BOSTON – With demand for COVID-19 vaccines in Massachusetts continuing to outpace what state officials describe as a constrained supply of doses from the federal government, local officials, including Lowell City Manager Eileen Donoghue, face a number of questions about setting up clinics and what to tell residents.
Some of those questions were aired in a recent Massachusetts Municipal Association conference call with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and public health officials.
During the call, MMA executive director Geoff Beckwith relayed questions from local leaders about the timeline for the administration’s phased vaccine distribution plan, municipal government’s role as an intermediary in helping eligible populations secure appointments, and concerns around limited availability of doses.
“It’s really hard for communities to set up clinics when there’s such a limited supply of the vaccine, and also the time that it takes to set them up is just creating a lot of confusion and concern municipally,” Beckwith said on the Jan. 26 call, the latest installment in a series of conversations his association has been hosting between the administration and local chief executives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Massachusetts on Monday progressed to the second phase of the Baker administration’s vaccine plan, opening up eligibility for the shots to people aged 75 and older, along with previously eligible groups including health care workers, first responders, and residents of congregate care and nursing facilities.
The 75-and-up population was able to start making appointments online last week, and in many cases encountered challenges navigating the state’s website or discovered that all available times had already been claimed.
The state planned to have 103 publicly available vaccine sites up and running last week, with 165 by mid-February. When those 165 are online, Baker’s office has said, Massachusetts will have the capacity to administer 305,000 shots per week, though the actual number of shots administered depends on the supply of doses received from the federal government.
“That whole idea of ‘if we build it they will come,’ the part about ‘they will come’ is a question, because it’s the federal government that delivers those doses to states and to our state,” Polito said. “But we want to be ahead of it.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,039,775 vaccine doses have been distributed to Massachusetts, and 625,477 of those doses have been administered.
Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health, acknowledged on the MMA call a recent message she’d sent to local health officials whose communities are enrolled in the Massachusetts COVID-19 Vaccine Program, advising them of limits that would apply to their vaccine orders.
Ferguson said she “did not like sending out that letter, but I had to let people know” what would be available to them so that they could plan clinics appropriately. The limits, she said, take into account factors including a community’s proximity to a mass vaccination site, capacity to host clinics, and the pandemic’s impacts on health equity in hard-hit areas.
“Given the limits on vaccine that we are receiving from the federal government and the demand for vaccine in Massachusetts, we need to limit the vaccine that’s available for any one channel of vaccine delivery, and for the local public health departments that were planning on standing up clinics, that’s meant we had to work within a certain constraint of a number of doses,” Ferguson said.
In Reading, town manager Robert LeLacheur said in a Jan. 28 vaccine update that the town had 20 doses of vaccine on hand, with another 50 on the way, and that municipal resources have “been swamped by hundreds of incoming calls in the past 48 hours.” He said he planned to advocate for more doses “so that we may at least serve our most frail and fragile residents.”
“So right now, our best advice is for neighbors to please help each other,” LeLacheur wrote. “Yesterday, I did hear from some residents that with persistence they were able to schedule appointments. However, we know that about 25 percent of our 75+ population do not use computers regularly, and the state’s online application process can be daunting.”
Baker said last week that the administration would set up a call center to help people make vaccine appointments, as an alternative option to the state’s website. The online vaccine portal, which links to different scheduling sites for various vaccine locations, has been a target of criticism from lawmakers and others who favor a more centralized approach.
Baker on Monday said the call center “will be stood up this week” and that he’d “probably have more to say about that on Wednesday and Thursday.”
In Everett, city employees set up what Mayor Carlo DeMaria’s office described as “a makeshift phone bank” to help city residents age 75 and over sign up for 800 vaccine appointments this coming Saturday and Sunday at Pope John XXIII High School.
Though Everett seniors were able to make their own appointments online, they were also able to call the city’s 3-1-1 line for help or with questions. DeMaria said he “wanted to ensure that our seniors were able to make an appointment even if they did not have internet access.”
Similarly, the Cape Cod COVID-19 Response Task Force is planning to call the homes of about 50,000 Cape Codders over age 65 on Wednesday evening to provide a briefing on vaccine access in the region.
Beckwith said that officials from “a number of communities” used the chat function in last week’s call to voice concern “about the challenge of the local role of being the intermediary” for elders and serving as a bridge to help older residents set up appointments.
Polito said the administration has distributed information to local councils on aging and aging services access points on how they can help seniors get vaccine appointments.
Donoghue told Mill City residents in a Jan. 29 video update that vaccine supply remains “extremely constrained” in Massachusetts and nationally, resulting in a limited availability of appointments. People 75 and older “may have to wait several weeks for an appointment,” she said.
Donoghue said the first round of time slots for a clinic at the Lowell Senior Center, expected to administer 400 vaccinations this week, “filled up quickly.” The city’s health department will be ready to “act swiftly to scale up” the clinic if Lowell receives more vaccines, she said.
City officials are working with Lowell General Hospital to support the hospital’s efforts to build out a large-scale regional vaccination site at 1001 Pawtucket Blvd., Donoghue said. She said that site is expected to open in mid-February, with an eventual capacity of “several thousand vaccines a day” as supply increases.
During the MMA call, Ferguson said she has received some information from a collaboration in greater Lowell that would like to offer vaccines, and that a town administrator in Plymouth County is also working on a regional collaboration.
The state is also scouting locations in southeastern Massachusetts, particularly around New Bedford and Dartmouth, that would meet criteria around access and square footage to serve as a vaccination site, she said.