BOSTON (SHNS) – Days before he is set to appear before a legislative oversight committee, Gov. Charlie Baker was defiant in the face of questions about his COVID-19 vaccination program on Tuesday, calling Massachusetts a “top 10 daily doser” whose biggest obstacle to vaccinating more people is supply.
Baker said the state was working to make user-friendly improvements to the vaccination appointment website, but repeatedly pointed to Centers for Disease Control statistics that he said put Massachusetts among the top 10 states in the country for doses administered per capita.
The governor said Massachusetts also ranks number one for first doses administered per capita among peer states with at least 5 million people, and said Bloomberg’s tracker puts the state second in the country for its rate of vaccination among Black residents.
“I would hate to distract from that information because that’s a really good story,” Baker said at a press conference where he was announcing his administration’s latest plans to bring students back into the classroom.
Baker has agreed to testify Thursday at a legislative oversight committee hearing on his administration’s vaccine rollout. He is expected to get peppered with questions about everything from equity in vaccine distribution to the failure of the state’s website last week to handle the online traffic as vaccination appointments became available to people 65 and older.
Sen. Diana DiZoglio separately asked Auditor Suzanne Bump to audit the administration’s vaccine program, in particular its spending on software vendors responsible for the appointment booking website.
Asked if he intended to make improvements to the sign-up process after what happened last week, Baker retorted, “Last week 70,000 people made appointments. It was a bad user experience, which we own. And we need to do better.”
Baker said his administration was working on “user interface improvements” to the website that would be rolled out over the next few weeks, and was also working with vendors to ensure the system could handle the traffic volume that will come in future phases of the rollout.
The governor, however, would not say whether any changes might be ready before Thursday when tens of thousands of new appointments become available each week. He also did not say whether the improvements would include preregistration, centralized booking or a function that would prevent users from losing their appointment during the time it takes them to enter their personal information.
Rather than technology, Baker said the biggest impediment to more people getting vaccinated or being able to book an appointment is supply.
“Every first dose we get ends up in somebody’s arm and it ends up in somebody’s arm in a big hurry,” Baker said. “The problem is we get 130,000 first doses per week and we have a much bigger universe of people who are eligible to be vaccinated.”
White House COVID Coordinator Jeff Zients told governors in a weekly call on Tuesday that for the fifth consecutive week the Biden administration would be increasing its shipment of vaccines to states from 13.5 million last week to 14.5 million.
Baker also noted that vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna told Congress on Tuesday that it planned to dramatically scale up its vaccine production next month. The two companies pledged to have 220 million doses delivered to the federal government by the end of March, which would be up from the 75 million produced so far.
“If we have more vaccine we have plenty of infrastructure to deliver more doses every day,” Baker said.
Baker also continually returned to the promise of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which will be reviewed on Friday for emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.
“One of the big benefits of the J&J vaccine, if it gets approved – I feel like I’m waiting for Godot — is that vaccine doesn’t require the same degree of deep freeze that we have with Pfizer and Moderna,” Baker said.
After announcing last week that his administration would concentrate on distributing vaccine doses to high-capacity sites rather than smaller local clinics, the administration has received pushback from cities and towns that had hoped to run their own vaccination programs for residents.
Baker repeated that he believes it is more efficient with a limited supply to concentrate on mass vaccination sites, but urged local boards of health to participate in regional collaboratives that worked in places like the Berkshires.
He said local boards of health have a role to play in vaccinating hard-to-reach populations, like those living in senior housing, without transportation and “shut-ins,” and he has asked for their help in doing do.
As more supply becomes available, Baker said health care providers will also have a bigger role to play in reaching out to their patients to vaccinate them. He said that will become easier if the J&J vaccine gets approved because it doesn’t have the same cold storage requirements as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.