Arguing the state has been too hands-off in quelling the latest COVID-19 surge, Democratic state lawmakers on Tuesday pressed Governor Charlie Baker to take a more aggressive posture on testing in schools, masking rules, and public messaging.
The leaders of a legislative committee peppered Baker and his health secretary, Marylou Sudders, with questions over a combined 75 minutes, at times engaging in testy exchanges about the governor’s turbulent distribution of masks to educators and his administration’s resistance to a universal mask mandate.
A through-line of their requests: more.
“One of the things that would be enormously useful is for you to be more present,” Senator Cindy F. Friedman told Baker at one point, prompting his head to shoot up from a page of notes and stare into the camera.
Friedman, an Arlington Democrat, cited the daily briefings Baker had in 2020, saying they were helpful in explaining the state’s efforts “so that we know that there’s a plan, we know that these things are being worked on.”
“I can’t tell the state that. I have my own little world,” she said. “You can.”
The virtual oversight hearing elicited few concrete commitments from Baker, who oscillated between expressing openness to ideas about improving the state’s response and defending his decisions to date.
“I’m all in on this,” Baker said at one point, referring to efforts to convince people to vaccinate their children, the success of which varies across communities.
The hearing highlighted stark differences between how the second-term Republican and Democratic lawmakers view state government’s role nearly two years into a worldwide pandemic, particularly as the state and its hospitals weather record numbers of infections from the Omicron-fueled surge.
Senator Joanne M. Comerford, the Senate chairwoman of the Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, pushed Baker for his plans to ensure wider-scale testing of students and to create clearer standards on what masks should be used in schools.
Baker responded by noting that Massachusetts’ so-called test-and-stay program is one of the country’s largest, and said transmission rates are low in classrooms.
“I’m not going to let people perpetuate the idea that schools aren’t safe. Because they are,” Baker said.
Comerford moved on — “Governor, I understand that you’re not going to answer this question,” she said — before Baker argued that towns and cities also have hundreds of millions in other federal funding that they could directly tap if needed.
“I understand, governor. But I believe it’s the state’s responsibility to set the guidelines,” Comerford responded. “I’m not saying that the state has to do all the work. But I think it’s the state’s job to set the bar. We have the experts. We have the resources. We should take the burden on our shoulders, and we should execute on behalf of our municipal officials.”
Baker in recent weeks has accelerated the state response to Omicron while avoiding enacting the tighter restrictions or mandates that defined earlier parts of the pandemic.
Baker last month said the state would distribute 2.1 million free at-home COVID-19 tests to hard-hit cities and towns, and earlier Tuesday, said the state had secured an order to get 26 million more rapid antigen tests over the next three months, with an initial goal of delivering them to K-12 schools and child care centers.
He also deployed the National Guard in late December to help hospitals struggling with staff shortages, while ordering them to cancel nonessential surgeries to accommodate the tide of patients.
Baker on Tuesday also signaled to employers and others that he believes they should not be requiring negative PCR tests before people can return to work. Nor should schools or child care centers, he said.
“I would actually argue that rapid tests are a better way of measuring when someone’s over COVID than a PCR test,” said Baker, a former health insurance executive who is not running for a third term as governor.
Doctors and public health officials, however, have pleaded for Baker to do more. That includes reaching those who remain unvaccinated and parents who have been hesitant to inoculate their young children, even though Massachusetts has among the highest vaccination rates among all states. And with roughly 35 percent of children 5 to 11 years old fully vaccinated, only Vermont has higher rates among children that age.
Baker defended his administration’s vaccine outreach, saying it “never stopped” in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. But he agreed there’s ground to make up on pushing vaccination rates even higher. “I’m all in on this,” he said.
“The kid thing in particular is a more difficult sell for many folks than I thought it would be, and I think it’s because there’s so much noise out there about vaccines, generally,” Baker told the committee. “I’ve been in some really intense conversations with people I know who have kids, and honestly, sometimes I can make the sale and sometimes I can’t.”
The committee’s leaders, as well as others including Senate President Karen E. Spilka, have urged Baker to go further, and faster, including reconsidering a renewed mask mandate. Comerford called it “the lowest possible hanging fruit.”
But Baker and Sudders said the administration has no plans to reinstate one. They pointed out that some cities and towns have established their own local mask requirements, and the state still requires masks on public transit and at health care and congregate care facilities, among some other locations.
Sudders noted that New York has a mask mandate, but “COVID cases are through the roof.”
“So, I don’t know, other than further frustrating people in the public, what a [universal] mask mandate would do,” Sudders said.
Tuesday was the first time Baker testified before the panel since early last year, when they questioned the state’s shaky rollout of the then-newly available COVID-19 vaccines during a pair of hearings in February and March. The committee held another oversight hearing in mid-December, but officials said the morning of the hearing that Baker administration officials were “unable” to participate.
Spilka framed Tuesday’s hearing as a way to gauge “if the Legislature should be taking more direct action.” By hearing’s end, lawmakers did not hint if there was, though they were quick to lament the state’s current struggles.
“I wish that we were doing more to slow transmission, frankly,” said Representative William J. Driscoll, Jr., the House chair of the committee. “We seem to be coping and managing through the blizzard that is the Omicron surge this winter. But I don’t want to see us get here again.”