Asthmatic residents were not eligible to receive the vaccine — until they were.
Local school officials could decide whether to return students to classrooms — until they couldn’t.
Call it folding to public pressure or just responsive government: Governor Charlie Baker’s vaccine rollout has been full of twists and turns, some of them 180-degree swerves.
Those pivots have been celebrated by those who prefer Baker’s second decisions to his first ones, and some experts say that during a crisis, rapid course correction is often necessary. But Baker’s critics, including a number of prominent Democratic state lawmakers, have knocked the administration for what they call an unpredictable, ever-changing, shaky rollout plan, even as the state has climbed steadily higher in national rankings of the percentage of residents vaccinated.
State Senator Adam Hinds, who chairs a new committee on pandemic resiliency, cited “the whiplash that members are getting from rapid changes in policy and guidance.”
“At a moment of statewide crisis, people want to know that we have leadership that’s prepared and acting on emergency plans. We’re now finding that some of those plans have been put aside,” Hinds said. People want “a steadiness to the hand on the wheel. And unfortunately we’re not seeing that right now.”
Baker aides say the governor has made the best choices he can in the face of an unprecedented situation and with a limited supply of vaccine from the federal government, incorporating changing data, new technologies, and a broad range of feedback.
Those pivots have made for better policy, they say. In February, Baker announced an unexpected companion policy allowing individuals to get vaccinated if they accompanied someone over 75 to a vaccine appointment. The move fostered odd online marketplaces, with young people seeking out elderly companions, and plenty of skepticism. But the policy has helped Massachusetts notch a high vaccination rate for residents over 75, aides said.
Spokespeople for Baker also pointed to national data showing that Massachusetts’ rollout is now outpacing other states’ efforts.
“Massachusetts is a national leader in the race to vaccinate all eligible residents in part because the administration has adapted by using the best available data to address the unprecedented challenge at hand,” said Terry MacCormack, a spokesperson for the governor.
At a legislative oversight hearing at the end of February, the governor emphasized he is receptive to feedback.
“I’ve said this for six years, that if we get input from others that says, ‘If you could do this, this would make this better,’ we try to do that,” Baker said.
The vaccine rollout — and the hope for normalcy it brings — has marked a messier, more challenging chapter of Baker’s response than the pandemic’s darkest days, when Baker was viewed as a figure of strength and steadiness, and his critics were fewer in number.
The tumult has begun to affect Baker’s longstanding, sky-high approval ratings. Once the most popular governor in the country, Baker has seen his approval rating dip to 52 percent this month, down from 78 percent approval in August 2020 and 68 percent in October 2020, recent polling from the University of Massachusetts Amherst found.
But Baker’s flexibility amid the crisis has won some praise, as well.
“I give them high marks,” said Lora Pellegrini, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, who worked with Baker during his time at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. “They’re making adjustments as they learn more and see more.”
“When I think about what they had to accomplish . . . it’s really like a military operation,” she added. “It was a yeoman’s task to get this done, and the numbers speak for themselves.”
In a crisis, changing in response to new information is “good management,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. But “the question comes: Did the data suggest that we should be doing it that way all along? And how come Charlie Baker wasn’t?”
“How did all these other states figure out preregistration?” she questioned. “How did all these other states figure out how to pick the right Web company to design your website? Why did we have localities develop these emergency plans and at the last minute say we’re doing big sites?”
One swerve came for asthmatic residents, who were added to the vaccine eligibility list after Baker faced public pressure from communities of color and progressive leaders like Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston and Attorney General Maura Healey, who pointed out stark racial disparities in who suffers from the condition.
Another change came last week, when the administration rolled out the website where residents can preregister for vaccine appointments — a step most of the congressional delegation had been demanding for a month.
The very structure of the vaccine rollout — relying on private companies to run mass vaccination sites over local public health departments — abandons a plan honed by Massachusetts officials over two decades. Local health officials have complained that rapidly evolving guidance from the state makes it more difficult for them to do their jobs, and erodes trust with community members.
Merridith O’Leary, public health director for Northampton, said recent months have been a “rollercoaster ride.”
“It’ll be smooth sailing, then bam,” new requirements, she said. She has found the constant changes and poor communication from state officials disheartening.
There has been particular rancor over schools. For months, Baker encouraged them to bring students back in person, but allowed local leaders to decide. That changed abruptly in February, when state officials said they would force schools to return in April.
Public health guidance says teachers can return to schools safely even if they aren’t vaccinated, and education advocates say remote learning has caused high rates of absenteeism and failure.
But teachers unions have pushed back on the state’s return plan, and they say the abrupt change has forced school officials to divert energy from planning ahead for the summer and fall. The pivot away from trusting local leaders is “really what bothers us most,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts. “They know more what’s going on in their districts. We have to trust them.”
The change has been “horrendous” for many school districts, state Senator Anne M. Gobi told state education officials at a budget hearing Tuesday. “It just seems that this April 5 date came out of nowhere, and now they’re being told, ‘This is what you’re going to do. Do it.’ ”
Jeffrey Riley, the state’s education commissioner, defended the decision, saying schools were given an extra two weeks at the start of the year to plan and “be ready to pivot” to in-person learning. Plus, state officials gave schools several weeks’ notice before the plan was approved, he said.
“This was going to happen at some point,” he said.
Gobi was unmoved. “When I can’t explain it to people because I didn’t have any notice . . . it is a problem,” she said.
To be sure, there have also been moments when public pressure seemed not to sway Baker at all. One prominent example came last month with his decision to lift business restrictions, a step many public health experts said was premature.
“Charlie, you’re making a big mistake,” warned one epidemiologist.
But Baker charged ahead, citing declining case counts and rising vaccination rates.
And until recently, Massachusetts was in the minority of states where educators were not eligible for the vaccine. It was not the loud complaints of the teachers unions, or the urging of Democratic legislative leaders, but a directive from President Biden that triggered the change in Massachusetts.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed reporting.