BOSTON (SHNS) – Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat and president of the Massachusetts Senate, says she doesn’t know when she will receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m waiting my turn,” Spilka, 68, told WCVB’s “On the Record” on Sunday morning. “Whenever that is.”
Channeling some of the anxiety and frustration of Massachusetts residents, Spilka said there is too much confusion about vaccines and not enough clear communication from the state and federal governments.
“Most people don’t know when it’s going to be their turn,” she said. “And there’s a lot of anxiety, rightfully so. People want to get the vaccine. They want to protect themselves. It’s still scary times.”
Before vaccinations became available in mid-December, Gov. Charlie Baker laid out a risk-based, three-phase plan that outlined where everyone in the state would fall on the governor’s priority list, and rough estimates of when the vaccine phases will unfold.
The plan’s architects were assisted by an advisory panel that included Rep. Ronald Mariano, who is now speaker of the House, and Sen. Cindy Friedman, a Spilka deputy who last session specialized in health care policy.
Health care workers dealing with COVID-19 patients and first responders were among the first to receive the the vaccine, followed by people who live or work in congregate care sites, such as jails and prisons, and Baker a few days ago fully opened the first phase, making home health workers and others in health care eligible.
Spilka called the government’s handling of the virus “to some extent a national fiasco” and did not exempt Gov. Charlie Baker from her criticism while simultaneously expressing optimism about President Joe Biden and his team, who she said are “taking this pandemic seriously.”
“We’ve all suffered greatly I believe across the country because there has not been a coordinated national effort on COVID-19, the pandemic, or the vaccine strategy, and states have largely had to fend on their own,” said Spilka, who plans to speak privately by phone with Baker on Monday afternoon.
Spilka said the state faces three immediate needs: an increased supply of vaccines, more information about vaccine delivery, and “clear messaging.”
“We are hearing from people not knowing when they are in line for vaccines,” she said. “They hear that their relative or friend from some other area within the state – 65 and above – were able to get their first vaccination. They’re being told they are not ready yet. It’s not their turn. They don’t understand why.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending vaccine access for those 65 and older, but the state plan, Spilka said, places those 65 and older at “the end of the second phase, which is probably like March or something at this point.”
“I think the three phases and all that’s involved in the different levels of each phase is confusing and hopefully if we get a large influx of vaccines, we will be able to do it faster and better,” she said, adding that she’s getting questions from constituents about where and when they will be able to get vaccinated.
Baker last week said approvals of vaccine candidates from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson could dramatically change the vaccine landscape. In the coming days Baker is expected to talk about expanded vaccine access infrastructure and the massive undertaking of vaccinating the many groups in the second phase of his plan.
Asked about Spilka’s comments about the vaccine rollout, Baker spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw pointed back to the work of the group that advised the governor on the rollout approach.
“Massachusetts’ COVID vaccine advisory group, made up of leading infectious disease doctors, national leaders in public health and the Senate’s lead member for healthcare policy, developed the phased plan to prioritize life preservation and ensure distribution of vaccines to people of color and other vulnerable populations that have experienced the most severe impacts of COVID,” Finlaw said.
Spilka also addressed state tolling policy and climate change and emissions reduction legislation during her pre-taped Sunday television appearance.
After their last minute attempt at crafting a climate change bill was vetoed by Baker earlier this month, Spilka did not lay out a specific timeline for lawmakers to return the bill to the governor’s desk in the new session, repeating her plan to get it passed “very quickly.”
The Senate has a pair of informal sessions planned this week; the House has a formal session on Thursday.
The bill won bipartisan support and cleared both branches last session by veto-proof margins, but Baker was largely denied a chance to work with the Legislature on amendments because of timing of the bill. Spilka said that if the next effort to pass a bill runs into a veto, she is confident about an override.
However, addressing Baker’s criticism that aspects of the bill could stop housing construction, Spilka said, “I don’t accept the false choice between equitable economic prosperity and tackling the climate change needs of our planet.”
By passing a transportation bond bill on the last day of session and leaving themselves no chance to try and override Baker’s vetoes within that bill, lawmakers also looked on helplessly as Baker this month slashed transportation policy plans that were months in the making.
The vetoes included a section of the bill placing conditions on the massive Allston Multimodal Project, including a proposed ban on Interstate 90 toll increases to support or help finance the project. In his veto message, Baker wrote, “We will continue to work with the Legislature to develop alternate language to address the many legitimate concerns addressed in this section and file such legislation at an appropriate time.”
The project is anchored around the goal of replacing the aging, but heavily used viaduct that carries the Massachusetts Turnpike from the Allston Interchange to the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge.
Saying tolls should not be “an ATM to finance projects,” Spilka said she’s been told there are enough toll reserves to fix the viaduct without any increase in tolls.
“The toll payers should not pay for the remainder of the project of the Storrow Drive or the fixing the land so that the city or Harvard or anybody else can develop it,” Spilka said. “That should be funded in a different way. We need discussion for that. But again, if we’re going to keep the tolls on the turnpike, then we need to be looking at tolls on other major roads and other areas. It is a matter of equity.”
MetroWest area residents have for years argued they face an unfair burden of tolls, but attempts over the years to place tolls on other major roads or eliminate tolls on the Turnpike have failed.