Veterinarian Brian Bourquin has never been busier. With a new crush of “pandemic pets” to tend to, he has seen calls to his Boston Veterinary Clinic soar 400 percent, and he’s worked weekends, hired more staff, and opened a third location just to keep up.
Despite the precautions Bourquin has taken, COVID-19 exposure lurks in every client interaction and staff procedure. So he was dismayed upon checking the state’s timeline detailing when he’d be eligible to receive the vaccine. Veterinarians, he saw, are listed under Phase 3, expected to start in April, along with the general public, college administrators, and bottled beverage industry workers.
“I still believe, obviously, the high-risk pools should go first,” Bourquin said, referring to the elderly, people with underlying health conditions, and COVID-19 clinicians. “But when you get into the middle category — we were deemed ‘essential,’ we gave up our [personal protective equipment to donate to hospitals], we are medical providers.
“And that’s where the rub came from,” he added.
Members of many industries in Massachusetts share Bourquin’s disappointment regarding their place in line for the coveted vaccine, and they haven’t been shy about their displeasure. The Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association is circulating a Change.org petition, arguing they should be included in Phase 2 of the vaccination plan. Public library workers feel they, too, should be prioritized, alongside educators and grocery store workers. For several weeks, funeral directors have been lobbying Governor Charlie Baker to be moved up to Phase 1 because their jobs regularly require trips to hospitals and nursing homes.
The jostling intensified this week, after Baker announced Monday that residents age 65 and older had been bumped to the front of Phase 2, behind people 75 and older, and ahead of some essential workers, including K-12 teachers. Previously, people 65 and older were prioritized last in Phase 2. The move prompted Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, to liken the process to the dystopian novel “The Hunger Games,” a gory gauntlet “forcing communities to compete with one another for a scarce resource.”
With the vaccine in short supply and a more contagious COVID-19 variant emerging in Massachusetts, the competition is likely to escalate. Nora Blake, president of the Massachusetts Library Association and director of the Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton, wrote a public letter to Baker last week arguing that libraries provide critical in-person services, often to the state’s most marginalized residents. Library workers, she reasoned, deserve Phase 2 priority.
“Part of me thought, ‘Gosh, should we even be advocating for this?’ But I think we should,” she said, “because people don’t understand the work that we do.”
Dave Cellucci, an eighth-grade science teacher for Beverly Public Schools, called the shift in the state’s priorities, pushing more than a half-million seniors between age 65 and 75 ahead of K-12 teachers, “demoralizing.” Cellucci has been teaching in person on a hybrid schedule since the end of September. He sees half of his students on Monday and Tuesday, and half on Thursday and Friday, putting him in contact with at least 50 students per day, four days a week.
“My biggest worry is that the bullets we’ve been dodging for the last six months of in-person instruction, that’s only gonna last so long,” Cellucci said. Some of his colleagues have come down with COVID-19, as have students in the district. He’s particularly worried about the new, more transmissible variant.
“When that hits the schools, that’s gonna blow up big time,” he said. “We’re sitting on a little time bomb.”
Determining priority groups for the vaccine has been an ethical and logistical minefield for policy makers, as they try to balance saving lives, protecting health care workers, and keeping the economy humming. While an expert committee for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made recommendations about who should get access to the vaccines first — start with the front-line clinicians, they agreed, and long-term-care facility residents who have borne the brunt of deaths — the former Trump administration ultimately punted the responsibility to the states, leading to a bewildering patchwork of policies across the country.
And health officials have faced pushback throughout the process — from unvaccinated physicians grumbling at the sight of members of Congress with shots in their arms, to Massachusetts seniors outraged they’d been prioritized behind people in prisons and homeless shelters.
Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, said the system was bound to frustrate, given the novel nature of the disease and unreliable supply of the vaccines.
“A fair system requires you to know how much vaccine you’ve got, where it is, how do people find out about it, can they get to it, who’s most likely to be at risk of dying, and who’s mostly likely to be exposed. And then you have to be there [with the vaccines]. But we can’t answer five out of six of those questions,” Caplan said. “So we can’t be totally fair.”
C.R. Lyons, a funeral director at Lyons Funeral Home in Danvers and president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, said he hopes everyone in the state who wants to be vaccinated will get their turn. But he fears, given the sluggish pace of inoculations, that funeral workers like him, who are routinely exposed to the disease, will needlessly suffer.
“Just last week, I saw an article, I think it was in the Globe, about the 2,000 doses that were wasted because a refrigerator was unplugged,” Lyons said. “That would have covered [first doses of] all the funeral directors in the state.”
One of the directors who would have benefited from a vaccine is John Faidell, of Dahlborg-MacNevin Funeral Home in Lakeville. Faidell, 66, was released last week after nine days in the hospital with COVID-19 pneumonia. He thinks he contracted the disease from a family he’d met with days earlier to discuss burial arrangements for their father, who’d died of COVID-19.
“I guess our governor says we’re not exposed to it, but we’re just like the nurses and doctors. We have to go into those nursing homes and take them from the bed they passed away from, not even an hour ago, and bring them back to our care,” Faidell said, still short of breath and hooked to a portable oxygen generator. “They’re saying we’re not first responders. We’re probably as much first responders as everyone else is.”