On the day the state’s first mass vaccination site launched at Gillette Stadium, community activists and medical professionals Monday called on Governor Charlie Baker and state public health officials to prioritize access to the COVID-19 vaccine to the Black and immigrant communities in Massachusetts.
“Our Black and Latino neighbors have been the hardest hit by the pandemic, and we have failed to implement sufficient measures to protect them,” said a letter signed by more than 250 and delivered to Baker on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “We cannot afford to neglect our hotspot communities during the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine.”
More than 500 Massachusetts residents received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Monday at Gillette Stadium, at what is hoped to be the first of several large-scale vaccination clinics in the state that will help fight the pandemic. CIC Health, a Cambridge technology company with a focus on COVID-19 testing, is running the site in Foxborough with assistance from the state.
So far, under the state’s phased schedule, vaccinations in Massachusetts are only permitted for clinical and non-clinical health care workers doing direct COVID-facing care; long-term care facilities, rest homes, and assisted-living facilities; first responders; and — as of Monday — inmates in the state’s correctional system, residents of congregate-care facilities, as well as staff in those settings.
Phase Two, expected to start in February, would prioritize vaccinations for people over age 75, those with two or more comorbidities, as well as residents and staff of public and private low-income and senior housing. It would also allow other workers — including teachers and grocery store employees — to get doses. The effort would later expand to people over age 65, and those with one co-morbid condition.
The general public is expected to be able to get vaccine doses in Phase Three, slated to begin in April, according to the state.
Baker has pledged to set aside 20 percent of its supply for vulnerable cities and towns with high rates of infections but not until Phases Two and Three. He spoke Monday about the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on communities of color during a virtual MLK day celebration for the city of Springfield.
“There is no doubt about it. Black and brown communities have borne the brunt of this virus,” said Baker. “Our administration’s response to the pandemic has been constantly mindful of this reality. We’ve increased access to multilingual public health resources and now we’re prioritizing communities of color in our vaccine distribution process.”
But the authors of the MLK Day letter argue that the state has not identified a program for actually delivering and administering those hot spot vaccines.
The doctors also pointed to neighboring Rhode Island as one state that has taken steps to provide the vaccine to minority communities.
Rhode Island offered up doses to residents of Central Falls, one of the hardest-hit areas in the Northeast, during its first phase of the vaccine rollout. In some cases, the vaccine was delivered to the front door of residents in the community where about two-thirds of the city’s residents are Latino and thousands are undocumented. Many work poorly paid factory and food-processing jobs and live in cramped triple-deckers with several family members.
Rhode Island intends to prioritize other highly dense ZIP codes in the first phase of the state’s distribution plan.
“[The] arrival of effective vaccines should prompt our state to use this tool to prioritize their protection as Rhode Island is doing,” said Dr. Regina LaRocque, adult infectious disease specialist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, in a statement accompanying the letter.
The letter was provided by the Chelsea Collaborative, or La Colaborativa, a nonprofit organization that has been leading the humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic in that city, the early epicenter of the virus in the state.
“We call on you to partner with community organizations, like the Chelsea Collaborative, to immediately deliver vaccines directly to our hardest-hit communities in Massachusetts — starting now. The healthcare professionals among us are ready to assist you,” concludes the letter.
Among the signees are medical students from Harvard and Boston University, doctors from Mass General Brigham hospitals, and leaders from community health clinics across the Boston area.
As with the rest of the United States, COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on the Black and Latino communities in Massachusetts. Cities with the largest population of those two groups suffered high infection rates and death. A study from the summer found a 10 percentage point increase in the Black population, with 312.3 more cases per 100,000 people. The same increase in the Latino population was associated with 258.2 more cases per 100,000.
Not only are people of color suffering more from COVID-19, but they also are among the most skeptical about the vaccines, a consequence of generations of unequal medical access and treatment. Many residents of immigrant communities avoid medical care for fear of alerting Immigration and Customs Enforcement, noted the statement accompanying the letter.
“We found so many sick Chelsea residents in our food line,” said Dinanyili Paulino of La Colaborativa. “We now want to help offer our community members the vaccines.”
John Hilliard of the Globe staff contributed to this story.