When state Senator Joanne M. Comerford of Northampton asked Governor Charlie Baker why the state doesn’t set standard guidelines for “the highest quality masks” school districts should provide, the governor said, “The idea that schools aren’t safe just isn’t based on any data. I’m not going to perpetuate the idea that schools aren’t safe.”
As Comerford correctly pointed out, Baker didn’t answer her question. But his response, during Monday’s legislative committee hearing, did reveal the big challenge he now faces when it comes to addressing COVID-19 in Massachusetts.
Governor Baker, we have a data problem.
During this cold, Omicron-ridden January, Baker can snuggle up to statistics that show that Massachusetts has one of the best vaccination rates in the country and that schools are safe during this pandemic. But some people are less than comforted by charts and graphs and would like the governor, or someone in the Baker administration, to speak to their worries and concerns, emotion-driven as they may be.
Baker also loves to dwell on numbers that make his case that Massachusetts is doing better than most everyone else. As Alan Geller, a senior lecturer at the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, told me, “Governor Baker likes to think of himself as Dr. Feelgood. He only likes to look at positive stories. He’d rather say we’re doing a really good job vaccinating adults,” rather than acknowledge lagging vaccination rates for children in lower-income and conservative-leaning communities.
For example, sounding like a college football coach ranking his team, Baker told lawmakers that when it comes to overall vaccination rates, “We’re a top-five player nationally.” To his credit, he did admit that vaccinating children has been “more difficult” than he anticipated. But still, he stressed, “We’re doing as well or better” than other states.” Yay, Massachusetts!
Accentuating the positive is standard for politicians. Yet as state Senator Cindy F. Friedman of Arlington told Baker during the hearing, spouting statistics about being best in the nation doesn’t help hospitals that are short-staffed and inundated with COVID-19 patients. She asked Baker to back a statewide mask mandate, more free testing, and more vaccine outreach. In reply, Baker talked about the 26 million rapid tests that are coming our way, and again mentioned data: “We’ve never stopped on the vaccine work in equity communities. You can see it in the numbers.”
But it takes more than numbers to make people feel better. As Friedman also told Baker, “One of the things that would be enormously useful is for you to be more present.” With that remark, Baker jerked his head up from his notes and stared glumly into the camera.
To be fair to the governor, he was very much “present” in March 2020, when COVID-19 first started consuming his agenda, and he stayed that way over the long and arduous months that followed. Then, last month, he joined the great resignation wave sweeping the country and said he wouldn’t run for reelection. He’s out of here. The problem is, he gave his notice more than a year before he’s scheduled to leave his job. He’s still the chief executive. Unless he steps down and passes the title and responsibility to Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, he must deal with COVID-19, no matter how sick and tired of it he may be.
The data about overall vaccination rates in Massachusetts may warm Baker’s heart and convince him he has done all he can to lead the state to a better place. But it doesn’t warm the people he said should be “patient” as they wait on long lines for COVID-19 tests. It doesn’t help those who are scouring the Walgreens aisles for home tests. It doesn’t lift the gloom that comes with hearing of another friend or relative who has tested positive. It doesn’t ease the staffing crisis in hospitals. It doesn’t erase the worries that parents have about sending children to school, or solve the problem of what to do when schools shut down.
Should data make teachers feel safe? Maybe. But state standards for masks would also help, and Baker wants no part of that or any other kind of mandate.