Governor Charlie Baker has scraped and sweated through a year of unrelenting crisis management. But on Wednesday, he sounded like the crisis that’s upended life in Massachusetts felt more manageable than it has in months.
With the state on the cusp of fully immunizing 1 million people and federal officials projecting a big boost in vaccine supplies, the governor said in an interview with the Globe that he’s increasingly confident he can meet his goal of vaccinating more than 4 million adults by the Fourth of July. The state should be “significantly down the road” toward completing the ambitious vaccination drive by Memorial Day, he said.
“We ran a pretty decent [vaccination] program so far, despite the bumps along the way,” Baker said in the 35-minute telephone interview. “We’ll continue to work as aggressively as we can to get as many people vaccinated as soon as we can between now . . . and the summer.”
Responding to the unprecedented pandemic, Baker said he’s been buoyed by the efforts of health care workers “who felt they were in a battle with COVID and they were going to win.”
Baker said he’s also been inspired by everyday people he’s learned about through e-mails, letters, and newspaper stories. He keeps a basket on a shelf in his home filled with masks sewn by Massachusetts residents.
“They’re a constant reminder to me that so many people took the sewing machine out and got to work and delivered on behalf of their neighbors and their colleagues in long-term care,” he said.
He cited a biography he read recently [”Lincoln on the Verge” by Edward L. Widmer] that chronicles a journey where the 16th president found the strength to save the republic during the Civil War.
“There are many tough times that we all live through,” Baker said, “and that was a pretty tough time, too.”
The governor talked about his hopes for vaccinating far more people than his goal, overcoming vaccine hesitancy, leaning on science and experts in making decisions, and the importance of adaptability.
* While his stated goal has been to vaccinate about 4 million adult residents, theoretically enough to achieve herd immunity, Baker said he would ultimately like to vaccinate 4.5 to 5 million. “I can be aspirational, can’t I?” he said. The state’s total population is 6.8 million, including children.
* He has no plans to target Republican men, many of whom are refusing vaccination, with the same kind of education campaign the state has launched for high-risk communities of color and immigrants. Vaccine-hesitant residents, he said, are “more likely to be moved by their own doctor, by a family member . . . or by a friend or neighbor” than by politicians.
“The data that I’ve read is it’s not that they never want to get vaccinated,” he said. “Some fall into that category, but it’s a pretty small number. The larger percentage is people who just don’t want to go first. . . . They probably will come in later.”
* Throughout the pandemic, his decisions have been informed by consulting with an outside medical advisory board, reading scientific journals, and talking with employers and people from a range of constituencies. “You had to create some kind of fact base, and that fact base had to be informed by people who knew what they’re talking about,” he said.
While supplies remain a pressing concern in achieving his vaccination targets, Baker said his more optimistic outlook stemmed from a conference call with governors Tuesday in which White House officials promised that a surge of hundreds of thousands of additional doses, especially of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, is on the way.
Based on those assurances, Baker, who’d complained for weeks that federal shipments were both unpredictable and insufficient, said he now believes the next 3 to 4 million vaccinations in the state will go a lot more quickly than the first million. He noted that 800,000 people have already enrolled through the new preregistration system and are waiting for shots, a sign that demand is high.
“We’re going to see that [1 million] number grow pretty exponentially” as J&J shipments arrive in late at March and early April, he said.
While acknowledging his administration has changed course as events have changed during the vaccine rollout, Baker said the timetable for vaccination remains “reasonably consistent with the one we put together back in December.”
But he said he has learned to prize agility and adaptability along the way: “The biggest and most significant part of the whole year was wrestling through what the facts were, because they changed a lot.”
The governor offered no regrets about the vaccine program, despite frustrations expressed by some residents and criticisms from lawmakers over priorities, equity, the sign-up experience, and the pace of injections. He cited the state’s strong recent performance as a vaccination leader among states with more than 4 million people. Federal data shows that Massachusetts now ranks among the top 10 states in total doses administered per capita and in the top five of the share of supply used — a marked improvement over the early weeks of the vaccination campaign.
“I said at the very beginning that I knew it would be lumpy and bumpy, and it was,” the governor said unapologetically. “I think overall we’ve tried to make adjustments along the way and have been willing to listen to guidance and advice and a variety of points of view from all over the place.”
In the vaccination schedule state officials released Wednesday, which makes residents 60 and over and then those 55 and over eligible before the general public, the governor said “our first goal here . . . was the preservation of life.
“It’s basically driven by the amount of data that shows that age is a big factor in hospitalizations and deaths from COVID,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of the people in the United States . . . who died of COVID are over the age of 60.”
As of Wednesday, nearly 16,400 people in Massachusetts have died of COVID-19.
While many individuals and groups have complained of being passed over in the eligibility queue, Baker said he was proud that the state made health care employees, long-term-care residents, and people who live and work in congregate care — ”some of those vulnerable populations that didn’t make anybody else’s short list” — at or near the front of the line.
“Getting those folks vaccinated early was a great way of protecting all the people they serve,” he said.
Baker said the stresses he and other state officials faced over the past year paled in comparison to those of state residents.
“People in Massachusetts have been extraordinary in the way they have handled and dealt with this,” he said. “And many of them have dealt with far more distressing, brutal, and awful things than any of us in public life have.”