In his second appearance before a new legislative oversight committee, Governor Charlie Baker Tuesday defended his administration’s COVID-19 vaccine program against sharp criticism that it has prioritized private companies over public health infrastructure.
National statistics show that Massachusetts now ranks among the top states for percentage of residents receiving at least one dose of the vaccine. Before a panel reviewing the state’s vaccine rollout, Baker highlighted that status and seemed frustrated with Democratic lawmakers who have criticized his approach, calling on them to “commit to be clear and direct with the people of the Commonwealth.”
His firm message did not sit well with a number of state lawmakers, particularly state Senator Cindy Friedman, who questioned how to reconcile the desperate messages she has received from constituents unable to obtain the vaccine with the success Baker described.
“What we’re getting from you is, ‘You’re all wrong, we’re doing great, please, we don’t want to hear it anymore.’ And I find that hard to take,” Friedman said. “These are decisions that you’re making, and we don’t understand them, and we are worried about the people that are being left behind. They are being left behind — we’re not making this up.”
“We’re living in two different worlds,” she concluded, ceding the floor without posing a specific question.
The tense exchange encapsulated the delicate political situation Baker finds himself in. A chorus of critics continue to prod the administration on its vaccine distribution, even as Massachusetts outperforms most other states on several metrics.
Complaints about the vaccine rollout have appeared to dent the second-term Republican’s popularity, with his usually high approval ratings taking a hit in recent polling. With its vaccine oversight panel, the Legislature, long content to let Baker spearhead the pandemic response, has created a platform to criticize Baker’s choices while doing little to change them.
During Tuesday’s virtual session, Baker was repeatedly pressed on the administration’s decision to turn away from a decades-old emergency plan to mobilize local public health departments and instead engage private companies to administer significant portions of the rollout.
For decades following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a 2001 anthrax scare, local health officials prepared to open vaccine sites should Massachusetts face such a health crisis. But when it came time to distribute the COVID-19 vaccines, “we threw the plan out,” state Senator John Cronin said.
“Was that the right choice, to recreate the wheel on the fly?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Baker responded bluntly, “for a number of reasons.”
As state lawmakers cited constituent complaints and the testimony from local health officials that they have not played as big a role in the rollout as they could, Baker and other top health and emergency planning officials said previous plans for dispensing vaccines and medications proved ill-suited for the pandemic. Marylou Sudders, the state’s health secretary, said one blueprint called for a possible 603 sites across the state’s 351 cities and towns, and were developed “primarily to respond to an intentional release of anthrax.”
“The change we made is also borne out by the fact that we’re the number one state in the country across almost every metric, every measure that the CDC keeps track of for states that have more than 4 million people,” Baker said. “We have a long way to go and a ton of work to do and I wouldn’t begin to say for a minute we don’t. But I do believe given all the issues associated with supply, the nature of the supply, the nature of the rollout, how fast it has to happen and how people need to manage the product itself, we made the right decision.”
Baker said limited supply of vaccine, the need to store it at extremely cold temperatures, “the prep process, the potential for spoilage, and the two-dose regimen were all on-the-ground realities that required a different playbook.” He said that local efforts continue to play an important role in vaccinating residents; according to the administration, local health boards and municipal collaboratives have administered 11 percent of doses, while mass vaccination sites have dispensed 15 percent.
But local officials told legislators they have not been given the chance to administer as many shots as they could.
Sean O’Brien, the regional emergency planning committee coordinator for Barnstable County, said it purchased an ultra-cold freezer to store doses and has a history of coordinating with Cape Cod’s 15 local health departments. In Andover, officials built plans to use the high school’s field house to vaccinate up to 300 people per hour if needed, said Thomas Carbone, the town’s director of public health.
Dawn Carmen Sibor, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association, said she’s received no indication that local officials, who the state encouraged to form a regional collaborative system— will be given a bigger role in distributing vaccines when eligibility is opened to the general public on April 19.
“The plans are scalable. The structure was and is solid. The plans had been tested and should have been and should still be used,” Sibor said.
The committee also heard from Curtis Wood, Baker’s secretary of technology services and security, who said his agency took a larger role in the state’s appointment infrastructure only after it became beset with problems.
While his agency had spoken with vendors the state had hired to set up the state’s appointment website, it didn’t coordinate with state health officials in selecting the vendors, nor did it perform its own load test before the site crashed on Feb. 18 as a rush of people vied for openings.
“We felt there was no need for us to be in the weeds at that moment because there was no indication this would fail,” Wood told lawmakers.
After that, he said “our team dug in” to solve problems and work with vendors to add features, including a digital waiting room, which itself later became bogged down. His office also signed a contract with Google after speaking with two other vendors — Microsoft and the Massachusetts-based Everbridge — to create a preregistration website earlier this month.
Wood, asked if officials had reached out early in the process to the “big brains” in Massachusetts to build an appointment system, said he personally did not. But with a greater vaccine supply, he argued, people may not have encountered so much difficulty.
“I’m not dismissing the fact that we had some website issues,” he said. But he said there was “panic” in trying to secure extremely limited slots. Otherwise, “it might have been a different story.”
Comerford dismissed that argument and questioned whether the state should have made various improvements more quickly, especiallyafter others, including a developer on maternity leave, built alternative vaccination-finder websites to address the flaws.
“We should have. We didn’t. And we did,” Wood said. “I think the point being is that we’ve recovered fairly quickly. We solved it. It’s not perfect. But we’re better off today.”
Wood said state officials are also discussing adding other vaccination sites to the state’s preregistration system, which currently funnels those who signed up to only available slots at the state’s seven mass sites.
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