The 413’s Jo Comerford Has a Starring Role in Next Episode of Vaccine Drama…
In a windowless State House room on March 4th, State Senator Jo Comerford chaired a Joint Committee on Public Health hearing on COVID-19 preparedness. Diligent but never overwrought, she grilled health officials including Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel.
Unbeknownst to participants, the prior week’s Biogen conference at Boston’s Long Wharf had already begun a chain of global infections. The state would soon shut down as the shroud of the coronavirus fell upon it. Legislative committee work would go virtual. Ominously, the recording of the Public Health hearing, after Comerford gavels the meeting closed, fades to black.
Despite that cinematic touch, neither Comerford nor her committee went dark. Rather, the sophomore Democrat from Northampton, is heading for the spotlight, co-chairing the new Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness & Management. On Thursday, it will begin high-stake hearings on Governor Charlie Baker’s haphazard distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
“It’s not the headline we’re seeking, it’s the impact. That is going to be my goal,” Comerford said. As for the attention, “I certainly have to be willing to explain it and help narrate for people.”
The first agenda promises a star-studded virtual event—by Beacon Hill standards. Among the panelists are legislative committee chairs, community health and hospital executives, officials like Bharel and Health & Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and His Excellency himself.
The Joint COVID-19 committee, as its full name implies, is has a mandate goes beyond even public health emergencies, encompassing preparations for future catastrophes, too. The House co-chair, Bill Driscoll of Milton, has a background in disaster management.
But the vaccine rollout comes first.
“We have to engage immediately on the vaccine rollout,” Comerford said. “The state structure we set up is broken and…it hasn’t inspired our confidence.”
This puts Comerford up against a governor who remains popular, but prickly about his administration’s failure to furnish vaccines competently and equitably. The centrality of vaccines to ending the pandemic ensures scrutiny for the committee and its co-chairs.
“She’s not one to seek the limelight, but Jo doesn’t shy away from an opportunity to stand up and work against inequality or injustice,” said Ilya Sheyman, the former executive director of MoveOn.org where Comerford worked before entering the Senate.
While unabashedly of the left—she ran issue campaigns at MoveOn.org and a progressive budget group before that—Comerford is a quiet operator. Before this month, she had only a handful of Boston Globe mentions. Yet, the pandemic has changed many things.
While the commonwealth’s vaccination rate has improved, problems abound from the vaccine website’s bugs to availability of appointments. Seniors were waiting in the snow for vaccinations at Eastfield. Western Mass has but one mass vaccination site at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield. Not even all city residents can access it let alone those further away in the 413.
Allocation of supply bedevils local vaccinations plans. Comerford said smaller towns in her district lost their supply, forcing a scramble to team up with other entities.
Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said her city partnered with the state and regional entities successfully early on.
“In Greenfield, we made a decision that, as a municipality, we would leverage all of our assets as a community and available resources to help with COVID-19 vaccination efforts in the region,” Wedegartner said. During Phase 1, all first responders in the county received their inoculations.
But, the mayor continued, “As we all know well, Phase 2 has not gone as smoothly.”
Lawmakers continue to field complaints, even as polling suggests residents’ infatuation with His Excellency has not abated.
“I’m taking with me the voices that I have heard in the district,” Comerford said. “This resonates with me deeply; it’s a false choice that we can either have speed or we can have inequity.”
Neither the governor’s nor Sudders’s office replied to requests for comment.
Both Comerford and Driscoll said they and their teams had a good start. In an interview, he said they would cast a wider net eventually, like the 2011 Springfield tornado response. Lessons from natural disasters, like the different paces at which individuals recover, apply to the pandemic, though.
“It depends on whether someone lost a job, lost a loved one to the virus, whether we’ve been vaccinated or not,” he said.
Comerford won office the year Baker barely encountered speed bumps running for reelection. For her Hampshire Franklin Worcester District, which blooms northward from Northampton and Amherst to the Vermont border—and for the State Senate—2018 was far rockier.
Stan Rosenberg—then Senate President—resigned amid his spouse’s scandal. Only his primary challenger, Chelsea Kline, was on the ballot. Comerford, with an army of volunteers and many Upper Valley luminaries—such establishment support fueled some grumbling—mounted a successful write-in primary campaign. She faced no general election opponent.
In a phone interview with WMP&I last week, Comerford reveled in the grind of her task. Like Public Health, the COVID-19 committee will write reports, recommend legislation and conduct oversight.
“I want to work. I want to be of use in this world,” she said, citing a Marge Piercy poem.
However, the senator acknowledged the impending attention. The legislature does not hold oversight hearings often, let alone on a massive vaccination program for a once-in-a-century pandemic.
“Stepping into this role is that much greater and more intense,” Comerford continued. “I’m honored that the senate president has put so much confidence in me.”
In a statement, Senate President Karen Spilka praised Comerford’s efforts last session, which laid a “solid foundation for the hard work ahead.”
“She has proven herself a natural leader and truly effective legislator and I look forward to working closely with her and the Committee as the Commonwealth continues to recover and embrace our new normal,” Spilka said.
Even over the phone, Comerford projects a warm disarming manner. But that welcoming tone ferries facts and, as needed, bluntness. She seamlessly turns probing, even asking your editor-in-chief to unpack a question here and there.
The approach helps chairing a committee of sprawling jurisdiction like public health with manifold implications for poverty, inequality and LGBTQ rights. Before the dawn of COVID, Comerford was working on issue from wellness program funding to water purity.
“She knows public health. She’s trained as a social worker,” said Senator Eric Lesser, who is also on Comerford’s new committee.
Maddie Ribble met Comerford while working in the same Hampshire County building years ago and worked on a political campaign she managed. He moved to Boston to pursue a career in public health. Years later, she became the Senate co-chair of the legislature’s Public Health Committee.
Ribble’s current employer, the Massachusetts Public Health Association, an independent nonprofit that advocates for better health outcomes, worked with Comerford closely on lead in water and (non-COVID) childhood vaccinations.
“We have kind of a disturbing rate of childhood vaccination rates,” Ribble observed. During a packed hearing in the State House’s Gardner Auditorium, Comerford’s committee considered, among other things, alleged abuse of the state’s religious exemption rules, but Ribble said she set the right tone.
“I think she tried to approach that issue by really listening to people, but also bringing in her principles on what is right,” he said.
The gig put Comerford in regular touch with local public health authorities large and small. Boston Public Health Commission members testified before her committee about COVID collaborated on a key bill.
“BPHC also successfully worked with Senator Comerford while advocating for the maternal health equity bill, which created a commission to study racial disparities in maternal mortality and morbidity,” commission spokesperson Caitlin McLaughlin emailed. “BPHC was thrilled when the bill was reported out favorably by the Public Health Committee before being passed by the House and the Senate.”
When the pandemic struck, Spilka tapped Comerford to lead the Senate’s COVID-19 working group. In her statement, Spilka said Comerford shepherded more than a dozen bills to bring relief to residents, homeowners and businesses.
Lesser noted his colleague’s coordination of legislators’ calls with officials like Sudders and feted Comerford as a team player.
“She’s clearly earned the trust of everyone and all of the stakeholders,” he said.
“We have appreciated the support when requested and constant advocacy from Senator Comerford and our state delegation,” Mayor Wedegartner said. “Getting a Stop the Spread testing site in Greenfield last month was a game changer for access to COVID-19 testing in Franklin County,” she said.
Asked about that March 4th hearing, Comerford said the administration committed to keeping the legislature informed, rattling off officials who met with her or legislators generally. She called Sudders “exceedingly available to brief.”
However, she softened that praise, adding, “It is more of us receiving news than a deep engagement.”
Whether intentionally or not, Comerford may have summed up a persistent Baker’s pandemic response criticism. Decision-making is sudden, opaque and sometimes brusque. On testing and reopening, this pattern was annoying, but regarding vaccines it has stoked outrage.
Early on Massachusetts struggled to get vaccine into arms. When the state opened vaccinations to older residents, they confronted a dense website and no call center. Lesser and others sponsored legislation establishing a call center. Baker eventually opened one.
The Springfield City Council released some vaccination data Tuesday. Though 35% of vaccinations at Eastfield went to city residents, the top five zip codes where recipients live are outside Springfield. The city health department reported only 10% of Springfield residents had received the first dose of either vaccine. Statewide, the figure is 16%. Most city residents are of color and those communities are likelier to experience worse courses of COVID-19.
“We’ve committed to doing a series of hearings on the vaccines before we move on to a broader scope,” Driscoll said. “We are hoping to understand how Massachusetts was so unprepared for this rollout.”
Baker has blamed unreliable supply from the feds—though supply has grown since Joe Biden took office. Vaccinating lower income populations has been challenging nationwide. Yet, the website and call center fiasco has nothing to do with supply. While they are vaccinating at similar rates today, Massachusetts lagged Connecticut initially despite similar demographics and equally superb health care infrastructure.
The tepid start slowed Massachusetts’s expansion of access. Connecticut has expanded eligible ages faster. The buddy system—which allows those accompanying eligible residents to get a jab too—could slow expansion further.
While Baker is not indifferent to concerns—there are efforts to reach at-risk populations—he is not especially contrite. That underscores how heated these hearings could be. However, Comerford allies say she will meet the moment.
“Her ability to get shoulders deep in the countless minute details involved in a complex operation like a vaccine rollout, and never lose sight of the underlying values at stake (balancing speed, safety, and equity among other considerations) make her a perfect fit for this kind of high stakes role,” Sheyman said.
While reluctant to look past the vaccine hearings for now, Comerford said the same concerns about equity and failings apply elsewhere. These failures underscore broader inequities COVID-19 has exposed and the work far beyond the vaccination campaign.
“Vaccine as important as it is, is not the end of our recovery from COVID,” Comerford said. “COVID really exposed the really rife inequities that were there all along and now we see them in a different way.”