Baker deflects talk of vaccine passports

With over 1.5 million people in Massachusetts fully vaccinated, Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday that his administration has no plans to follow the lead of states like New York and implement a vaccine pass system to expedite the reopening of large sports and entertainment venues or to allow for larger conferences and social gatherings.

Baker repeatedly said “no” when asked about planning for vaccine credentials, insisting his focus was on getting millions more Bay State residents vaccinated first. He said there would be “plenty of time to talk about some of this other stuff.”

“I want to vaccinate people. Let’s get people vaccinated,” Baker said. “I think having a conversation about creating a barrier before people have even had an opportunity to be eligible to be vaccinated, let’s focus on getting people vaccinated.”

The governor’s comments came a little over a week after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched the Excelsior Pass program, a voluntary digital vaccination verification system that works with smartphones and can be used by participating residents and venues.

Madison Square Garden and the Times Union Center in Albany have already signed on to use Excelsior, which was developed with IBM, and the program is expanding to smaller theaters, venues and event spaces.

Sen. Barry Finegold and Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, the co-chairs of the Legislature’s new Committee on Advanced Information Technology, the Internet, and Cybersecurity, wrote to Baker and the White House on Tuesday urging them to work together to develop a framework for “vaccine passes,” even as the Biden administration made clear it would not support a single federally-maintained vaccination verification system.

Vaccines will not completely eradicate COVID-19 for the time being, but vaccine passes will allow us to live with the virus without having to impose costly lockdowns,” Finegold and Campbell wrote. “People will feel more comfortable getting on airplanes or going to sports arenas if they know others there have been vaccinated as well.”

As part of his effort to get more people vaccinated, Baker announced Wednesday that the state’s COVID-19 vaccine pre-registration system will expand this week to include appointments at regional clinics in Northampton, Amherst and Marshfield.

The regional collaboratives being added to the system offer vaccines at the Northampton Senior Center, the Bangs Community Center in Amherst and the Marshfield Fairgrounds.

Baker said that since the pre-registration system designed by Google went live on March 12 more than 1.5 million residents have signed up to get in line for a shot when they become eligible.  Of that group, more than 800,000 people have been contacted through the system with the chance to schedule an appointment at one of the seven mass vaccination sites that is closest to their home.

By next week anyone who comes off the wait list will be given the chance to select a vaccination location before being prompted by the system to select from available appointments. The governor did not say anything about progress being made to add a function that would allow those who already preregistered to update their profile to reflect the new list of at-risk health conditions.

“We plan to keep adding more regional collaboratives during the month of April,” the governor said.

Baker joined Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center President Manny Lopes to tour a vaccination site at the Oceanside Events Center in Revere, a city designated by the state as one of the 20 hardest hit communities.

Revere has also been prioritized for mobile vaccination units through the state’s partnership with FEMA, and Baker said starting this week there will be a series of door-knocking and community events to promote vaccine awareness, including 37 bilingual organizers working on the ground in the city.

Baker, who received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday at the Hynes Convention Center, reported no major side effects from the shot.

“I’m happy to report I feel good,” Baker said, adding, “So far so good, but as I said yesterday, it does feel like a shot.”

Revere is a city of more than 53,000 people, and Arrigo said that as of last Thursday 10,000 city residents were fully vaccinated and another 7,000 had received their first dose.

Lopes said more than 4,000 people have been vaccinated at the Oceanside venue across from the Wonderland T stop on the Blue Line, and the health center’s data has tracked a 200 percent month-to-month increase in the number of Latinx residents accessing the vaccine, the largest growth of any single racial or ethnic group.

“So it’s time to get excited,” Lopes said. “It’s our job now to maintain this momentum.”

Through last week, 23.5 percent of Black residents in Massachusetts and 16.1 percent of Hispanic residents had received at least a first dose of vaccines, compared to 10.6 percent and 8.9 percent respectively nationwide.

“Places like this are how we continue to build on the work we’ve done on that front as we move forward,” Baker said.

The state is now less than two weeks away from the date – April 19 – when all residents 16 and older will become eligible for a vaccine, and Baker urged anyone 55 and older or who is at an elevated risk from COVID-19 to pre-register and get vaccinated now before the general public becomes eligible.

Baker also said it will be a function of supply how quickly after Patriots’ Day anyone wanting to be vaccinated will be able to get an appointment, but he said the system currently has the capacity to double or triple the volume of shots being administered every day.

The state reports between 60,000 and 90,000 new doses administered every day, Baker said.

The state is seeing the most virus spread in an age group where most individuals are not in line for vaccines.

State health officials have confirmed more cases among the 0-to-19 age bracket than any other age group in every week since early January. In the two-week period ending March 27, the state counted 6,959 cases among the youngest residents, 804 more than the second-highest total among those between the ages of 20 and 29.

(Copyright (c) 2021 State House News Service.