The first shipments of a long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine are expected to arrive in Massachusetts on Dec. 15, part of a distribution plan that would deliver 300,000 first doses to front-line health workers and long-term-care residents by year-end.
Offering a glimmer of hope to a state that has been wracked by the deadly coronavirus pandemic, Governor Charlie Baker and other officials laid out details Wednesday of the state’s distribution plan — spelling out a vaccination priority list, but making it clear that most in the general public won’t be receiving the shots until April at the earliest.
“Our plan for the first round of vaccine shipments maximizes life-saving care for our most vulnerable residents and protects health care workers, first responders, and workers doing COVID-facing work,” Baker said as he unveiled the plan at a State House press briefing.
Health workers at risk of exposure to the virus and long-term-care staff and residents will be first in line for the vaccine, followed by police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical workers, residents in congregate settings such as prisons and homeless shelters, home-based caregivers, and other health workers who aren’t in “COVID-facing” jobs, according to the state’s distribution plan.
But a vaccination timeline released by the governor’s office suggests the state doesn’t anticipate receiving nearly enough vaccines in the short term to inoculate all Massachusetts residents at heightened risk for COVID-19. The document identified more than 3 million people who should get early vaccines because of their health, age, jobs, or other risk factors, but, through April, enough vaccines for only about 1.1 million to get the two shots that are required.
Baker administration officials said they expect to get additional doses of vaccines after the first of the year. Those additional doses are not accounted for in the timeline released Wednesday.
People will receive one of two new vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, both of which are expected to be approved for emergency use by federal regulators by the end of next week. Both vaccines require two shots taken several weeks apart to be fully effective.
The first group of people in Massachusetts would get two vaccine doses between mid-December and February, in what state officials are calling “Phase One” of their distribution plan. That includes people working in health care who deal directly with COVID patients as well as residents and staffs at long-term-care facilities, which have accounted for most of the state’s COVID deaths.
They’ll be followed by people in “Phase Two” priority groups who are slated to be vaccinated between February and April: residents with two or more chronic illnesses; critical workers such as teachers; transit employees; and, food, sanitation, public works, and public health workers. After that will come adults who are 65 and over and individuals with a single serious illness making them at higher risk for COVID-19.
But it’s clear the state will need a larger supply of vaccines to inoculate all the people covered by Phase One and Phase Two.
Massachusetts expects to receive 300,000 vaccine doses in December and another 1.9 million doses by spring 2021 — enough for 1.1 million people to get two shots each. But Baker’s office estimated there are 600,000 people who should get the shots in Phase One and more than 2.5 million people in Phase Two.
Baker administration officials expect that the vaccines that are already committed to Massachusetts will be enough to give all people in the Phase One group their full two-shot vaccination, while starting the vaccination of people in Phase Two. They believe that the state will also secure more vaccines in 2021.
A majority of residents, those deemed not at a higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, will get the vaccine in Phase Three, which Baker said could start as early as April. But state officials took pains to emphasize that the timetable could change with the unfolding of events, such as new vaccine approvals.
The first shipment of nearly 60,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine was ordered from the federal government last week and will be delivered next week to 21 hospitals in eight counties across the state and to an immunization lab run by the state Department of Public Health. Those facilities have the ultracold refrigeration capacity to store the vaccines, officials said.
Some vaccine doses will be administered to front-line health workers at those sites and the rest redistributed to a broader group of mostly smaller hospitals across 14 counties, according to the state plan.
A second shipment of about 40,000 doses would go to CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate staff and residents of long-term-care facilities, the state officials said. They didn’t specify when the second shipment would arrive.
Baker said the vaccine would be provided free of charge to all individuals. Officials urged people to learn more about the distribution plan by clicking on mass.gov/covidvaccine.
The governor said that the vaccines represented the “light at the end of the tunnel,” but that it would be months before the population was safe. “We’re certainly not out of the woods yet. . . . We all need to continue to wear face coverings, avoid groups, and work to stop the spread,” he said.
Baker also sought to allay public concern about the safety of the vaccine and whether it would work. “The vaccine will not be distributed in Massachusetts until the FDA has approved it for emergency use and it is deemed to be safe,” he said.
Baker said there would also be a racial justice component to the vaccine rollout plan, with Phase One recipients including many health workers of color and a share of vaccine doses set aside in later phases for communities hard hit by the virus.
“We recognize that the pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color and low-income people,” Baker said. “Our vaccine advisory board has been intently focused on ensuring that these voices have been heard during the planning process, and included representatives from this community. ”
The Rev. Liz Walker, senior pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church and a member of the governor’s vaccine advisory group, said making the vaccine available to communities of color is vitally important. But she acknowledged that many members of her community remain skeptical of the vaccine.
“My prayer is that I have earned enough trust in my community to help people make good decisions,” she said.
Marylou Sudders, the state secretary for health and human services, said the first priority of state officials would be hospitals. “The distribution plan focuses on hospital capacity to store and administer the Pfizer vaccine for the health care workers in COVID-facing work,” she said.
Dr. Paul Biddinger, chief of the division of emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital, who chaired the state vaccine advisory group, said the landscape could look very different in nine months.
“So with all the caveats that we are dependent on — all of the vaccines in the research pipeline receiving an emergency use authorization, the production being uninterrupted — we believe that in six to nine months, we should have reached a good chunk of the country,” Biddinger said.
Biddinger downplayed the severity of side effects from the vaccine, based on data from clinical studies.
“We know that people [who get vaccinated] may have fatigue, may have muscle aches, may have headaches. A small number may have fevers,” he said. “And those are relatively mild and relatively more common in the second dose than in the first. Only a small number of people we expect, based on what we’ve heard so far, will actually feel ill enough to need to stay home.”
The side effects, he said, represent “the body’s immune response.” He said that while no one wants muscle aches for a day, “they’re very transient. In some of the studies, they’ve been over in less than 24 hours.”
Biddinger was crystal clear about the ultimate aim of state officials and those in the medical community.
“The goal is really to vaccinate every eligible person,” he said.
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