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Healey wades into COVID vaccine debate and stokes questions about her political future

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 2/24/2021 Matt Stout
a man wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Attorney General Maura Healey greeted Manny Lopes, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center CEO, at La Colaborativa in Chelsea. © Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff Attorney General Maura Healey greeted Manny Lopes, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center CEO, at La Colaborativa in Chelsea.

Her face half-hidden by two masks, she moved from one COVID vaccine recipient to the next within Dorchester’s Russell Auditorium, one of the state’s newest vaccination sites. How do you feel, she asked. Did you get a sticker after your shot? What’s your name?

But the visitor’s identity was no secret to Beth Sweet, of Dorchester, who watched her approach with a small band of cameras and reporters in tow.

“Good morning attorney general!” Sweet said cheerily.

Maura Healey’s appearance Tuesday marked her second at a vaccination site in as many days, plunking the state’s top law enforcement officer, quite intentionally, into the public dialogue swirling around the Baker administration’s handling of the vaccine rollout.

Healey has used the sudden burst of appearances to emphasize the need for equity in the state’s vaccination plans — even if the issue has, at best, tangential ties to an attorney general’s official duties.

It’s also stoked questions about her own political plans.

The second-term Charlestown Democrat is widely viewed in her party as a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2022, when Governor Charlie Baker must decide whether to seek an unprecedented third consecutive term. Indeed, many Democrats relish the idea of a candidate as well-known and popular as Healey vying for the state’s highest constitutional office after Baker cruised to reelection in 2018.

This isn’t the first time Healey has weighed in on the vaccine rollout. This month, she and other high-profile Democrats, including Representative Ayanna Pressley, publicly pressed the Baker administration to add asthma to the list of chronic conditions under which people could qualify to be vaccinated. (Baker ultimately did last week.)

Legislature drops deference to Baker as it more stridently questions vaccine rollout

Now, she’s escalating her critiques of the state’s progress, all while Baker faces mounting scrutiny from other Democrats. It’s both a deliberate use of her sizable bully pulpit, and, in the minds of at least some observers, a signal of political strength.

“She’s trying to project leadership,” said Jay Cincotti, a Democratic campaign operative not affiliated with Healey. “There’s no intersection with her office, or if there is, it’s not apparently clear. Yes, you want the rollout to be equitable. But it would seem this kind of event is trying to project leadership, that the state needs someone who can grab the reins.”

Healey and her aides deny her in-person appearances — rare for most officials in the pandemic — are evidence she’s priming a run for governor. Healey said in Chelsea on Monday that she’s made public calls before for an equitable rollout, and that her office doesn’t let a “particular job description define us.

Healey calls for more attention to equity in state’s coronavirus vaccination campaign

“This is me doing my job,” Healey said the next day in Dorchester, adding that she has worked “cooperatively” with the Baker administration and local officials. “I will continue to do that. And when I see there is an issue that needs attention, I will also not be afraid to call it out.”

The Democratic field for governor is already forming, with former state senator Ben Downing launching a campaign and Danielle Allen, a Harvard University professor and author, exploring one. The specter of a potential Healey campaign, though, looms, spurred by intrigue among grass-roots Democratic activists eager to hear her plans. (Healey’s second term, like Baker’s, ends in January 2023.)

“People are very interested. I don’t think she’s making any indication one way or another,” said Gus Bickford, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “There have been many voices [scrutinizing the rollout]. The attorney has one of the strongest and most recognized.”

Healey’s appearances this week, organized by her office, at times had the feel of campaign events. With site administrators serving as tour guides and a member of staff filming her on a smartphone, she navigated the Chelsea headquarters of the nonprofit La Colaborativa on Monday, thanking staff. At one point, she leaned into a small room where two workers were extracting the Pfizer vaccine from the vial.

“So you’re making the shots?” Healey said, before asking their names. “I’m Maura.”

At the Dorchester site, a collaboration between the Codman Square Health Center and Boston Medical Center, she stopped to speak with two sisters, one of whom was 90, who had just been vaccinated. She then asked Sweet, the Dorchester resident who recognized her, whether she was nervous to get vaccinated.

It felt like a holiday, Sweet told her. “I was so excited!”

The locations were intentional. Amid criticism the state’s rollout was lagging that of most other states, the Baker administration has increasingly relied on a network of massive sites equipped to give more doses to speed the number of shots getting into people’s arms.

Beset by critics, Baker now stressing speed and scale for COVID-19 vaccination

State officials have said they’re still committed to their early goal of ensuring equitable access, including by providing doses in 20 communities with large Black and Latino populations — a decision Healey called the “right move.”

But white Massachusetts residents have received at least 13 times as many doses of the vaccine as Black residents and 16 times as many as Latino residents, according to data reported last week to the Department of Public Health. The proportion of white residents across the state is 9 and 6.5 times higher than for Black and Latino residents, respectively.

In Dorchester, Boston’s largest neighborhood, 64 percent of residents are Black or Latino. In Chelsea, a densely populated city hit hard by the pandemic, two-thirds of its 40,000 residents are Latino and nearly half are foreign-born.

“There has been a lot of focus on how many actual shots were delivered and not adequate focus on who is receiving those shots,” Healey said Tuesday. “We have to act truly as a commonwealth and . . . resist whatever pressures are going to come to sacrifice equity at the expense of efficiency. There’s no need to do that.”

Baker administration lays out new plan to get vaccines to hardest-hit communities

Baker has staunchly defended the state’s plans, arguing his administration first prioritized health care workers, marginalized groups, and those most at risk from COVID-19, and has since dramatically ramped up the number of doses administered — while putting a focus on hard-hit communities and trying to address hesitancy among residents of color.

Baker said Tuesday that the state has delivered the most first doses per capita among two dozen states with 5 million or more people.

“The big challenge that we face in terms of dosing more people, at this point, is 100 percent a function of how much vaccine we get each week from the feds,” Baker said.

Baker administration calls for Mass. elementary students to be in school five days a week in April, with older students to follow

Another debate erupted Tuesday after state officials called for elementary school students to return to in-person learning five days a week in April. Asked whether she agreed, Healey was more circumspect before saying that she hopes with more vaccines, “we can get these kids in school.”

“I know you guys think I cover a lot of territory,” she joked with reporters. “I don’t set educational policy.”

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