Updated at 6:10 p.m.
Before testifying before the Massachusetts Legislature's COVD-19 emergency managment committee Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker announced the call up of an additional 500 National Guard members for healthcare service and the purchase of 26 million rapid antigen tests. It was a show of managment muscle. When it came to his testimony later in the day, Baker didn't give up much ground to lawmakers hoping to press him on his decision-making process.
Baker offered some explanations and defended his management of the pandemic by pivoting off questions about mask mandates, school testing and other issues back toward his set of policies that have been in place for weeks or months.
Sen. Cindy Freidman saw firsthand how adept Baker is at focusing on the points he'd prefer to address as she pressed him to say why he won't reinstitute a statewide indoor mask mandate or implement other requests from hospital leaders about limiting social contact at restaurants, bar and other indoor spaces.
"Can we do something with the sense of urgency that it deserves? And will you commit to doing those things for the hospital? And if not, why not?" Freidman asked. She didn't get much of a straight answer.
"We have chosen to focus on mask mandates in places where we think the populations are either at risk or we believe that's an important tool to provide some degree of comfort and satisfaction and safety for people," Baker replied, repeating his position that he will not consider returning to an indoor mask mandate in the post-vaccine era of the pandemic.
Still, lawmakers hope Baker's testimony and correspondence from his team will help them craft legislation for managing the pandemic in the long-term.
Under pressure from the panel over why the state no longer sets specific goals for vaccinating populations as they become eligible for doses, Baker said it's been harder than he expected to get children vaccinated.
"The kid thing in particular is a more difficult sell for many folks than I thought it would be, and I think it's because there's so much noise out there about vaccines, generally," Baker said. He added that the public discourse surrounding vaccines has made it difficult for elected officials and public health experts to make the case for vaccination.
State buys 26 million rapid coronavirus tests
Prior to his grilling by lawmakers, Baker announced the purchase of 26 million rapid at-home coronavirus tests, primarily to support schools and childcare centers.
"Rapid tests are great tools, and with the deal to secure 26 million additional tests, it will be enormously helpful to our effort here in Massachusetts," Baker said at a press conference from the State House.
The order with supplier iHealth labs, the manufacturer of the 2.1 million tests the state bought last month to distribute to cities and towns, comes as the Baker administration tries to get the state through a winter viral surge that has created staffing shortages across the economy.
Baker also announced changes to the Department of Public Health's guidance regarding the rapid tests, encouraging employers to accept negative results from the cheaper at-home antigen tests instead of insisting on PCR tests conducted in medical settings or at mass testing centers. Those testing centers have seen long waits as the state struggles to keep up with demand.
Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the antigen tests are more than sufficient to detect virality and keep employees safe. Baker said DPH, the federal government and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all agree that people do not need a full PCR test to return to work, school or childcare.
"We believe the antigen tests, which are enormously accurate, especially on the back end of contagion, are a perfectly suitable solution," Baker said.
Baker also announced an additional 500 members of the National Guard will be deployed to assist hospitals and other health care centers with non-medical work like transportation, food service and observation. As the omicron variant surges across the country, health providers have been struggling to keep their own employees healthy enough to staff their facilities.
"There's no question at this point in time the staffing remains an enormous challenge for many of these providers," Baker said. "This activation will alleviate some of the pressure in those places."
This story was updated with details and quotes from the Legislature's COVD-19 emergency managment committee hearing.