Baker defends response to COVID-19 surge

Gov. Charlie Baker took questions from COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management Committee chairs Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Bill Driscoll during a virtual oversight hearing Tuesday.

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker has pushed back against suggestions that his administration isn’t doing enough to expand COVID-19 testing and encourage more people to get vaccinated as the state battles another surge of infections.

During a livestreamed hearing of the Legislature’s Committee on COVID-19 Emergency Preparedness and Management on Tuesday, lawmakers peppered Baker with questions about testing capacity, rising hospitalizations, testing in schools and what some described as lagging vaccination rates among younger people.

Baker pointed out that the state’s vaccination rate, with 82% of eligible residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19, is one of the highest in the nation. He said vaccination rates among young people are higher than most states.

“While our kids’ numbers are not where we want them to be they are dramatically better than the national average,” Baker told the panel. “There’s only a few states that are competing with us in terms of getting kids vaccinated.”

Baker acknowledged that the state faces ongoing challenges reaching vaccine hesitant communities, particularly school-age children. He said the efforts have run up against a tremendous amount of “noise” from anti-vaccine groups.

“I’ve been in some really intense conversations with people I know who have kids who I think would get that it’s important for their kids to get vaccinated,” Baker told the panel. “Honestly, sometimes I can make the sale and sometimes I can’t.”

Baker has been under pressure from some Democratic lawmakers and public health groups who argue his administration hasn’t done enough to deal with the latest surge of infections and hospitalizations. The state has seen a substantial rise in COVID-19 cases, mostly fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant.

Last month, a group 100 physicians and health care workers wrote to Baker urging him to bring back a masking requirement and other actions to reduce transmission. The group says increased testing and vaccinations “won’t be enough” to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed.

The Massachusetts Medical Society, which represents physicians, has also called for a statewide indoor mask mandate, which says the public health measure is proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

But Baker has so far rejected calls for re-instituting a mask mandate and other restrictions, focusing instead on increasing vaccinations and boosters among the eligible population and expanding COVID-19 testing options.

Earlier this week, he extended a masking mandate for public schools through February and on Tuesday announced more than 26 million rapid antigen tests would be coming to the state over the next three months through a contract with a test manufacturer.

Business groups have argued against a return to closures and restrictions that shut the state down for several months more than a year ago as part of the Baker administration’s initial strategy to “flatten the curve” of the virus. They say it would hurt small businesses still struggling amid the prolonged pandemic.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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