People who have been both vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 face an “extremely low” risk from the fast-spreading Omicron variant, Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday as he defended his resistance to mandating mask-wearing or reimposing other mitigation measures.
Top-ranking Democrats in the Legislature are unhappy with Baker’s approach to the ongoing COVID-19 surge fueled by the Omicron variant, calling for him to pursue more stringent options such as requiring schools to opt out of pooled testing programs rather than opt in.
Senate President Karen Spilka on Tuesday urged Baker to replace his newly revived mask advisory with a full mandate, requiring individuals to cover their faces in indoor public spaces instead of recommending it.
Her suggestion did not gain any traction with the Republican governor, who replied Wednesday that he believes “the policies we’ve put in place and the protocols we’re pursuing at this point in time are the right ones.”
Legislative leaders, who plan to meet in lightly attended informal sessions until early January, so far have communicated no interest in forcing additional action through votes. Two key Democratic senators said Wednesday that it is “the governor’s responsibility” to use his executive powers to impose temporary public health measures.
Baker noted in a WGBH News radio interview that mask mandates are still in place in several settings, including nursing homes and schools that have not secured vaccination-based waivers relieving them from the requirement.
“In some respects, what we’ve tried to do with our strategies generally now that we have 5 million people in Massachusetts who are vaccinated and almost 2 million people who are boosted — and we have rapid tests — is to recognize and understand that our strategy at this point is sort of layered and multi-dimensional,” Baker said.
“There are going to be a lot more cases because Omicron is very contagious, but people need to understand that the vaccines and the number of people in Massachusetts that have gone out and gotten vaccinated and gotten boosted — their risk is extremely low,” he later added. “It’s important for everybody to understand that vaccines and boosters are in fact doing exactly what they were supposed to do, and they are our best defense.”
Work is underway to open a booster shot clinic in January at Fenway Park, which last year served as a mass vaccination site in the initial vaccine rollout. Baker said the most significant challenge to booster clinics is finding available staff, which is “part of the reason why some of this might happen a little bit after the holidays as opposed to before.”
The administration does not have any plans in place to open a similar booster clinic in western Massachusetts and will instead look to relaunch a regional collaborative that had previously been in place in Berkshire County.
Federal support could reduce staffing pressure
During his interview, Baker was asked about the federal measures President Joe Biden announced this week to step up the coronavirus response and said he expects that Massachusetts will benefit from Biden’s orders deploying more vaccinators and vaccination/booster sites.
“I don’t think we’re going to get pop-up sites from them, but I think we’re going to get people. And at this point in time, people in some respects, given all the issues everybody has with staffing, are every bit as important as having a site,” Baker told WGBH hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. “And for us, that’ll translate into a whole variety of additional sites in communities where we would like to expand access.”
Baker said the president’s actions “will make it possible for us to go even bigger in places like Brockton and Everett and down on the Cape where we have some issues and in Taunton and in Roxbury and in Lynn.”
Earlier in the day, Baker touted rapid tests as a key feature in the state’s evolving pandemic response, even as many residents complain the kits are difficult to find in stores.
“The frustration people feel is real, but this is something we’ve been on for months and I’m glad to see the feds finally get there,” he said after a State House event. “We’ve done a lot of things to alleviate some of the concerns people have about access and availability. You can also order them online. I can tell you by my own experience, having ordered many rapid tests online recently from Walmart, they landed on our front porch within two to three days.”
A day after avoiding any direct response to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s new policy to require proof of vaccination to enter many indoor spaces starting next month, the governor engaged on the topic a bit more Wednesday.
“It’s not like everybody says it’s awful, or everybody says it’s great. There’s mixed opinions on it, and a lot of people want to know exactly how it’s gonna work. I think the fact that the date is, I think, what, Jan. 15? That does give people a little while to figure out the answers to some of those questions,” he said.
Baker also said that the protests at City Hall while Wu announced the new policies were “not helpful at all in any way.” Republican candidate for governor Geoff Diehl, a former state representative with whom Baker does not often see eye-to-eye, was among those arguing Monday that Wu was depriving people of their civil rights.
“It doesn’t offer solutions, it’s not constructive and it doesn’t help people sort of get from where we are to where we need to go,” said Baker, who refused to disclose whether he might support Diehl or any other candidate for governor next year.
“If you’re not going to be offering solutions or constructive advice, or providing alternatives, then you’re not really helping very much because these are serious times and these are serious issues,” Baker added. “Serious people are trying to do things to work us through it and that should be respected and understood.”
While Baker is opposed to policies like Wu’s that require businesses to screen customers for proof of vaccination, he said that a digital way to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination similar to the passports used in other states is still expected to be available in Massachusetts “soon.”
Baker has said his administration was working with more than a dozen states “to try to create a single QR code that can be used for all sorts of things where people may choose to require a vaccine.” He said at the time that it would be ready “soon.”
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