Legislators to hear directly from Baker on vaccine rollout

Gov. Baker has agreed to testify before the Joint Committee on Covid-19 and Emergency Preparedness on Thursday at the first oversight hearing of the new panel where lawmakers are planning to question the administration on its coronavirus vaccine program, according to one of the committee’s chairs.

Massachusetts’s position with respect to other states has been rapidly improving as the supply of vaccine coming into the state has increased and as the state has opened up its eligibility criteria to include more of the population. Two new mass vaccinations sites are set to open this week in Natick and Dartmouth, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, the state ranked 15th in the country for doses administered per capita and 11th for people with at least one dose per capita.

However, after last week’s website crash, lawmakers continue to raise questions about the state’s technology, the lack of ability to preregister for a shot, and the decision to stop distributing vaccine to local clinics in favor of high-capacity vaccination sites.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and officials with the Department of Public Health have also agreed to go before the committee, she said. The panel invited Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, Assistant Public Health Commissioner Jana Ferguson, and Assistant Public Health Commissioner, and Director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences Kevin Cranston.

In addition, the chairs of three other committees — Health Care Financing, Public Health, and Racial Equity, Civil Rights and Inclusion — have been asked to assemble expert panels to present to the oversight committee. 

There’s no shortage of questions about how the Baker administration has approached its effort to vaccinate more than 4 million people. Legislators have critiqued everything from the governor’s decision to allow healthy young people to get vaccinated alongside at-risk seniors to the delay in having a call center set up for people unable to book appointments online.

Baker has defended certain decisions that he says led to a slower vaccine rollout than in some other states, including the prioritization of residents and staff at long-term nursing and congregate care facilities, but he has also admitted to being “late” with things like the call center. Even after the call center was set up, it took multiple days and pressure from lawmakers before evening and weekend hours were added.

“My hair’s on fire about the whole thing. I can’t even begin to tell you how pissed off I am,” Baker said Thursday on the radio about Thursday’s crash of the appointment website.

State Rep. Bill Driscoll, who co-chairs the committee, said he was particularly frustrated by the rollout of the 2-1-1 call center.

“For me, we all understand that patience is really paramount. The vaccine will still take months to reach many of us. But when we have to pivot over and over again, with very little notice of what’s going on to the public and organizations and agencies involved, it begs a lot of questions. The planning for future phases is my concern,” Driscoll said.

“We need the next few months to go a lot smoother,” Driscoll said.