Today, I hold the pain of friends and constituents who desperately tried to find appointments at the Fenway mass vaccination site for their elderly, medically frail loved ones. After multiple efforts and through mounting anxiety, they eventually found appointments in western Massachusetts. I sit here holding their pain and their anger because they lost a loved one during the 2-hour drive towards the hope that this vaccine promised their families. In that journey, as a loved one was failing, they had to desperately search for the nearest hospital. They didn’t make it. In this case it’s not a far stretch to believe that had this person found a vaccine in their own community — or even 4 miles away at Fenway — they might still be alive. This is one tragedy and I fear there are more that will come to light over time.
Panelist after panelist in Thursday’s oversight hearing laid out very clearly the flaws in efficacy and impact of Governor Baker’s vaccine rollout. It was disheartening to not have the Governor directly respond to multiple questions that were asked of him by the Chairs of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Management and Preparedness. What we have heard repeatedly from Governor Baker, both in the hearing and in the media, is that they are working on the website and that 300,000 residents have been able to receive their vaccinations. Governor Baker must take responsibility and hold himself accountable for the undebatable failures both in the rollout and in people’s ability to access an appointment. The details are damning. People in their 80s and 90s waited outside the Eastfield Mall for hours in sub-freezing temperatures for their vaccines. Plans for mass vaccination that local health boards thoughtfully prepared a decade ago are sitting unused. The vaccine website managers were not told in advance when up to a million people were about to become eligible. Massachusetts is ranked 4th in the country for deaths from COVID-19 per capita.
We heard from doctors whose vaccine-hesitant patients were convinced by trusted family members and known providers to get vaccinated only to give up hope after multiple attempts to book an appointment. We heard from the Executive Director of the Chelsea Collaborative Gladys Vega, who took us outside and down a long line of over 1,500 people waiting for food, as she talked us through the pain that she experiences every day in trying to provide hope to those who feel hopeless and abandoned by the state. We heard testimony about calling 2-1-1 only to be hung up on, about spending 90 minutes in virtual waiting rooms only to be told there are no appointments available, and about being told to wait thousands of minutes to book an appointment. We heard about seniors who stayed up past midnight and set alarms for 5 AM, but still couldn’t find an appointment.
This is unacceptable and there is a better way. In order to see it, the Governor must step outside of his bubble, which not only seems to have all the answers, but also seems unwilling to acknowledge that what they’re doing isn’t working. The Governor has consistently failed to respond to the issue of transportation as an enormous obstacle for many residents. No one should have to drive 2 hours from home for a lifesaving vaccine. We must reckon that every vaccination that is delayed is a lifesaving opportunity that is denied. We’re beyond talking about the harm that all of the delays, frustration, and anxiety is causing eligible residents. It is clear that equity was never built into the initial rollout. Having a computer, endless hours of patience, and a big dose of luck should not be the top contributing factors to eventually finding a vaccine. We know that Massachusetts residents have resorted to forming online mutual aid societies, creating bots to identify openings, setting up Twitter alerts, and even building their own separate websites in an effort to help each other. Accessing a lifesaving vaccine shouldn’t depend on the mutual aid of citizens, or on the government’s hope that people will figure it out for themselves.
As the State Representative for the 25th Middlesex District, I often find my advocacy to be empowering. I can help create changes to keep people safe, help put food on their tables, shelter over their heads, and even ban toxic chemicals from leaching into their lives. Yet, this vaccination process has made my voice feel small, especially today. I was privileged to testify and bring a panelist of experts before our first Vaccination oversight hearing. The apparent refusal of the Governor to take questions head-on was only highlighted by his impatient and at times almost glib responses to the Committee Chairs’ line of questions. I continue to struggle to understand how to make Governor Baker feel this urgency. While an acknowledgement of failure certainly will reflect a judgment on him, it is also a moment of humility and an opportunity to step into leadership. Until he’s willing to do that, and to address the structural issues not related to supply so that residents can access vaccines without stress, anxiety and even risk, his legacy will continue to shrink.
Today the Commonwealth is entering a new phase of reopening per Governor Baker’s announcement on Thursday, February 25, 2021. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and previously a member of the Massachusetts COVID-19 Advisory Board, warned 24 hours after that announcement that “Now is not the time to relax restrictions.” While the data around hospitalizations, cases, and wastewater viral rates are encouraging, the baselines are still too high for comfort. At the same time, the Governor’s administration is encouraging schools to bring all students back for in-person learning. This timing is beyond worrisome, it’s baffling. Governor Baker is not prioritizing risk mitigation. We need a science-based approach to reopening, one that prioritizes schools over restaurants and equity over Opening Day.