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State’s tentative vaccine distribution plan prioritizes medical workers, high-risk people

A health worker vaccinated a participant during clinical trials in Florida.
A health worker vaccinated a participant during clinical trials in Florida.Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg

Massachusetts residents who are elderly or at risk for serious illness, health care providers, and other essential workers are likely to be the first to receive a COVID-19 vaccine after one is approved, according to a draft of the state’s distribution plan filed with the federal government.

The document, sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prioritizes those groups because the state, home to nearly 6.9 million people, is expected to receive only 20,000 to 60,000 doses of a vaccine during the federal government’s initial allocation, according to the draft.

The 47-page plan was developed by Department of Public Health specialists who consulted outside experts, the document said. It was submitted Friday, the CDC’s deadline for each state to file a draft distribution policy. It is based on guidelines set by the federal agency.

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In a statement, the state Department of Health and Human Services said the agency will continue working with a state advisory group “to help advance its efforts to prepare for distribution of a safe and effective vaccine."

The plan does not offer a timeline.

Governor Charlie Baker’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Last month, Baker had said it’s “incredibly important” that clinical trials of a vaccine not be rushed, after the CDC’s director, Robert Redfield, wrote in August to governors, telling them to have vaccine distribution centers ready by Nov. 1.

Baker said then that the “big issue” is "that these be done right” and that people have "comfort and confidence that this thing is going to be safe and effective.”

Some people interviewed Sunday expressed a mix of concern and optimism.

“It seems like a vaccine is coming more quickly than in the past," said Chelli Keshavan, 32, executive director of the nonprofit Boston Association for Childbirth Education, standing in Coolidge Corner.

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“I don’t think it’s coming as soon as people are promising," said Chris Loughlin, 26, who was seated on a bench at Amory Park in Brookline. "There’s a logistical method to it that needs to be solved.”

August Easton, 25, who works in health care, said that “it will be more like 12 to 18 months” before a vaccine is available.

And he knows who should get it when one is ready: “Health care workers,” he said, standing in front of Starbucks in Kenmore Square. “They’re the most likely to be exposed to the virus.”

Loughlin, who works in media, agreed health care workers should be first in line. “They’re the most likely to be exposed,” he said.

But Keshavan said she thinks teachers should be vaccinated first.

"They clearly exposed the failure of the way our system works,” she said, referring to the child-care crisis created by the pandemic. "No one can work without child care. A public school functions as child care for those who can’t afford it.”

More than 100 COVID-19 vaccines are in development, including several in the human trial phase, according to the World Health Organization.

Thousands of people are enrolled in the trial for a vaccine being developed by the Cambridge biotech Moderna that has been found to create antibodies in older patients, without serious side effects.

Another potential vaccine, being developed jointly by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, is in late-stage trials and so far has shown no side effects greater than those seen in smaller early studies.

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Once a vaccine is approved, Massachusetts will distribute it in three phases, the draft states.

In the first phase, the state will encourage all health care workers to register with the vaccination program, but the plan notes not enough doses will be available for all health care institutions and long-term care facilities.

Priority will be given to health care personnel who work directly with COVID-19 patients, have health conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus, or are over age 65.

In the second phase, there will be a “large number of vaccine doses available” and the state will “begin to provide vaccine for the broader population,” though no numbers are provided.

To prepare for this phase, the Department of Public Health has begun expanding its distribution network to include a wider variety of doctors, nurse practitioners, and other health care providers.

“This broad network of vaccine providers will enable the timely distribution of doses in anticipation of a surge in demand for the vaccine,” the document says.

Depending on vaccine supplies and distribution capacity, during this phase the state may set up emergency dispensing sites, especially in areas with limited access to medical facilities, according to the draft.

In the third phase, there will be enough vaccine for everyone to be immunized, and the state will focus “on ensuring equitable vaccination across the entire population.”

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Globe correspondent Breanne Kovatch contributed to this report.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.