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For Baker, the Mass. vaccine rollout has gone from political nightmare to point of pride. Still, racial inequities continue

Governor Charlie Baker.
Governor Charlie Baker.Matt Stone/pool

Once they’d wrapped up the baseball banter, President Biden had a clear message for Governor Charlie Baker.

“You’re doing a hell of a job,” Biden told the second-term Republican on Tuesday afternoon, at a virtual meeting on the vaccine rollout with five other governors. “I hope that doesn’t ruin your reputation coming from a Democrat.”

That high praise from the nation’s highest office was the latest indication that the Massachusetts vaccine rollout, once a source of political pain for Baker, has become a point of pride. As the state maintains its spot near the top of national rankings for percentage of population vaccinated, critics who were at Baker’s throat earlier this year have changed their tune or quieted altogether.

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For the first time in nearly a year, Massachusetts reported no new confirmed COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday.

Tuning into the Biden meeting from Polar Park, where the Worcester Red Sox were about to kick off their season, Baker boasted that 74 percent of the state’s adult population has already gotten a first dose of the vaccine. That outpaces a White House goal to get at least one dose to 70 percent of the US adult population by July 4.

“My friends north of us in Vermont are ahead of us, and we’re going to do all that we can to catch up to them,” Baker said. He praised a “mixed model” approach involving mass vaccination sites, regional collaboratives, local providers, and community health centers for the state’s success.

Also appearing with Baker were governors from Ohio, Utah, Maine, Minnesota, and New Mexico and top officials from the Biden administration.

Massachusetts is on track to inoculate 4.1 million residents by the beginning of June. Polling has shown the state’s residents are among the least hesitant in the nation about getting the COVID-19 vaccines. And cases and hospitalizations are declining as vaccination rates rise, a sign of success for the state’s public health campaigns.

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Still, the racial inequities in vaccination rates continue to dog Massachusetts and the rest of the country.

State data show that 55 percent of white residents have received at least one dose of the vaccines, along with 53 percent of Asian residents. Those numbers trailed for Black residents, just 37 percent of whom have received at least one dose, and Hispanic residents, for whom the figure is 33 percent.

Baker underplayed those disparities Tuesday.

“So far, our Hispanic community, our Asian community, our Black community rates, it’s right up there with our white community as well,” Baker said. “We still have some work to do there, but we’ve made a lot of progress.”

State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Democrat who is considering a run for governor and leads a committee on racial equity, civil rights, and inclusion, praised the state’s top line vaccination figures, but said Baker should be setting those high bars for every community.

“When we gloss over our numbers, it is not helpful to the goal of achieving health equity. A number in the mid-30s is not ‘right up there’ with a number in the mid-50s,” Chang-Díaz said.

The administration “has been responsive, finally,” to the demands by her and other advocates for more outreach, like mobile vaccination programs, she said. But “we shouldn’t have had to drag anyone toward those tactics,” she said. “It wasn’t until it became a public fight that the administration started to put those things into play.”

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Leaders of the Vaccine Equity Now! Coalition, a group of more than 30 racial justice, immigrant justice, civil rights, and public health organizations, raised similar criticism, saying in a joint statement that some efforts were coming too late.

“If reaching the communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic and ensuring equitable access to the vaccine was truly a top priority for the Baker administration, it would have invested in these community-based sites proven to reduce inequities from the outset of the program,” said the cochairs of the coalition, Dr. Atyia Martin of the Resilience 21 Coalition, Eva Millona of the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition, and Carlene Pavlos of the Massachusetts Public Health Association.

Massachusetts is ahead of most of the country in efforts to vaccinate communities of color. According to Bloomberg data, the state ranks third for vaccination rates among Black residents.

But there should be no pride in outpacing other states when no state is meeting the mark in terms of equitable distribution, said state Senator Cindy Friedman of Arlington, who was one of Baker’s harshest critics earlier this year.

Still, she cited improvements since March, when she told Baker during a frustrated moment at a legislative hearing that “we’re living in two different worlds.” In particular, she credited state efforts to reach homebound individuals and outreach to reach marginalized communities.

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“It took a while, but it was a real effort and a commitment,” Friedman said. “We certainly are in a decent place right now.”

Friedman is just one of several Democratic state lawmakers who have offered up praise after earlier harsh assessments. Baker’s performance reviews have turned decidedly sweeter since February, when his reputation as an efficient and competent manager was tested.

In the early weeks of the rollout, a state that prides itself on being home to the top minds and best hospitals lagged behind its New England neighbors and most of the country. Baker was slammed by local leaders, grilled at legislative oversight hearings, and even received a rare rebuke from the state’s congressional delegation. When the state’s vaccine appointment website failed in February just as roughly 1 million residents became eligible to book slots — a flub Baker said infuriated him — a four-legged octopus accompanying the error message became a sad symbol of bungled planning.

In February, state Senator Julian Cyr stressed that Cape Cod was “left behind” in the state’s program, as his elderly constituents struggled to book appointments at distant sites.

“Was it acceptable at the time? No,” he said in an interview this week. But “the governor and his team deserve credit for righting the ship.”

Of course, lawmakers and public health experts emphasized, the state is now entering the most difficult phase of the vaccine rollout, as it tries to reach the hesitant and those without easy access to health care centers. The state will also begin to vaccinate 12-15-year-olds, now that federal officials have approved the Pfizer vaccine for them.

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Dr. Kiame Mahaniah, chief executive officer of the Lynn Community Health Center, praised the administration for pivoting from high-volume mass vaccination sites to a more targeted campaign.

“The administration is on the right track,” he said, but warned, “the hardest work yet awaits us.”

How Baker handles the final, most challenging months will be critical. As his star rises, insiders continue to speculate about whether he will seek an unprecedented third term.

Public polling showed Baker’s popularity dropped in March, and his approval ratings for the vaccine rollout trailed his overall high marks, according to polling by Suffolk University and the Globe.

Some of those surveyed told the Globe in subsequent interviews that their frustration with Baker over being unable to book a vaccine appointment had dissipated after they were inoculated. Cyr said one constituent who wrote to him complaining of “elder abuse” when she was unable to get a vaccine in the early weeks of the rollout turned genial once she got her shot.

“You can almost see this physiological reaction where people who were so anxious to get the vaccine do get the vaccine and have a real wave of relief,” Cyr said.

That trend may prove important politically if Baker does run again.

“Maybe every person in politics just needs to learn the lesson that Charlie Baker always bounces back,” said Erin O’Brien, a politics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.