With data showing Massachusetts lags other states in vaccinating residents, Secretary of State William Galvin and others are proposing ways to speed up vaccine distribution — among them, giving shots where people vote.
Governor Charlie Baker, meanwhile, outlined plans on Wednesday to expand the COVID-19 vaccination rollout and insisted it remains on track.
Galvin sent a letter to the governor this week proposing the use of local polling stations to deliver the new vaccines. To test the concept, Galvin suggested running pilot programs that piggyback on March elections in communities like Newton, Lexington, Wellesley, and Duxbury. But voting sites could be used for vaccinations even when there’s no election.
“You’re going to have to step this up to get it done,” Galvin said in an interview, citing the state’s goal of immunizing 5.8 million residents over age 16. “Without that kind of geographic element, it’s going to be very much a scramble.”
In a separate letter to the governor this week, Delta Dental said the 5,000 dentists in its network could be tapped to inject a broader swath of residents with vaccines. A cavalry of dentists is “ready, willing, and able” to help deliver shots into people’s arms in coming weeks, said Kristin LaRoche, spokeswoman for Delta Dental, the state’s largest dental insurer.
The outreach comes as data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated Wednesday, show Massachusetts ranking 25th among states in per-capita vaccinations, with 3,155 doses given per 100,000 people, behind New York and all other New England states. Only 223,054 vaccine doses had been administered in Massachusetts as of Monday, according to the state.
Officials at the Massachusetts COVID-19 Command Center didn’t respond to requests for comment on the proposals from Galvin and Delta Dental. But they issued a statement stressing their own plans to accelerate vaccinations and indicating they were open to considering outside proposals.
“The Commonwealth continues to build out vaccination clinics,” the statement said. “To date, 187 local health departments have partnered with the Command Center and Department of Public Health to stand up 119 sites to vaccinate their first responders and today announced the first mass vaccination site, located at Gillette Stadium.”
It said state officials “will review any requests we receive for additional vaccination sites as we continue to build out the Commonwealth’s vaccine distribution infrastructure.”
Baker, at a State House press briefing, said state officials view Gillette Stadium, which starts injections Thursday and will ramp up to provide 5,000 shots a day, as a “template” for a network of mass vaccination sites. “We are now in live discussions with folks in other parts of Massachusetts about using that template in other locations,” the governor said.
Front-line health workers, long-term-care residents, and first responders began receiving vaccinations over the past four weeks, and next Baker said the state is extending vaccinations to residents and staff in congregate care settings, such as group homes, prisons, and homeless shelters.
People at such sites can administer vaccine doses themselves as long as they meet state guidelines. Otherwise, they can arrange vaccines through clinical partners such as hospitals, or arrange for residents to be vaccinated at Gillette.
Baker also said the state will inoculate residents who live in senior housing sites run by public housing authorities at the start of the second phase of vaccinations. Other high-priority groups in the phase that is slated to start in February include residents age 75 and over and those with two or more co-morbidities that put them at high risk for coronavirus.
“Distributing vaccine to our residents can’t happen fast enough,” Baker said. “Vaccines are obviously a critical part of getting back to normal.”
The governor insisted that the state’s vaccination program, despite a slow start, remains on track to meet an ambitious timetable outlined last month as long as vaccine shipments allocated by the federal government continue apace. Under the state timetable, vaccines would be available to the general public in April.
When peppered with questions about other states that already have begun vaccinating older residents or giving shots to all comers, he spoke passionately in defense of his administration’s priorities.
“I really hope that early on we are able, with the vaccine that’s available, to hit the populations for whom life is most at risk and for whom the health care system relies on and depends on to provide care,” Baker said, his voice rising.
In some other states, he said, “people who are the same age as my kids have got vaccinated before people who are home health workers or health care workers or long-term-care workers or long-term-care residents . . . or people who have multiple co-morbidities and are over the age of 70. Honestly, I just don’t think that’s the way we should do this.”
Baker also said he hoped for a smooth transition to the incoming Biden administration in Washington, calling it critical for resolving important vaccine issues from determining whether to withhold second doses in shipping protocols to authorizing emergency use of additional vaccine candidates.
“These are really big issues, they’re really big decisions,” Baker said. “They’re going to last way beyond Jan. 20.”
Galvin’s letter to the Republican governor acknowledged the logistical challenges of the vaccination drive, citing his experience with the complex undertaking of running elections in disparate cities and towns.
He suggested using electronic records and staffing space adjacent to polling places with temporary medical personnel to serve defined populations, such as residents 75 and over.
“Much like an election, massive vaccine distribution requires organizational efforts, which involve an army of trained workers and enough space to accommodate large crowds with detailed record keeping,” Galvin, a Democrat, wrote.
Galvin said he broached the idea last month with Baker’s chief legal counsel Robert Ross but has yet to get a response.
The idea of using polling places to expand vaccination sites is a good one, said Liisa Jackson, coordinator for a dozen Medical Reserve Corps units in Massachusetts.
The corps, with 20,000 medical volunteers in Massachusetts, often helps local health departments with flu vaccinations, and has been used to staff COVID testing sites, Jackson said.
Corps units in Massachusetts conduct drills every year to train for emergency mass-dispensing of vaccinations, and many of those drills are at polling sites, Jackson said, adding, “I have hundreds of medical volunteers on standby ready to help.”
Ellen Ishkanian, a spokeswoman for Newton, one of the cities holding elections in March, said its health department was already vaccinating first responders and is scouting sites for vaccinations of other residents. But she wouldn’t say whether voting stations would be possibilities.
“They’re exploring lots of options,” she said. “They look at specific locations that meet the logistical specifications.”
In the Delta Dental letter to the governor, the insurer said the Baker administration needs to more quickly vaccinate dentists so they can give shots to others. Dentists are included in the state’s first phase of the vaccine rollout but farther down the list — after congregate settings and home health workers.
“Dentists in public health settings are fully equipped to administer the vaccines in their offices,” spokeswoman LaRoche said. “They could also be part of the community-based sites outside their offices as we move through these different phases.”