The Baker administration has come under fire over the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in Massachusetts. That criticism includes the availability of vaccines in some parts of the state, and breakdowns in the online system used to make appointments.  

Now, a special state legislative committee of House and Senate members is examining the issues with the vaccine rollout. Northampton State Senator Jo Comerford is the Senate leader of the new Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management. Senator Comerford joined Connecting Point’s Ray Hershel about the goals of the committee and how residents’ concerns over the vaccine rollout can be addressed. 


Read the full transcript

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Baker Administration has come under fire over the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Massachusetts. That criticism includes the availability of vaccines in some parts of the state and breakdowns in the online system used to make appointments. Now, a special legislative committee of House and Senate members is looking at concerns raised over the vaccination rollout.

Northampton State Senator Jo Comerford is the Senate leader of the new Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management. And Connecting Point’s Ray Hershel spoke with her about the goals of the committee and how residents’ concerns can be addressed.

Senator Jo Comerford, (D-Northampton): The committee has two main goals, if you will. One is a very short-term position of watchdog. And so you saw us stand up, a quickly — quick oversight hearing on the vaccine rollout in that short term capacity of the committee.

The longer term capacity is equally important. And that longer-term capacity of the committee says in five years, 10 years, 15 years, when the Commonwealth faces another disaster — it could be another contagion, it could be a natural disaster — how are we as a legislature, as a state, going to be more prepared, more resilient?

Ray Hershel, Connecting Point: Now, Senator, this joint legislative committee has held its first public hearing. Governor Baker was among the witnesses and he got grilled pretty well at that particular hearing.

Can you talk about what you feel the committee learned, gathered from that hearing that will help you moving forward? And how would you characterize the way the state has responded to the vaccine rollout and the website for people who are trying to negotiate it and get appointments?

Senator Jo Comerford): Yes, the governor did face, I think, the full measure of both House and Senate members frustration vis-à-vis the vaccine rollout, which was the subject of the hearing. We’ve asked for numbers of follow up documents, including the flowchart for decision making around the vaccines. We’ve asked to see the contracts with all the vaccine-related vendors working outside of a state, outside of the state as vendors or contractors as part of this. We’ve asked for a detailed accounting of the money spent, the state money spent and the federal money spent.

And so overall, I think it actually was quite productive. It set the stage for what will be a second hearing. We’ve asked both the governor and the secretary to return to the legislature on March 16th for additional conversations. And, at that time we’ll go even deeper on the tech and even deeper on public health and emergency preparedness.

Ray Hershel: Senator, how much has the the rollout and the access to folks getting appointments improved since first was established? And the first, obviously, vaccines went out. How much better are we today than we were back then?

Senator Jo Comerford: The real difficulties in this rollout happened at the top of what we call Phase Two. Phase Two is when we began with those 75 and older moving then to 65 and older and those with two existing medical conditions or comorbidities.

And I think the Phase Two rollout has been a travesty, frankly. I think the state should have and can do 100 percent better for the people in the Commonwealth with regard to communication, with regard to tech interface, and with regard to accessibility of vaccine. In addition to the tech difficulties, there have been numbers of change of plans which have made, again, the user experience or constituent experience very difficult.

So people have not only had to really deal with the website that is both broken and then when it works, completely difficult to navigate. But they hear in one moment that their local public health folks will have the vaccine in another moment, they won’t. In one moment that their hospital will be vaccinating, in another moment it won’t. And so on as we twist and turn through these changes.

Ray Hershel: Now, the governor, in more recent developments, has indicated that he’s going ahead with allowing restaurants to open at full capacity very soon. Also, bumped up teachers on the list for getting vaccines. Do you agree with those particular decisions?

Senator Jo Comerford: I am filled with great concern that the governor is moving too quickly before the vaccine has — we’ve had a sufficient amount of vaccine in the Commonwealth to get us into a safer position. So, I am concerned about that.

With regard to educators, your second question, the teachers were in this next phase, this next step in Phase Two. So they were in the essential workforce cohort. What this decision today does is move them to the top of that cohort, I think, hand in hand with the decision to ask that they return to the classroom. It does make sense to me that we would afford teachers this opportunity. Like it makes sense to me that we would make sure that their school systems have equitable access to the kinds of supplies and modifications and setups that they need to keep the students safe and to keep the teachers and staff safe.

Ray Hershel: Now, Senator, one last question. That is, what message would you have for those folks who are still frustrated or still disappointed, who haven’t been able to get an appointment for their first vaccine yet?

And they’re trying to be patient, but it’s becoming very, very frustrating. What’s the message to them?

Senator Jo Comerford: I would own and say that there is, there is an insufficient federal supply at this moment to meet the demand. But that doesn’t excuse the state from having a setup on top of that federal supply that’s workable for people.

And I would tell them that my colleagues and I are completely laser-focused on this. And will be throughout this crisis until our constituents are vaccinated, should they choose to be vaccinated, until every single one of them is vaccinated.