Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker testified Tuesday on the state's coronavirus response at a second hearing before the Legislature's Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management.
The hearing was the second in a series of planned oversight hearings by the committee. Tuesday's meeting focused on technology issues that complicated vaccine distribution efforts early on.
Baker argued Tuesday that his administration has led a nation-leading vaccination effort using a strategy backed up by federal guidance.
He specifically defended his administration's use of mass vaccination sites and its decision to not use local emergency response plans, two issues that commanded a lot of focus and debate among members of the committee and the officials it invited to testify.
"I appreciate that some point to plans developed in a pre-COVID world and ask why we chose not to follow them. The fact is that COVID -- and the vaccines developed so far to prevent it -- present unique challenges that forced us to make adjustments," Baker said in his opening remarks. "The extremely limited supply, the need for cold and ultracold storage, the prep process, the potential for spoilage and the two-dose regimen were all on-the-ground realities that required a different playbook than the one we developed and is different from the one we would have used to battle an outbreak using a traditional, understood, and widely available antibiotic."
A panel of local public health officials earlier Tuesday told lawmakers that they felt sidelined by the administration, which chose not to rely on emergency response plans that local entities have developed since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the H1N1 outbreak.
The governor said he also wanted to talk Tuesday about how vaccine doses, which are limited to what the federal government allocates to Massachusetts, are distributed across the state "as we learned through media reports that the committee wants to discuss the value of mass vaccination sites."
"For all the attention that mass vaccination sites have received, they have only administered about 15% of the vaccines in the state to date," he said. "Hospitals are the number one vaccinator at 33%, followed by CVS and Walgreens at 21%, and the regional collaboratives and local health departments are just behind the mass vax sites at 11%. Community health centers have distributed 6% of doses."
Baker's opening statement and his comment about learning what topics the committee was interested in from the media did not sit well with Sen. Cindy Friedman, who became upset with the governor and insisted "we didn't leak anything to the media."
"We have been your partners since March. We have done everything we can to be supportive to help you all to be good stewards of this whole pandemic," she said. "And I just feel like we've gotten to this point or in this vaccine where we have tried very hard -- very hard -- to continue that collaboration and what we're getting from you is, 'You're all wrong, we're doing great. Please, we don't want to hear it anymore.' And I find that really hard to take."
At the first hearing in February, Baker apologized for problems with the Massachusetts' COVID-19 vaccination portal but reiterated his argument that a limited supply of doses from federal authorities was to blame for a troubled vaccine rollout.
Lawmakers have raised questions about the state's technology, the lack of ability to preregister for a shot and the decision to stop distributing vaccine to local clinics in favor of high-capacity vaccination sites.
The state has since switched its vaccine sign-up system, now offering a pre-registration option.
Massachusetts is now the nation's leader for vaccinations administered per capita among the 25 states with more than 5 million people, and it has the second-highest rate of Black residents with at least one dose.
In a one-on-one interview with NBC 10 Boston on Monday, Baker said other states have faced similar struggles with their rollout plans.
"We were told in December that we would have more vaccine that we knew what to do with by February," he said. "That did not happen."
"When I look at our data and what we distribute and what we make available and how often we put it out there, I'm really hard-pressed to find states that do more," Baker said.