As 2020 finally came to a close, there was widespread hope that 2021 would be a better year than the last. With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, a glimmer of hope for the eventual end of the pandemic is finally in sight. For Massachusetts residents, though—including all of us at Boston College—Governor Charlie Baker’s sluggish vaccine rollout program leaves much to be desired and ultimately lacks urgency.
Massachusetts seems to have it all when it comes to a successful response to a public health emergency—several of the world’s best hospitals, medical schools, and research universities are concentrated in Boston and its surrounding areas. Public health experts and logistical whizzes are a dime a dozen. All of these advantages are rendered useless, however, under the Baker administration and the Democratic-controlled, veto-proof state legislature that has done little to hold the Baker administration accountable. In examining the vaccine rollout in the United States, Bloomberg found that as of Feb. 7, Massachusetts had only given the first dose of the vaccine to 8.3 percent of the state population, as opposed to the national average of 9.8 percent. As of Feb. 7, Massachusetts is 46th in the United States for percent of the population to have been given the first dose —an unacceptable statistic.
To add insult to injury, Massachusetts has the additional doses it needs to catch up—only 58.3 percent of the doses allotted to the state were administered as of Feb. 7, as compared to the national average of 70.9 percent administered nationwide. The blame for this lagging rollout rests on the logistical nightmare that the Baker administration has enabled—the lack of a centralized resource center for people seeking the COVID-19 vaccine, a convoluted and impossible to navigate website, and several technology crashes driven by high website traffic. This system has made it incredibly difficult for the most vulnerable members of the population—including the elderly, the unhoused, and those with disabilities—to gain access to the vaccine. The logistical problems, especially in a state that has several institutions of higher education that are renowned for expertise in information technology, is inexcusable.
It is also important to note that the difficulties in accessing the COVID-19 vaccine are not felt evenly among all Massachusetts residents. As of Jan. 29, 36 percent of those vaccinated in Massachusetts were white, while only 3.3 percent were Hispanic, and 2.6 percent were Black. Communities of color have been the hardest hit by the pandemic, and in order to address its effects equitably, the state government must act to mitigate racial disparities. On top of this, the more rural, less affluent region of western Massachusetts has far fewer vaccination sites than eastern Massachusetts. Mass vaccination sites are concentrated in and around Boston—including Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium—while western Massachusetts is left with an abandoned Macy’s that can only distribute 500 doses per day. If it was Baker’s goal to provide an equitable approach to public health, his execution certainly leaves much to be desired.
Now that the data has established that there is a significant problem with Massachusetts’ vaccination rollout program’s speed, efficiency, and equity, the more important question remains: What should lawmakers do about it? From my point of view, the most frustrating aspect of the failure of the vaccination campaign is the inaction of the state legislature. Baker and the rest of the governor’s administration are falling flat, and it is certainly within the power and responsibility of the state legislature to jump in and move to correct these shortcomings. Specifically, they should take an active role in demanding briefings to keep them informed and active, as well as holding hearings and hearing testimony to keep the governor’s administration accountable to the public.
Instead, on Feb. 1, the State House of Representatives gaveled into session for a grand total of two minutes before promptly moving to adjourn, and when asked how the vaccine rollout was going, Speaker Ron Mariano answered, “I have no idea.” It has become clear over the last several months that the state legislature is more interested in watching from afar than getting involved in the details of a pesky public health emergency. Rather than persisting as passive observers of a logistical nightmare, the state legislature and its Democratic supermajority should take a hands-on role in terms of oversight and accountability for those in charge of rolling out the vaccination program. It is the only acceptable course of action.
The failure to effectively manage the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been a core pitfall of the Massachusetts state government. It is time for the Baker administration to correct its wrongs and employ the wide range of equitable and efficient tools at its disposal, and for the state legislature to step up and hold the governor accountable.
Featured Graphic by Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor