Massachusetts public health officials delivered batches of vaccine to a handful of colleges this week as they tried to accelerate COVID-19 immunizations amid criticism that the state’s rollout has been sluggish.
Campuses including the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Northeastern University, Salem State University, and Harvard University received their first vials of vaccine this week and have begun to inoculate staff who may come in contact with COVID-infected people. It had previously been unclear whether colleges would receive their own vaccine supplies to dole out to their communities, or if staff, faculty, and students would have to get their shots elsewhere.
Additionally, the state announced that some campuses, including UMass Amherst, will serve as community vaccination sites for first responders around the region who are scheduled to begin getting immunized next week.
On Tuesday morning, Christine Civiletto, the interim executive director of Northeastern University’s health and counseling services, got the call she’d been waiting for.
“It’s here!” an excited co-worker told Civiletto.
In a box shipped from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health were 200 doses of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine. The university then e-mailed eligible workers that the vaccine was available if they were interested, and by 1 p.m. Northeastern had started immunizing dozens of employees who work at school’s COVID testing sites and laboratory. Those workers qualified for shots in the state’s first phase of vaccine distribution.
Northeastern has 350 workers who qualify, and university officials expect to run through their supply by later this week. Another 1,150 workers, including campus police, will qualify for shots starting next week. Many of the university employees who qualify are students who work directly with patient care or in other clinical care positions, according to Northeastern.
Other large universities, including Boston University, have applied for state approval to also start vaccinating their campus communities. BU hopes to start immunizing people on campus in the next few weeks, but in the meantime has contacted a nearby hospital to determine if it has enough vaccine for qualified university employees, said Rachel Lapal Cavallario, a BU spokeswoman.
Smaller colleges with fewer staff and less resources may not be able to do their own vaccinations. The state is working with those colleges to set up four sites on larger campuses across the state where nurses, campus police, and other front-line workers from small schools can get their shots.
These partnerships suggest that the state may be starting to move at a faster pace on vaccinations and more people statewide will be inoculated sooner, said Gerri Taylor, a member of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force and a retired director of the Bentley University health center.
“This gives me hope we’re going to get to the other phases quicker than I originally thought,” said Taylor, who has been advocating to immunize college nurses and health care staff who work with potentially infected students.
The distribution of the vaccine to college campuses comes as frustrations mount over the slow rollout of the vaccine in Massachusetts and fears grow that a new variant makes COVID far more transmissible and could soon overwhelm hospitals.
As of Sunday, the most recent day for which data are available, Massachusetts providers and pharmacy contractors had vaccinated 116,071 front-line hospital workers and nursing home residents and staff with first doses of their two-dose regimens — using 40.4 percent of the 287,000 doses that had been shipped to the state by the end of 2020.
Massachusetts has immunized a smaller percentage of its population than Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont and is even further behind more rural states, such as South Dakota.
Colleges are hoping to immunize as many people who qualify as possible before the spring semester begins later this month, Taylor said.
Many schools had hoped to bring more students back to campus this spring and recoup some of the room and board revenue they lost last fall. But with coronavirus infections and deaths showing no sign of slowing, some have already been forced to delay in-person reopening plans.
For example, Emerson College recently announced that its spring term will begin on Jan. 19 online, with in-person classes delayed until Feb. 1. Bates College in Maine extended its winter break by a month and won’t start classes until Feb. 17.
Most college students and faculty will probably not qualify for the vaccine until later in the distribution schedule, but getting as many of the health care and front-line workers immunized as possible will give colleges more reassurance that they can reopen safely, Taylor said.
Colleges are still waiting for the state to determine how it will distribute the vaccine in later phases, when more people will have access to the shots. Will the campuses be able to inoculate all employees and students when they qualify for the vaccine in late spring, along with the general population? Some institutions, including Northeastern, are also in discussions with state public health officials to become mass-vaccination sites for the region.
Currently, schools must be able to demonstrate that they have cold-storage facilities, staff to administer the vaccines, and the ability to vaccinate enough people so that the doses aren’t wasted, college health officials said.
Northeastern’s Civiletto said this early effort to vaccinate front-line workers will allow the university to work out any wrinkles and determine what it needs to scale up its vaccination program.
“There’s a lot of lessons to learn from the early phase,” Civiletto said.