday.
The blueprint hinged on mobilizing the state’s vast network of local public health departments to respond in an emergency situation. But shortly after federal drug regulators authorized the first COVID-19 vaccine in mid-December, the state abandoned essential elements of the plan and turned over its largest vaccination sites to three private providers, the Globe has reported.
News of the hearing came on the same day that a survey showed a significant drop in public approval for Baker’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Baker’s approval rating fell from 80 percent a year ago to 59 percent today, according to a report from Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers, and Northwestern universities.
David Lazer, a Northeastern political science and computer science professor who worked on the survey released Friday, said researchers found that approval ratings for governors’ handling of the pandemic had declined across the country.
Baker appeared before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management on Feb. 25, at times sparring with lawmakers during his hour-long testimony.
Democratic leaders have criticized the rollout as “broken,” even as Baker emphasized that the state, limited by what the federal government supplies, now ranks among the country’s leaders in putting shots in residents’ arms. As of Friday, the state had administered 2.4 million doses.
“The first oversight hearing … was productive, yet committee members emerged with more questions than answers,” state Representative Bill Driscoll Jr. and Senator Jo Comerford, the committee’s co-chairs, said in a joint statement Friday. “At that hearing, the Governor noted the areas where the Commonwealth is leading in the vaccine rollout, but our legislative colleagues, local officials, frustrated constituents, and newly-released equity zip code data tell a different and painful story.”
Beyond Baker, committee aides said they also invited Marylou Sudders, Baker’s health and human services secretary and the head of the state’s COVID Command Center, to testify. Other invitees from the administration include Samantha Phillips, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, and Kerin Milesky, director of the Department of Public Health’s Office of Preparedness and Emergency Management.
During the first hearing, lawmakers repeatedly criticized the website the Baker administration had created for booking appointments after it crashed the week before.
Lazer said the website’s “bumpy rollout” is likely a factor in the steep drop in public support for Baker’s handling of the pandemic.
“Massachusetts did have a particular challenge in January and February with the vaccine rollout. … One would guess that was because of the bumpy rollout of vaccines. I think he’s taken a hit as a result,” he said.
The governor’s office on Friday pointed to several measures that suggest Massachusetts is doing a better job than many other states in vaccinating people. Citing data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the office said that Massachusetts leads the nation among states with more than 5 million people in total vaccine doses administered per capita.
Also, Friday, the state launched a new online preregistration tool to make it easier to book an appointment at its seven mass vaccination sites, drawing hundreds of thousands sign-ups by mid-morning.
In mobilizing the vaccine rollout, the Baker administration awarded no-bid contracts to three private entities to undertake perhaps one of the state’s most pressing, ambitious initiatives in modern times.
In issuing the contracts, the state sidestepped the planning infrastructure it built in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax-letter scare in 2001. The goal then was to prepare for an unseen, major health catastrophe, which could require mass vaccinations.
The blueprint laid out a regional approach for corralling the state’s 351 local health departments in an emergency, and a recent, updated status report on the playbook shows the groups were equipped with detailed plans for how to open and operate vaccination sites.
Baker has encouraged municipal governments to band together and create high-capacity regional sites to help deliver COVID-19 vaccines. But the approach has rankled local officials. More than half of the state’s local public health leaders have sent letters of protest alleging the state has wasted millions in federal money as part of its approach.