Massachusetts will roughly double the population eligible for COVID-19 vaccines on Thursday, when people over age 65, the residents and staff of affordable and low-income housing for seniors, and people with two or more health conditions that put them at higher risk will be newly able to make appointments.
As the state expands eligibility, it’s also focusing on high-capacity locations like mass vaccination sites and regional collaboratives to deliver the shots, a move Baker administration officials say is designed to streamline the process of immunizing as many people as possible.
“We started with a very deliberate and very particular and what I would describe as a very equitably framed process at the beginning of this, but the big message we got from the public was vaccinate, vaccinate,” Gov. Charlie Baker said at a press conference, slapping his hand for emphasis. “And there’s no question the fastest way to do this is with high-volume sites.”
About 70,000 appointments at mass vaccine sites in Springfield, Danvers, Boston and Foxboro will become available around 8 a.m. Thursday for the newly eligible populations and for those who previously qualified for the shots — people age 75 and older, the staff and residents of nursing and congregate care facilities, and health care workers.
News of the coming expansion sent people flooding to the state’s vaccine-booking website — about an hour and a half after the announcement, Baker said there had been 250,000 visits to the site.He said he thinks the website “will be in good shape” for the added traffic.
In a state with a population of about 6.9 million, about 1.1 million people are currently eligible for vaccines, and approximately another million will join them Thursday.
As of Tuesday, the Department of Public Health reported that 861,859 people in Massachusetts had received at least their first dose, and 304,657 were fully vaccinated. Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said more than half of the 75-plus population has so far been vaccinated, a threshold that made state officials comfortable adding new eligibility groups.
Administration officials cautioned it could take more than a month for all the new groups to secure vaccine appointments, urging continued patience as they again pointed to high demand that outpaces the limited, but growing supply of shots from the federal government.
Next week, Sudders said, federal officials will increase Massachusetts’ weekly first-dose supply to 139,000 from about 110,000.
In a letter sent to local boards of health Wednesday, Sudders said the state needs to streamline its vaccine administration to address supply constraints and the challenge of vaccinating wider swaths of the population.
Starting March 1, the state will no longer ship first doses to municipalities holding clinics that serve only their own local residents, except for 20 cities and towns the Department of Public Health has identified as having the greatest COVID-19 burden and the highest percentages of non-white residents: Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Framingham, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, New Bedford, Randolph, Revere, Springfield and Worcester.
The goal, Sudders told reporters at a briefing, is to increase capacity at locations like mass vaccination sites, regional collaboratives and pharmacies, and to have a uniform set of rules across the different sites, rather than have some only open to residents of a particular community. She said the 68 current municipal clinics will receive second doses so that they can fully vaccinate people who have gotten the first shot.
Almost 95% of people in Massachusetts live within a 45-minute drive of a mass vaccination site or within 30 minutes of one of 13 regional collaboratives, Sudders said.
Critics of the vaccine rollout have raised concerns about how people will access the large-scale vaccine sites if they cannot drive or otherwise lack transporation, and suggested that some who might shy away from the unfamiliar locations would be willing to get the shot closer to home.
“Our goal is to build more efficient vaccination sites regionally that can vaccinate people more quickly,” Baker said.
To vaccinate a lot of people quickly, Baker said, “you got to be doing more than a couple of hundred … a day across multiple sites.” He said, “You got to be doing at least 750 a day.”
He said the number of doses delivered each day will drive how fast the state can move on to the next eligibility groupings.
“One thing the experience of the past three weeks has demonstrated is larger enterprises can deliver a heck of a lot more vaccines really quickly, which is really important,” the governor said.
As Baker made clear that the large-scale sites will be a major part of vaccination efforts moving forward CIC Health, which operates the sites at Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, indicated they were ready for the role, announcing their plans to expand vaccine administration in line with the broader eligibility and holding a Wednesday afternoon media availability.
The population becoming eligible for vaccines on Thursday includes individuals age 16 and older with two or more from a certain group of medical conditions: moderate to severe asthma, cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, Down Syndrome, heart conditions, immunocompromised state from an organ transplant, obesity, pregnancy, sickle cell disease, smoking and type 2 diabetes mellitus.
That list mostly adheres to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list of conditions that place people at higher risk of severe illness from the coronavirus. Massachusetts has now added in asthma, which Baker said “is an environmental and economic justice issue.”
People with one of those conditions will become eligible later in Phase 2 of the state’s three-phase vaccine distribution plan, after teachers and other essential workers.
Baker said the state is still “pretty much on track” with the basic schedule of its original plan, which envisioned the current portion — Phase 2 — running from February to April, and Phase 3, serving the general public, penciled in for April to June.
State lawmakers plan to examine the vaccine rollout at an oversight hearing next week, which the COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management Committee announced in a statement where top Democrats knocked the plans as frequently changing.