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Gov. Charlie Baker says “one of the biggest challenges” government leaders like himself have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic is accurately conveying and contextualizing information about the evolving virus.
And during a speech Tuesday, the Massachusetts governor acknowledged that there have been times when “government leaders, healthcare leaders, all of us have not done a good job of describing what’s actually been happening.”
His primary example: the now-infamous COVID-19 outbreak in Provincetown.
The outbreak, which ballooned to over 1,000 cases among mostly vaccinated individuals, drove headlines suggesting a “failure” of the vaccines, Baker said, when “in fact it was just the opposite.”
“This is in fact a demonstration of success on the part of vaccines, but that really wasn’t the media story,” Baker said during a virtual address Tuesday morning to the New England Council.
Baker said that were estimated to be about 10,000 people in the Cape Cod town during the July weekend that outbreak began, a collision between the highly transmissible delta variant and one of the most vaccinated communities in the state.
A popular getaway destination in the LGBT community, Provincetown hosts a series of party weekends during the month of July. However, as Baker noted, rain forced much of the activity indoors during the Fourth of July weekend.
“Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday — it rained all four days, so all the outdoor activity that was expected to take place got moved inside,” Baker said. “Crowded packed bars, restaurants, nightclubs, hotel lobbies, the works. And lots of house parties that people thought were going to be outside that were inside.”
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that led the agency to change its face covering guidelines, roughly three quarters of the cases associated with the outbreak were among vaccinated individuals in a town where over 90 percent of the people were estimated to have gotten the vaccine.
“Ultimately, the cluster was deemed to be north of 1000 cases,” Baker said Tuesday. And this led to some real headlines across the country and in this region that said, you know, ‘OMG, you know, all these people went to this big weekend in Provincetown and they were all vaccinated and there were a lot of cases that came out of it. And frankly, a lot of people interpreted that as the vaccines don’t work.
“But the story is actually a lot different than that,” he added.
While the outbreak demonstrated that even fully vaccinated individuals could transmit the delta variant, it also showed how effective the vaccines were at preventing spread and, especially, serious illness due to COVID-19.
Baker noted that some infectious disease experts have estimated that the outbreak would have been roughly five times larger if no one was vaccinated. Additionally, there were only seven hospitalizations connected to the outbreak, as well as one death among an elderly man who was immunocompromised.
“Everybody who’s studied this issue says there would have been, you know, a number you can’t even calculate more with respect to how many hospitalizations there would have been if all those folks hadn’t been vaccinated,” Baker said. “And one gentleman unfortunately passed away. He was in his 70s and he was in active chemotherapy treatment.”
Most of the news coverage has since come to reflect that reality, but Baker says the outbreak complicated messaging efforts promoting the vaccines’ efficacy.
“That in many ways has been one of the biggest challenges we in government have faced throughout the course of this pandemic, which is trying to get not only the message right but also the narrative arc of the message over the long term right about what’s correct,” he said.
Baker noted that the data about the vaccines’ effectiveness is “pretty compelling.” A recent Wall Street Journal analysis found that every single state with a higher-than-average vaccination rate also had lower-than-average hospitalization rates, even amid this summer’s delta-fueled surge.
“If you look at the states that have the highest vaccination rates — obviously, Massachusetts, New England, and the Northeast would be among the national leaders there — we have lower case counts per capita, but more importantly we also have lower hospitalization rates and lower death rates than the vast majority of other states around the country,” Baker said.
“And if you look at the states that have the lowest vaccination rates, they’re the ones that are struggling with the highest case counts, the highest hospitalization rates, and the highest death rates,” he added.
Baker added that unvaccinated individuals who are hospitalized also “tend to be a lot sicker than the folks who have been vaccinated.”
“I wish there was a really simple, easy way to help everybody understand this,” he said.
Over the last 18 months, Baker said there were “a lot of night where I didn’t get a lot of sleep” where he would go downstairs and watch British parliament debates on TV — “a really crazy thing to do” — and realized his frustrations about communication were also shared across the Atlantic.
“When you toss in the high anxiety that comes with the rest of this, it becomes a profoundly complex conversation,” Baker said, adding that overcoming vaccine hesitancy in addition to government mistrust “turns us into a very complicated and difficult messaging exercise.”
That said, Baker added that he was “incredibly grateful” that so many people have gotten vaccinated in Massachusetts,” which has at least partially vaccinated over 88 percent of all adults, the second highest rate in the country.
“That is the path out of this and we’re going to have to continue to concentrate on it,” he said.
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