Gov. Charlie Baker is optimistic that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine approved for emergency use over the weekend will accelerate the effort to get more Massachusetts residents protected against COVID-19, even if states will face a gradual ramp-up in delivery.
While Massachusetts forges ahead to ease COVID-19 restrictions on businesses — despite warnings against doing so from federal health officials — Baker said Monday that he is hopeful J&J doses will "dramatically boost" the work to get shots in arms.
Unlike the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna options already in public use, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration awarded emergency use authorization on Saturday requires just a single shot with simpler transportation and storage requirements.
J&J's vaccine, Baker said, will give Massachusetts "the ability to do certain kinds of things that would be hard to do now."
"The introduction of that vaccine over time will certainly dramatically boost our vaccination efforts here and the vaccination efforts in so many other places," Baker told reporters after touring a vaccination clinic at Mattapan's Morning Star Baptist Church. "Having another effective vaccine for all eligible residents produced by a third manufacturer should mean a big increase in the number of vaccines that are available for first doses or single doses."
The boost will not arrive immediately. Baker said the Biden administration informed him Massachusetts will receive thousands of J&J doses next week and, after that, will face a "pause" until later in March.
"It is likely that we will get, for next week, a shipment," Baker said. "That shipment will probably be distributed pretty evenly across what we think of the vaccinating community here in Massachusetts, but the message that's come from the feds at this point is, 'Yep, they've made some, we will distribute those through our own channels and to you, and then you should expect there will be a bit of a pause as they ramp up production.' "
Baker declined to speculate on how much supply will become available and how quickly, saying that he expects to receive a clearer "flight plan" for all three vaccine options toward the end of March.
A Johnson & Johnson board member told CNBC last week that the company expects to make 4 million doses available nationwide next week and ramp up to 20 million delivered by the end of March.
In clinical trials, the J&J vaccine was 66% effective overall at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 infections four weeks after administration of a single dose.
While that rate is lower than the effectiveness percentage for Moderna and Pfizer's two-dose options, both state and federal health officials have urged the public not to interpret the J&J vaccine as a lower-tier option.
"These are all very effective," Baker said, pointing to weekend comments from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci. "People don't need to pick one from another. People should get vaccinated. If you have a chance to get a vaccine, you should take it, whatever it is."
Still, Fauci acknowledged last month that the gap in efficacy percentages created a "messaging challenge."
Baker has reportedly flagged concerns about equity impacts of the different vaccines, too. The Washington Post reported Monday that Baker urged the Biden administration on a recent call with governors to have health officials tout the J&J shot's benefits.
If communities of color or lower-income areas have more access to the J&J vaccine than the other two, it could create a perception that they are being shortchanged, Baker reportedly said.
The Republican governor did not discuss the Post report during his Monday tour, though equity was a main focus of his visit to the Mattapan site.
"With this clinic, they're working to break down barriers to the vaccine and to improve health outcomes for people here and elsewhere," Baker said. "We recognize there's a hesitancy around the vaccine, and much of this hesitancy is born of generations of systemic racism and disproportionate access to quality medical care in Black and brown communities."
Morning Star Bishop John Borders III praised the value of the public health efforts, telling the public, "You can trust this church, you can trust these institutions, and you can trust the vaccine."
Some lawmakers have criticized the Baker administration for not centering equity enough in its vaccine rollout.
At the Legislature's first oversight hearing on the vaccine plan last week, Civil Rights, Racial Equity and Inclusion Committee Co-chair Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz likened vaccine access to a raffle in which those who have a car, English proficiency, flexible work schedules or other factors are more likely to get a dose.
"You could not find a more textbook case study of structural racism if you tried," Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, said.
During his press availability Monday, Baker rattled off several steps his administration has taken aimed at smoothing an uneven playing field, such as maintaining municipal vaccine distribution to 20 hard-hit communities and supporting them with a $4.7 million awareness program.
Mattapan Rep. Russell Holmes, a Democrat, joined Baker and other administration officials for Monday's Morning Star tour, where he touted the work by local institutions and community health centers to improve vaccine access across demographic groups.
"You have to think about doing these things intentionally. You cannot sit back in a vacuum," Holmes said.