Baker to mark vaccination progress with Biden

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – As the governor of one of three states with more than 70 percent of its adults at least partially vaccinated, Gov. Charlie Baker will join President Joe Biden on Tuesday for a virtual event to discuss strategies to reach people who are either reluctant or face barriers to vaccination.

Baker, a Republican, said he is one of maybe six other governors who will join Biden to share their state’s successful approaches to vaccination as Massachusetts on Monday lifted some of its COVID-19 business restrictions and made walk-in appointments available at all seven of its mass vaccination sites, including Gillette Stadium.

Massachusetts, Hawaii and Vermont are the only three states in the country where over 70 percent of adults have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

“It’s basically to talk about how to reach and deliver vaccines to either folks that are part of what we would call the hesitant community, or folks who are part of communities that are just hard to reach and need more help to get vaccinated,” Baker said Monday afternoon, after touring the Manet Community Health Center vaccination site in Quincy, where they have vaccinated 26,000 people.

The initial rollout of the vaccine in Massachusetts was plagued with problems, from the lack of call center to field questions and help book appointments, to a website that couldn’t handle the traffic from eager residents.

More recently, however, the state has featured at or near the top of all states with more than 5 million people in a variety of vaccine distribution metrics.

On Saturday, the White House’s top COVID-19 advisor Andy Slavitt gave kudos to Massachusetts, Hawaii and Vermont for becoming the first three states with more than 70 percent of adult residents at least half-vaccinated.

Like Baker, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott is a Republican, while Hawaii is governed by a Democrat – Gov. David Ige. Massachusetts has vaccinated 73 percent of its adult population and 60 percent of all residents with at least one dose.

With the state on track to reach its goal of 4.1 million people fully vaccinated by early June, Baker visited Quincy on Monday to highlight the role community health centers will play in reaching the remaining quarter of adults. Cynthia Sierra, the CEO of Manet, said the health center is experimenting with walk-ins, extended hours and mobile and pop-up clinics at basketball courts, high schools, food pantries and other locations.

The state’s recent success in driving down COVID-19 infection rates has triggered increased calls for Baker to move more quickly to reopen still shuttered or restricted segments of the economy and social life.

Some business groups are pressuring Baker to move the state’s full reopening date of Aug. 1 earlier in the summer as neighbors like Connecticut and Rhode Island act more quickly to lift business restrictions.

Meanwhile, the New Civil Liberties Alliance on Monday petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case challenging Baker’s pandemic orders, while New Life South Coast in New Bedford, First Liberty Institute, and the Massachusetts Family Institute filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ongoing capacity limits on church gatherings.

The governor said his strategy for controlling the COVID-19 virus since last March may have resulted in Massachusetts being “a little more cautious than some others,” but he said it’s also allowed the state to avoid the “blow back” that some states experienced when they reopened too early.

Baker said he has been “pleasantly surprised” by the continued participation rate in the state’s vaccine program, which could enable him to lift restrictions more quickly, but he offered little else in the way of assurances.

“We’re going to continue to make decisions based on data, and the one thing we’ve said all along is any decision we make with respect to reopening we want it to be a positive one that is sustainable,” Baker said.

After suggesting last week he would consider mandating a vaccine for students returning to school in the fall if one becomes available, Baker seemed to suggest he was now leaning against that approach, saying “incentives” rather than a mandate is “probably the approach we would pursue.”

After Baker’s press conference, the Food and Drug Administration announced it had approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine for individuals between the ages of 15 and 16, opening a major new segment of the population to vaccinations well in advance of the next school year.

Baker also suggested that by Aug. 1 he may be ready to lift the public health emergency, under which he has issued scores of executive orders in response to the pandemic, from imposing capacity limits on businesses to mandating masks in public and requiring travelers to quarantine.

Baker said “that would certainly be a time at which we would go to some sort of a standard that would be what I would call traditional public health standard and not something that would operate under the rubric of an EO.”

On a more personal note, the governor, who himself is now fully vaccinated, has frequently talked about his 93-year-old father from the podium and how it has been difficult for him not to visit during the pandemic.

He said he got to see his father in person on Mother’s Day.

“I hugged my dad when I saw him on Sunday and it was a big toothy event for both of us,” Baker said.

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