Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday said high-risk groups such as health care workers and people in communities of color would get first access to a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available.
At a news conference, Baker said his administration was "deeply involved" with a federal working group planning for the distribution of a vaccine, and that any vaccine would likely be distributed through channels that exist for flu shots.
"It is my assumption that whatever were to happen with a COVID vaccine would probably run through a fairly traditional distribution model because it is already there," he said during remarks at a CVS Pharmacy in Boston's Roslindale neighborhood.
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"The one thing I do think might be different about it would be a focus on particular high-risk individuals to begin with, which would mean, in Massachusetts, health care workers, long-term care workers, people in communities of color that have been particularly hard hit by the virus," he said.
The remarks came after President Donald Trump, openly contradicting the government's top health experts predicted a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine could be ready as early as next month and in mass distribution soon after, undermining the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and calling him "confused” in projecting a longer time frame.
Baker underscored the importance a pledge made by drug companies to adhere to the highest ethical and scientific standards in testing and manufacturing coronavirus vaccines.
The companies "get the fact that this needs to be something that is properly processed, properly reviewed, properly approved -- and they're not going anywhere until that stuff happens," Baker said.
Baker also urged residents to get flu shots this year, saying it was "more important than ever" to prevent overcrowding at hospitals in case coronavirus cases surge again.
Some 900,000 flu shots are distributed each year through a variety of "tried and true mechanisms," Baker said.
Baker warned that overlapping surges in COVID-19 and flu cases this fall and winter would create an "incredibly difficult situation" for hospitals.
"It's critical that we do everything we can to minimize the impact of the flu and other respiratory illnesses," he said. "This will keep people healthy and help maintain capicity in hospitals and other health care facilities in case there is another surge associated with COVID-19."
According to health officials, over 40,000 cases of influenza were reported to the state over the 2019-2020 flu season, including some 6,600 deaths. Some 55,000 emergency room visits were attributed to influenza symptoms.
This year's surge happened in April, after the bulk of activity associated with the last flu season.
"The point (health experts made to us at that time was from a diagnostic point of view, from a care delivery point of view, from a capacity point of view, having the flu and COVID-19 surge in the commonwealth at exactly the same time would be an incredibly difficult situation for them to manage their way through and they urged us to step up our game -- which is already pretty good relative to most of the states around the country -- on flu vaccines," Baker said.
Baker said he understands that there are people who are angry about his executive order mandating that students in Massachusetts, from pre-school to college, and kids who participate in child care programs, must get their flu vaccine by the end of the year.
But he appealed to those people by telling them to think of the health care workers lauded as heroes in the spring and what a bad flu season would mean for them.
"I would just say to all of those folks in Massachusetts who admire, respect and appreciate the heroic work that was done by so many people in our health care community last spring, that for them and for yourselves, you should go out and get a flu vaccine this year so that you and they can feel confident that as they deal with respiratory issues this fall and the potential of a second surge, more and more people in Massachusetts will have protected themselves from having the flu pile on top of a potential second surge associated with COVID," the governor said.
Massachusetts on Wednesday reported 295 new confirmed coronavirus cases and an additional 20 deaths. There have now been 9,036 confirmed deaths and 123,720 cases, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
The press conference came as the administration monitors coronavirus cases at local schools and universities.
Baker said this week he was reviewing the protocols for coronavirus testing and tracing on college campuses across Massachusetts and planned to "re-engage" with the schools following a recent outbreak at Boston College.
"We spent a lot of time working with the Broad Institute and the [COVID-19] Command Center and colleges and universities to put together a very robust platform for contact tracing," he said Tuesday. "And we are currently reviewing all of the protocols associated with testing, tracing, isolation and quarantining and notification and plan to re-engage with the colleges generally on this."
Boston College has now reported 115 positive cases since it reopened a few weeks ago. A BC spokesman told the Boston Globe that many of the cases reported among student athletes are related to an off-campus gathering where students watched a basketball game without masks or proper social distancing.
"I will say the testing element of this has been pretty robust. It's proven to be pretty effective," Baker said. With regular testing going on at most schools, he said the test rate has been "relatively low."
He said the BC situation has been complicated by the fact that its campus crosses over into three different communities. "But clearly we need to make sure we stay on top of this."
Baker also addressed recent outbreaks among high schoolers, which led the Dover-Sherborn and Lincoln-Sudbury school districts to switch to remote learning after students attended parties without taking proper coronavirus-prevention measures.
"There's a certain amount of vigilance and repetition that is required to make our efforts to deal with COVID-19 successful," he said of the importance of wearing masks and practicing social distancing and good hygiene. "While they may seem annoying at times and pedantic, they're effective."