Pressure rising on Charlie Baker to improve vaccine rollout after rough week
By LISA KASHINSKY | firstname.lastname@example.org, SEAN PHILIP COTTER | email@example.com and NICOLAUS CZARNECKI | firstname.lastname@example.org | PUBLISHED: February 13, 2021 at 6:35 p.m. | UPDATED: February 14, 2021 at 1:25 a.m.
Pressure is rising on the Baker administration to improve the tumultuous vaccine rollout that House Speaker Ronald Mariano blasted as a “virtual disaster” after a week a disarray — even as Gov. Charlie Baker insists his efforts are hamstrung by limited doses.
“I can’t distribute supply that doesn’t exist,” Baker said Saturday after touring the mass vaccination site at Springfield’s Eastfield Mall. “I would like nothing better than to be able to answer every single ask we get for vaccine with supply. But until we get a lot more supply from the federal government, that’s just not going to be possible.”
Baker’s defense comes after a bumpy week that saw seniors left standing in the cold waiting for appointments at the Eastfield Mall; hospitals learning their doses would be “severely limited” for weeks as the state routes vaccines to mass vaccination sites; and advocates criticizing the new buddy system for vaccine appointments that spawned a Craigslist market of younger people seeking to take seniors to their shots.
“They’re much more than just bumps — they are really putting people’s lives at risk, causing a lot of confusion, fear and frustration,” said state Rep. Tami Gouveia, D-Acton, who led a letter calling on Baker to halt the buddy system. “The Baker-Polito administration should be doing everything they can to engender trust among the public, and I don’t see evidence of them doing that this week in particular.”
Baker said his administration gets four times more requests for vaccines than there are doses available, noting it’s a “frustration” felt by governors across the country who continue to press the Biden administration for more transparency.
Massachusetts receives roughly 106,000 doses a week from the feds — though the “significant increase” Baker hoped for by the end of February so far “has not materialized,” he said.
Vaccine administration has increased “by over 50% over the last 10 days,” Baker said, noting that roughly 11% of residents have now received their first dose. His administration also this week improved its online appointment-finder and expanded hours at its 2-1-1 vaccine call center.
Mariano, the House Speaker, cheered the call center expansion he’d helped champion, but said the Phase 2 rollout has been a “virtual disaster.”
“The representatives in the House from across the state are getting complaints,” the Quincy Democrat said in an interview Friday. “We know where the problems are so we’re trying to help identify some of the lack of flexibility in the program and improve it.”
Part of the Legislature’s response includes the new Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management created by Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka.
State Rep. William Driscoll, D-Milton, who chairs the House side, said he hopes the committee will be equal parts reactive to the rocky rollout and proactive in improving it before eligibility expands. He said the first order of business should be “looking at why we were so underprepared for the vaccine rollout” and whether the state’s effectively used its emergency management infrastructure.
Lawmakers have also sent a flurry of letters urging Baker to make tweaks large and small to the vaccine rollout — rethinking the companion system, adding asthma to the list of eligible medical conditions — and have filed emergency legislation to improve equity, create a preregistration system and a centralized online portal for appointment booking.
But several acknowledge the purposefully methodical legislative process is sometimes no match for the governor’s sweeping emergency powers.
“The executive power got all the money from the federal government, so they have to make some of the major decisions. But we are the first line of complaints with our constituents, so we’re the ones who have identified the problems, and we continue to work with the governor’s task force” on improvements, Mariano said, but added, “there has to be improved communication.”
The budget is typically one of the Legislature’s “strongest pieces of leverage,” said state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, who filed a bill to create a centralized online booking portal. “But with so much of this operating money coming from the federal government, we’re limited.”
State Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, called for Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders to be replaced, writing in a Facebook post, “Heads should roll. In my opinion, Governor Baker should replace Secretary Sudders.”
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu called out the “utter lack of leadership at the state level” that’s proven “incredibly stressful” for smaller providers trying to set up their own clinics.
“They don’t have help securing space” or supplies as basic as extension cords, the mayoral candidate said.
Louis Elisa, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator now with the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition, said the Baker administration’s “ridiculous” approach has been too top-down — particularly in minority communities.
“I strongly urge you to hire some Black people from the community,” Elisa said. “Work with us, work with vaccination groups.”