Massachusetts officials are preparing next month to launch the most ambitious phase yet of their COVID-19 vaccination program — inoculating every state resident age 75 or older. And there are indications they aren’t close to being ready.
Just ask 77-year-old George McQuilken.
Less than three weeks before he could be eligible for his shot, the retired technology executive who lives by himself in Bolton can’t find anyone to tell him how he can get one.
“I called my primary care physician’s office, and they haven’t heard anything. I called the town nurse and she doesn’t know. I’ve asked and asked and asked,” said McQuilken, who wryly noted he’s in a position to ask because “when you’re in the 75-plus group, you’re in contact with medical people.”
Tens of thousands of older Massachusetts residents are in the same spot as McQuilken. The second phase of the Baker administration’s vaccine rollout, which includes seniors, was pegged for February in a timetable released last month. People 75 and over are supposed to be at the front of the line.
But state officials only last week notified home health workers — a much smaller group slated to be vaccinated in January — that their injections would not begin until Feb. 1.
That, in turn, could delay the immunization of the 450,000 high-risk residents over 75 — nearly triple the number of residents vaccinated since the state’s rollout began last month. And a recommendation issued Tuesday by the Trump administration, calling on states to immediately start vaccinating all Americans as young as 65, could make the state’s job even harder. Governor Charlie Baker said the state would ask its COVID-19 advisory panel to consider whether to lower the age limit to 65 for the next round of vaccines.
Seniors and their advocates say that, already, the delay in vaccinations for home health workers increases the risk to homebound residents who rely on them for help bathing, getting dressed, and preparing meals. “These workers are out in the community and should be vaccinated as soon as they can,” said Lisa Gurgone, executive director of Mass Home Care, which provides services to about 60,000 homebound seniors across the state.
Access to the vaccine depends heavily on where older residents live. Those in nursing homes or other long-term-care facilities are already getting vaccinated. But residents over 75 who live in low-income senior apartments run by public housing authorities and some nonprofits are waiting to learn when and where they’ll be vaccinated. Many have been cooped up in their apartments for months, and have experienced physical and cognitive decline.
“You’ve got this patchwork approach,” said Andrew DeFranza, executive director of Harborlight Community Partners, a nonprofit that operates a half-dozen subsidized senior housing sites in Beverly, Rockport, and Ipswich. “These are very frail, very vulnerable people who live in affordable senior housing but are not yet eligible to receive vaccines.”
State officials directed the first vaccine shipments to hospitals and long-term-care facilities, sites with employees qualified to administer vaccines. But the logistics got more complex this week when the state designated 119 smaller and more dispersed sites, including schools and senior centers, to inoculate first responders such as police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians. Some of those sites may also be used for seniors and the general population as the rollout expands.
The challenges will multiply again when injections begin for the over-75 residents living independently or in senior housing not covered in Phase 1 vaccinations, a group larger than the first three combined. And the pressure to step up the pace of vaccinations is increasing.
“Everyone feels we can’t get it quick enough,” said Elissa Sherman, president of Leading Age Massachusetts, which represents aging service providers and nonprofit senior housing operators. “Older adults have shouldered the [pandemic] burden for 10 long months now, and everyone is eager to get the vaccine as soon as possible.”
Baker said Tuesday that Gillette Stadium in Foxborough has been tapped as the state’s first regional “mass vaccination site.” The site will be operated by CIC Health, with Mass General Brigham serving as medical director and Fallon Ambulance supporting the staffing, the governor said.
Vaccinations of first responders will start there Thursday, initially serving about 300 people a day but eventually ramping up to about 5,000 a day and “potentially much bigger numbers than that over time,” Baker said.
The governor said his administration, which had administered 141,000 vaccine doses as of last Thursday, is moving to accelerate the vaccine rollout. But he said that hinges on vaccine allocations coordinated by the federal government, which gives states short notice on when doses will be shipped.
“We will move as quickly as the distribution plan moves,” Baker said. By last Thursday, the state had reported receiving 328,000 doses, not nearly enough to move to the next vaccination phase.
The new federal recommendation could complicate what is already a daunting task for Massachusetts officials by making another 560,000 residents age 65 to 74 eligible for vaccinations at once. Baker said his COVID-19 advisory committee would study the plan, though other governors, including Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, said they’ll be dropping eligibility to age 65.
Some public health experts questioned how realistic the Trump administration proposal is given the slow pace of the rollout so far and the many obstacles to vaccinations.
“Currently, the country is nowhere close to vaccinating all those in the first set of priority groups,” said Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a former assistant US health secretary in the Obama administration. “We need much more detailed information about whether available vaccine doses can then also meet the need to cover those over age 65.”
Residents over 75 who live in nursing homes and assisted living centers have already received their first vaccine shots through a federal pharmacy partnership that contracted with CVS and Walgreens to operate on-site clinics. The pharmacy companies have also started clinics this week at rest homes as well some private senior living sites and continuing-care retirement communities, where residents have access to multiple levels of care on a single campus.
“As soon as people are vaccinated, we’re going to open up community life again. People are hungry for it,” said Amy Schectman, president of 2Life Communities, who said residents have been mostly confined to their rooms at her organization’s subsidized senior living sites in Brighton, Brookline, Newton, and Framingham.
But residents of other affordable housing units, including those operated by more than 200 public housing authorities, weren’t given the opportunity to sign on with the federal pharmacy program — and they don’t know why.
“Our residents are some of the lowest income seniors in the state, and they have yet to be placed on a schedule where they can be vaccinated and return to some normality,” said David Hedison, executive director of the Chelmsford Housing Authority and president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. “All seniors in subsidized housing should be receiving the vaccine.”
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this story.
Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.