Massachusetts "should not necessarily head down" the road of requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for state troopers and other public workers at this point, Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday, voicing an interest in first seeing more "normalization to the whole idea of getting vaccinated."
Asked during a radio interview if he believes the shots should be required for state police and correctional officers, Baker brought up issues of vaccine hesitancy.
"I think the important thing is to recognize and understand that not everybody is jumping to the front of the line, and some people have some very good reasons for doing that," Baker said on GBH radio. "There are a lot of folks in the health care space who you would think, given everything that went on with COVID in the health care community, would have jumped to the front of the line, too, and many of them did but many of them didn't, for all kinds of reasons, and I don't think you should put somebody in a position where they have to choose between a vaccine that they may be very concerned about taking for some very good reasons, and their job, at least not at this point in the process."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized three vaccines -- from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson -- for emergency use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes the vaccines as safe and effective, as has state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel, who said all three prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death.
Baker said that polling data indicates that people who are hesitant, in many cases, do plan to receive a vaccine at some point but "just don't want to go first" and would like to hear from their own doctor, a trusted community member, or a relative who got the shot.
Baker's position around requiring vaccines puts him at odds with Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former state senator Ben Downing, who has said that State Police, other first responders and teachers should be required to get the shots as a condition of their job.
Attorney General Maura Healey, a potential 2022 gubernatorial candidate, said Monday that she thinks vaccines should be required for State Police and correctional officers. Asked specifically about making the shots mandatory for those two groups, Baker acknowledged a wider pool of public workers who interact with people regularly, including Department of Children and Families social workers, personal care attendants on state contracts, teachers, local police officers, and the employees of state hospitals and psychiatric facilities.
"Our goal is to try to get as many of those folks vaccinated as we possibly can as this process rolls out, and we did prioritize many of the folks in the group you're talking about," Baker said.
He said he wants to "give people a little bit of rope on this whole question associated with hesitancy and concern about vaccines generally, and then see where we are."
People need to get vaccinated "when they can and when they want to," Baker said, adding that he believes there will be "more normalization" around vaccination within a couple of months.
The governor didn't slam the door on some sort of future vaccine mandate. Asked if he might be open to one later in the process, he said, "Yeah, I want to concentrate on getting people vaccinated first."
As of Tuesday, more than 1.1 million people in Massachusetts had completed their Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine regimens. Since vaccination began here in December, a total of 1.9 million people have received at least one of the two necessary Pfizer or Moderna shots, and more than 3 million vaccine doses have been administered in total.
Health care workers, first responders, and the residents and staff of long-term care facilities and congregate care sites, including prisons and jails, were among the first tier of people made eligible for vaccines under a Baker administration distribution plan. The eligibility pool has since expanded to include people age 60 and over, those with multiple medical conditions that put them at higher risk from COVID-19, and some other workers, like teachers, grocery store staff, and transit operators.
Baker, 64, became eligible Monday as part of the latest group. He said he has pre-registered for an appointment -- the state's vaccine-booking system allows people to pre-register so that they will get notified when a slot is available at the mass vaccination site closest to them.
Co-host Jim Braude asked Baker if it was "virtue signaling for the guy who's in charge of everything in this mess to suggest that he's just going to wait his turn."
"I'm doing what everybody else is doing," Baker said. "I pre-registered and at some point I'll get access to an appointment and I'll make one and I'll go get vaccinated."
Unless Baker decides to hunt for an appointment at a non-mass vaccination site, the mass vaccination site that is closes to his home in Swampscott is the one at the Doubletree Hotel in Danvers.
Baker said people were "justifiably angry when all the folks in D.C. decided that they should get vaccinated first."
"It's got nothing to do with virtue anything," he said. "There's a process here and people should obey it."
In December, when members of Congress and some Congressional staff began getting vaccinated, Baker said he did not understand why some people "cut the line" and said doing so was "inconsistent with the message that we have all tried to send on this, which is while we recognize and understand that everybody would like to be vaccinated today, there are some people who are at far greater risk from a health point of view than others and they really ought to be prioritized."
Discussing his personal plans for vaccination, Baker on Dec. 8 said, "As I am able to get the vaccine, whenever that happens, I'll be one of the first in line to get it, but there are a lot of people who are going to be in front of me, and I'd much rather see us focus on them at the beginning."