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With vaccine to arrive, Mass. goes from ‘defense to offense’ against COVID-19

Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine were prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant in Portage, Mich., on Sunday.
Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine were prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant in Portage, Mich., on Sunday.Morry Gash/Associated Press

The earliest shipments of COVID-19 vaccine are expected to arrive at some Massachusetts hospitals starting Monday, officials said, as the state readies for a distribution effort that initially seeks to vaccinate thousands of medical workers and support staff in hospitals, as well as employees and residents of long-term-care facilities.

A significant portion of the state’s initial allocation of 59,475 vaccine doses, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, is being shipped directly to several area hospitals and health care systems. Tufts Medical Center could receive vaccine as early as midday Monday, while Massachusetts General Brigham and UMass Memorial Health Care each could get deliveries on Tuesday, officials said.

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For many health care workers who have battled for nearly a year to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic, news of the vaccine is seen as a turning point in a long conflict, said David Twitchell, the chief pharmacy officer of the Boston Medical Center Health System.

Some in the medical field have even taken to calling the vaccine distribution effort “V-Day,” he said — comparing it to the 1944 invasion of France during the Second World War.

“This is going to be the largest vaccination effort in history,” he said. “I think the D-Day analogy is right: We’re going to go from defense to offense here.”

As Massachusetts launches its vaccination campaign, the state continues to be pummeled by a fall surge of COVID-19 cases. The state reported 4,677 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Sunday, bringing the state’s total to 279,574. The state’s confirmed death toll was 11,098, including 41 new deaths reported.

The recent surge in cases also led Governor Charlie Baker to impose more restrictions on many businesses and daily life intended to protect people’s health.

Baker’s order, which went into effect Sunday, rolled back the state’s four-phase economic opening to Phase 3 Step 1 and required the closure of some businesses, including theaters and indoor performance venues. It also tightened restrictions for businesses, limiting their capacity, and cutting the size of outdoor gatherings to no more than 50 people. Gatherings of more than 25 must notify the local board of health.

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Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, said Saturday that vaccine distribution at long-term-care facilities, including rest homes, and assisted living facilities is planned to begin next week. . That process will be carried out by clinical staff from CVS and Walgreens, she said.

The state expects to receive 300,000 doses of vaccine by year’s end, and that figure includes 120,000 doses from Cambridge drug maker Moderna,; its vaccine is expected to be reviewed by the FDA for emergency use Thursday.

In a statement Sunday, a COVID-19 Response Command Center spokeswoman reiterated the state’s support for progress on the vaccine but did not elaborate on details on vaccine deliveries. Pfizer, in a statement Sunday afternoon, directed questions about the Massachusetts distribution to state officials.

Samuel Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist, said the speed of development for COVID-19 vaccines could be among the biggest scientific achievements in history.

“We didn’t even know there was a COVID-19 at this time last year, and now we have a safe, highly efficacious vaccine that we’re going to be giving to health care workers and other individuals,” Scarpino said. “It’s amazing.”

He warned that even with rapid progress with vaccines, it will still be several months before people can begin to resume their lives in a “new normal.” That means public health measures like mask-wearing, social distancing, and restrictions on gatherings will likely remain in place for months, he said, as the state anticipates to ramp up vaccinations for the general public in the spring.

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“The more we focus on supporting individuals who are bearing the financial and economic burden of this, understanding that the rest of us are making sacrifices, and couple the vaccines with the non-pharmaceutical interventions, the more likely that we will all get out of this quickly,” Scarpino said.

Health officials have worried that large swaths of the American public will not take a vaccine — and have warned that without widespread use, the coronavirus will continue to pose a threat.

Building public support for COVID-19 vaccine could be critical to its success, health officials said Sunday.

As the vaccine is deployed in the state’s hospitals, officials in separate interviews have said equity is a key consideration in distribution efforts. Along with workers such as nurses and physicians who help COVID-19 patients, other employees who risk exposure to the coronavirus, including environmental service workers, will have access to the vaccine as well.

Dr. Sharon Wright, the infection control lead at Beth Israel Lahey Health Incident Command, said focusing the vaccination process on health workers may help broaden support for the vaccine among the public.

“Patients are much more willing to take advice about vaccination, and have confidence, when they’re told by their health care provider,” Wright said. “And so if they see tens of thousands of health care personnel getting vaccinated without long-term ill effects, then the confidence in the vaccine is likely to be higher.”

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Nick Duncan, the director of emergency management at Tufts Medical Center, said the hospital expects to receive its first shipment of 975 doses as early as midday Monday. They hope to start up a clinic for vaccinating employees by Wednesday.

Beyond the initial push for health workers, Tufts is looking to ramp up plans for distributing vaccine to other personnel, including possibly first responders. Tufts provides COVID testing for those workers in Boston, he said.

“They are equally as important as people working internally in the hospital to make sure the health care system ... provides the best, safest support,” he said. “The light is starting to come up on the horizon ... but there is still a long way to go.”

Twitchell, with Boston Medical Center Health System, said the hospital is expecting 1,950 doses of the vaccine, which are due to arrive Monday or Tuesday. BMC served as a clinical test site for Pfizer’s vaccine, and Twitchell served on the state’s COVID-19 advisory group on vaccine distribution.

The doses shipped to BMC and other hospitals, officials said, are critical to the first wave of vaccinations for workers. BMC’s vaccination effort is due to begin Wednesday, Twitchell said, with the goal to vaccinate about 1,000 workers by Saturday.

There is excitement among his colleagues over the prospect of vaccinations for COVID-19, he said. And when their first vaccine shipment arrives, Twitchell said, he would like to escort it from the hospital’s loading dock to an ultra-cold storage facility in its in-patient pharmacy.

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After such a long struggle, many at BMC want to recognize the vaccine’s arrival with a ceremony, he said.

“It feels like a real event here, an actual thing we can mark on our calendars. This is the day that it started.” Twitchell said. “I’m very excited for this, and the potential to save a lot of lives.”

Laura Crimaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.