Moderna’s headquarters are located within one of the many gleaming glass complexes in the heart of Cambridge’s Kendall Square. Less than a quarter-mile away is an outpost for Pfizer. Eventually, the mRNA cocktails developed by these two companies could usher in an end to the pandemic and a return to normalcy. But for now, the city of Cambridge doesn’t even have a vaccine site.
The city of over 110,000 is one of many municipalities across the state scrambling as Massachusetts officially enters Phase 2 of the vaccination process on Monday and Governor Charlie Baker urges residents to head online to make appointments. Local health officials warn that they do not have the doses necessary to open up clinics for the next round of residents, age 75 and older, who will be eligible. At the beginning of the week, the state sent a letter to several local health departments announcing that each community’s weekly allotment would be capped at just 100 doses.
The contradictory message has many local health officials feeling as though they are in an impossible position.
“You can’t just go on TV and tell people they can get an appointment when the towns have no doses,” said James M. White, public health director in Natick, one of many towns that have a clinic ready to vaccinate residents, but few doses to give. “We’re getting 300 to 400 calls a day from residents, all while trying to do our day jobs, which is battling the spread of the virus. You think that’s frustrating? Yes.”
At daily press conferences, Baker often touts a map on the state’s website that identifies locations across Massachusetts where vaccines are available, including megasites like Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park, as well as sites in cities and towns through pharmacy chains and local health departments. When the map is zoomed out, the multicolored stars — indicating the presence of a clinic — overlap and crowd the screen.
“You can go on the website, determine if you’re eligible, find a location that is providing vaccinations that is convenient to you, click on it, and make an appointment,” said Baker on Monday. “How much more streamlined would you like it than that?”
But a closer view reveals wide deserts around the state with no clinics, such as in Central and Western Massachusetts, along the South Shore, or in the state’s fifth and seventh most populous cities of Cambridge and Brockton.
“I share in the frustrations at the rollout of the vaccine in our city and am dismayed that the state has not acted with the urgency we need to save lives,” said Brockton Mayor Robert F. Sullivan in a statement Wednesday. “Brockton’s emergency management team has planned for public vaccinations for some time. We have sites and staff ready but we are not getting doses.”
Any Cambridge resident who calls the COVID-19 hot line will be met with an automated message that says: “Please note we have very limited supplies of vaccines available due to decisions made by the state of Massachusetts.” They are then urged to check the online portal for sites outside the city limits.
Even in communities that have vaccination clinics on the state’s map, officials there caution they lack the doses necessary to move forward into the next phase.
“Given limited vaccine supplies, the State informed us on Sunday that it is not allocating local health departments vaccines for large public clinics. Newton HHS supplies are capped at 100 doses per week through February,” said Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller in a statement to residents.
Meanwhile, much to the surprise of some Newton health officials, two private clinics have popped up in the city. One is at the CVS off Route 9, part of a partnership between the pharmacy giant and the state. Another is run by a private health care group on the Mount Ida Campus of UMass Amherst. Neither location currently has available appointments. (“This is going to challenge our patience,” wrote Fuller.)
On the state map, Natick is listed as being able to serve all eligible populations in the town at the community senior center clinic. But White, the public health director, said the site has no plans to start Phase 2 vaccinations on Monday. They don’t have any doses to give out.
“We’re at the mercy of what’s available and at this point, we’re still waiting on the order that we put in,” he said.
The same applies to Medford, where a regional site at the middle school will remain open only for Phase 1 residents due to a dearth of doses.
“We were ready to put shots in people’s arms and now all of those plans are on hold because we’re so beholden to the state and their allocation of the vaccine,” said the city’s public health director, MaryAnn O’Connor, who expressed frustration that the state is focusing on mass vaccination clinics rather than within local communities.
“They tell us that the allocation from the feds is such that they don’t have the ability to give us doses. Obviously, they are prioritizing the doses they do get for Fenway and such, but local communities should be responsible for their seniors. We know where they are. They can get to us, but maybe not downtown to Fenway. We handle their housing and their flu shots. We should be handling this, too,” said O’Connor.
The state has touted the openings of the megasites due to their ability to serve large populations efficiently and safely. But the state is also hamstrung by a federal government that has struggled to meet the production capacity necessary to allocate doses across the country. Newly minted CDC director Rochelle Walensky admitted Sunday that there is an alarming lack of data on how many doses actually make up the federal supply.
“One of the biggest problems right now is I can’t tell you how much vaccine we have, and if I can’t tell it to you, then I can’t tell it to the governors, and I can’t tell it to the state health officials,” she said.
Locally, Quincy is one of the only cities that has plans to vaccinate Phase 2 residents starting next week, although no vaccination site appears on the state’s online map. Quincy has partnered with Manet Community Health Center to pioneer a clinic in an old school building at 180 Old Colony Ave. Any doses that Manet does not use will trickle down to the city , which will distribute the doses to eligible residents. The appointment portal has not yet been made public.
“There have been no shots in people’s arms yet, so we will see what happens,” said Christopher Walker, chief of staff to Mayor Thomas Koch. “But we’re confident things will get started next week. This is a gigantic locomotive getting out of the station and the first 100 yards will be pretty difficult, but hopefully things will be rolling smoothly soon.”