As Vaccines Ramp Up, Gov. Baker Discusses His Plans To Further Reopen Massachusetts

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Gov. Charlie Baker bows his head as he becomes emotional speaking about the one-year anniversary of the pandemic state of emergency and lockdown in the state on March 10, 2021. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Gov. Charlie Baker bows his head as he becomes emotional speaking about the one-year anniversary of the pandemic state of emergency and lockdown in the state on March 10, 2021. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The Baker administration is downgrading the state's travel order to an advisory and moving forward to phase four — the final stage of the state's reopening plan.

Starting Monday, the state will allow venues including stadiums and arenas to reopen at reduced capacity. Indoor public gatherings will now be capped at 100. Earlier this week, the governor announced a timeline for vaccinating all state residents over the age of 16.

To learn more, WBUR's Morning Edition host Bob Oakes spoke with Gov. Charlie Baker about these plans. Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On Baker's stated goal of achieving 70% vaccination in Mass. by the Fourth of July 

Well, the first thing I'd say is that we'll certainly have the capacity, you know, the people to deliver shots here in Massachusetts to make this happen. The big question mark — which has been the big question mark all along --  is how much supply will be available.

And  the good news there, which is why I'm optimistic about the timeline, is the Biden administration's task force told the governors earlier this week that they expect to not only up the shipments of Moderna and Pfizer, which I think as most people know is a two-dose vaccine, but to be able to dramatically scale the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well. And obviously the difference between one dose and being done, and two doses and being done, is pretty clear. And if they really do jack up the J&J distribution in a big way, that will change the game not just for us in Massachusetts, but for everybody around the country.

On worries over a potential fourth coronavirus wave expressed by public health officials like Anthony Fauci 

I think the vaccine process here is very much a race against time. I said that several weeks ago, which is why I was so frustrated about the message we were getting about supply. I do believe that we have the ability to dramatically speed up, double the number of shots we deliver every day in Massachusetts if the supply is there. And we pay a ton of attention to the data we get around positive test rates and around hospitalizations and deaths and ICU beds.

That stuff is critically important to us as we make decisions. And I would just say that some of the changes that we've made are, I would argue, consistent with the public health data. I mean, our hospitalization rate has dropped dramatically over the course of the past two months.

And our positive test rate, while it has leveled out, has leveled out at 2%, which is — below 2% -- which is significantly down. It was 8.5% in January. And I think in many ways, this whole thing has always been a balancing act. We constantly go back to the data that's available through the very large data collection infrastructure that we've built here in Massachusetts. And we constantly make adjustments based on that information.

But I do think the fact that we're vaccinating an extraordinary number of people, we're the number one state in the country on a per capita basis among all the large states, and we're putting all the vaccines we get from the feds into people's arms virtually immediately. So I feel that if their supply numbers pan out the way the administration has talked about it, we should have a heck of a lot more people vaccinated in a pretty short period of time.

On early criticism over the state's vaccination rollout and whether things could have been done differently 

Well, hindsight's a great thing, Bob, as we all know, but I think the biggest challenge that we and other states have faced is this whole issue around available supply and the actual order in which people are getting vaccinated in Massachusetts. We had a vaccine advisory committee that helped us develop the phased rollout. The phased rollout for the most part that we put out in December is pretty much the phased rollout we're on right now. We expected that sometime around Patriots Day we would be opening it up to everybody in Massachusetts and that we were going to start with some populations that were significantly important to both preserving life and protecting our health care system. And that's what we did.

The whole sort of essential worker community and teacher community — educator, community, child-care workers, teachers and K-12 staff — they're currently eligible and they were prioritized by us. That ... process, for the most part, has played out pretty much along the lines of the rollout plan that we announced back in December.

I do get the fact that everybody's anxious about this and people want to get vaccinated. That's why we have something like, oh boy, the last time I looked, I think we have 900,000-plus people signed up on our preregistration system, and we already have a million people who are fully vaccinated and 1.7 million who have had at least one shot.

That just speaks to how anxious people are to get their vaccine. And I get the fact that that anxiety plays a part in the way people feel about everything. And I'm completely sympathetic to that. And people who want to get vaccinated are going to get vaccinated. They are. It's just a question of how fast we can get this supply.

On reopening Massachusetts schools amid concerns for public safety

Well this has been an ongoing discussion for over a year. And I would say three things, Bob. The first is, the data from all over the globe — including here in Massachusetts — is overwhelmingly clear that schools with mitigation in place — and the mitigation for the most part is reasonably consistent from place to place to place — are safe places. And in Massachusetts, you have literally tens of thousands of public school kids and staff and teachers, private school kids and staff and teachers, and parochial school kids and staff and teachers, who've been in school, in-person five days a week since August. And they've done it safely and successfully.

But that's not just true here in Massachusetts. That's literally true all over the country and all over the world. And there have been numerous studies that have been done that say the same thing, which is that kids in school with the proper precautions in place is a safe place for kids and a safe place for grownups, and for adults. And I think the study that we did, which involved, you know, hundreds of thousands of staff and students around the three feet vs. six feet issue with regard to distance, was a pretty clear indicator that three feet works. And there's no difference between three feet and six feet and I'm glad that the CDC, based on the results of our study, is taking another look at this question.

And the final thing I would say, Bob: We're also the only state in the country that's made available to our school districts a weekly surveillance testing program for those that are interested in pursuing it, and we're paying for it. We have 177 school districts — that's half the districts in Massachusetts — that have signed up to participate in it. So I think we've got a lot of the protocols, tons of experiential data at this point, as well as some pretty solid surveillance tools that are available to schools. And, boy, the data coming from the pediatric community and from others in the sort of child welfare space about the impact of no in-person learning on kids is really disturbing.

On rebuilding the travel and tourism economy 

There's probably no industry that's been hit harder than the one that relies on a business traveler or a tourist for their success. And that's part of the reason why we created one of the largest, if not the largest, sort of small-business support grant programs in the country.

But I think, what I guess I would say, Bob, is what that industry needs most of all is for countries to successfully implement a vaccine strategy and to get to the point where, you know, herd immunity, which you talked about at the beginning of this conversation, is basically in place — not just nationally here in the U.S., but globally.

The good news there is, as more and more vaccines become available, more and more people are getting vaccinated. But I think it's going to be ... a long ride on this one. And we'll do what we can with our resources and with federal resources to support the folks and the businesses in those industries as we work our way through this. But ... anybody who's been in Logan Airport any time in the past year knows how big a hit the global travel market has taken as a result of COVID.

On the possibility of Baker running for a third term as governor

So, Bob, I'm just curious to know if when you got to around the 15-year mark, anybody said to you, "Gee, Bob, you've been doing this every single morning, five days a week, for 15 years. Do you really want to keep doing it?" And I got a feeling your answer to that was, "Yes." And as a result, we have been blessed to have you for way more than 15 years on our radio every morning, in our homes and in our cars.

I'm pulling your leg a little bit here, but I think the answer to the question is, both the lieutenant governor and I have been incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to do these jobs on behalf of the people of Massachusetts. I've lived here most of my life. I spent a big part of my career in state and local government. I really believe in the power and the importance of state and local government. And we have a ton of work to do even once we get past this pandemic to try to, you know, help people find a way back. We're doing a big report on the future of work, you know: What is work going to look like? Where are people going to work? Where are they going to live? How are they going to work, given everything that's changed as a result of the pandemic? There's plenty to do here.

This segment aired on March 19, 2021.


Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.


Wilder Fleming Producer
Wilder Fleming produces radio and podcasts for WBUR.



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