Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday the pending rollout of a logistically daunting COVID-19 vaccine distribution program “will probably be a little lumpy” at first, suggesting the early days of vaccinations will be challenging.
But the governor for the first time confirmed that residents of the state’s nursing homes and other senior care facilities will be among the first to get vaccinated, along with doctors, nurses and others on the medical front lines.
“Health care workers and long-term care folks are absolutely going to be up near the top of the list,” said Baker yesterday morning at a press conference in a Worcester field hospital.
An advisory panel of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted 13-1 on Tuesday that the first vaccinations should go to long-term care residents, along with front-line health workers. But the recommendation isn’t binding on Massachusetts, and Baker had previously said only that people at high risk of contracting the coronavirus due to their work, age, or physical condition would be first in line.
On Wednesday, Baker’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group gave its vaccine priority recommendations to the governor and his team. But unlike the CDC advisors, the state advisory group met in private and its recommendations haven’t been made public. At the Thursday press conference, Baker said the state will submit a plan to federal authorities Friday. He promised more details on Monday.
“Based on the feedback we’ve gotten from the federal government, we expect — and admittedly, we’ll see how all this plays out — the beginning of this will probably be a little lumpy,” he said.
The governor, speaking to reporters after touring a newly reinstated field hospital at DCU Center in Worcester, confirmed the state expects to receive about 300,000 doses of the first COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks.
In an interview, Dr. Paul Biddinger, director of emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital and chairman of Baker’s vaccine advisory group, said the state expects to receive an initial shipment of 60,000 doses of the first vaccine, made by Pfizer, if federal regulators approve it for emergency use next week.
Emergency authorization of a second vaccine, from Moderna, could follow a week later and boost the state’s total doses to 300,000 by year-end or the first week of January, he said.
That would supply the first doses for about 300,000 high-priority residents; all of them would receive second doses of the two-dose vaccine regimen when subsequent shipments arrive early next year.
While the logistics have yet to be finalized, Biddinger hinted at some of the complexities officials are wrestling with.
“Because there are definitely more than 60,000 health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities in Massachusetts, I think there’s going to have to be a degree of sub-prioritization,” Biddinger said, “both potentially at the state level and potentially at the hospital level, just because there won’t be enough vaccine for everyone on day one.”
More than 150,000 employees work at the state’s hospitals, while there are more than 65,000 employees and 50,000 residents of Massachusetts nursing homes, rest homes, and assisted living facilities, according to trade associations.
There are other constraints to consider, Biddinger said. Health care systems will have to stagger how they immunize their employees because some may experience the vaccines’ side effects, such as fever, muscle aches and fatigue, briefly compromising their ability to care for patients.
Pfizer’s vaccines also have specific storage directives that only larger hospitals may be able to handle. These vaccines, which must be kept at minus-70 degrees Celsius, are packed in dry ice and shipped in 1,000-dose trays known colloquially as “pizza boxes.” Pfizer’s specialized shipping containers can temporarily store these vaccine trays for up to 15 days when replenished with dry ice.
Moderna’s vaccines, on the other hand, are delivered in 100-dose trays, Biddinger said, and do not require ultra-cold storage. “Small community health centers or individual practices or even smaller hospitals might not necessarily be able to use 1,000 doses right away as effectively, so there probably will be different products sent to different entities based on their size and their capabilities,” he said.
“Progress on [vaccines] doesn’t mean we will be able to flip the switch and return to normal” in the near future, Baker said.