COVID

‘I’m not happy with where we are’: Charlie Baker urges patience with vaccine rollout

"There's some reasons for that unhappiness that have to do with the decisions we made out of the gate, which I do not apologize for."

Gov. Charlie Baker speaks to the media Wednesday at the Fenway Park mass vaccination site in Boston. Lane Turner / The Boston Globe

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Massachusetts is making about 120,000 new COVID-19 vaccine appointments available this week.

But according to Gov. Charlie Baker, that doesn’t necessarily mean all residents who are eligible are guaranteed to land one next week, or the week after.

“Everybody should understand that it may take several weeks in some cases to schedule an appointment,” Baker told reporters Wednesday following a tour of the new mass vaccination site at Fenway Park in Boston, urging residents to be “patient” with the slow if fledgling early stages of the state’s vaccine rollout.

“The vaccines aren’t going anywhere,” he added. “And they will continue to come to the commonwealth — and we believe in greater numbers — over the course of the next several months.”

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With the federal approval of additional vaccines and increased supply, Baker said that the state is aiming to administer a million doses a month this spring.

However, roughly a month-and-a-half into the state’s rollout, Baker’s administration has come under scrutiny for the plodding pace of its distribution relative to most other states. And while all residents over the age of 75 can now — at least in theory — book vaccination appointments, the state’s online-only signup system has been criticized by lawmakers and residents for being difficult to navigate, exacerbating frustrations with the scarce number of time slots.

As of Monday night, 654,104 doses had been administered to Massachusetts residents.

“Look, I’m not happy with where we are,” Baker said Wednesday. “I know a lot of other people aren’t either. We have work to do, and we know that. And one of the best things a good manager does is recognizes and understands that they have a problem, and then bust their butt to figure out how to fix it.”

Some tweaks are already underway.

Baker reiterated that the state is working to set up a call center to help handle vaccine appointments. According to The Boston Globe, the hotline will be a “call-back system,” in which eligible residents can request an appointment and then be notified when a slot is available. According to Baker, the call center will be operational “this week.”

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The state also made tweaks to its vaccine appointment webpage, including a tool that allows users to search for sites based on their zip code. However, once users pick a site, the page sends them to the provider’s third-party website to register and book the actual appointment.

Dozens of lawmakers have called for a more centralized signup system, but Baker said “part of the challenge” is getting the state’s online system to work with the sites of pharmacies, grocery chains, and other third-party providers.

“A lot of the retail organizations have their own setup, and they’re organized to serve quote-unquote their customers, which makes it a little complicated for us to make it as smooth a transaction as we would like it to be,” Baker said.

The governor suggested that residents hoping to land an appointment “first check out” one of the state’s the mass vaccination sites, which are currently listing new time slots for the coming week each Thursday.

Baker said over 55,000 new appointments will go live this Thursday across the five sites: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Fenway Park, Eastfield Mall in Springfield, the DoubleTree Hilton Hotel in Danvers, and the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston (the latter of which is currently only serving Boston residents and will open to statewide populations by the end of the month).

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The governor also noted that the state’s smaller vaccination sites — from pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS to grocery chains like Stop & Shop and Wegmans to local hospitals, health clinics, and town offices — would make available upwards of 75,000 new appointments each week.

President Joe Biden’s administration recently increased the state’s weekly vaccine shipments to 100,000 doses, and state officials are hoping to give out 300,000 shots a week by mid-February.

Still, beyond the signup process, some health care experts say Massachusetts should be more quickly distributing the vaccines — with COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths still relatively high, even if trending downward. According to federal data, the Bay State ranks 37th in per-capita vaccinations, having administered 60 percent of the doses it has received from the federal government.

Baker, however, has defended the pace — noting that, unlike most other states, Massachusetts prioritized populations facing high risk of COVID-19 exposure and outbreaks before opening up appointments to the general public.

“There’s some reasons for that unhappiness that have to do with the decisions we made out of the gate, which I do not apologize for,” he said Wednesday.

Rather than immediately allowing anyone over the age of 65 to get a vaccine as the federal government recommended, Phase 1 of the Massachusetts rollout prioritized health care workers, nursing homes, first responders, and congregate care settings, like homeless shelters, residential treatment programs, and prisons. The more complex distribution process was also further slowed by lower than expected vaccine acceptance rates among health care workers and nursing home staff.

“I think we did the right thing there,” Baker said Wednesday.

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“But I get the fact that that meant other people needed to wait,” he added. “And I’m not satisfied with where we are. I know the lieutenant governor and Secretary Sudders aren’t either. But one of the things we tried to do as an administration — and I think have done well — is to be open to criticism, and to take criticism and to make adjustments, and to get better.”

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