Disappointed with the state’s COVID-19 vaccination drive so far, Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday said officials are redirecting large quantities of unused doses now sitting in freezers to doctors and pharmacies, including many in communities hardest hit by the coronavirus.
They’re also designating specific days for local residents, especially people of color, to get shots at the new mass vaccination site at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, following reports that many who booked initial appointments there were white people from surrounding communities.
The steps come as the Baker administration moves into a new phase of its vaccine rollout in which many more people will qualify for shots, starting with about 450,000 residents age 75 and over. But complaints have been mounting about the difficulty booking appointments and the relatively small percentage of people of color who have been vaccinated.
“Look, I’m not happy with where we are,” Baker said after touring the mass vaccination site that opened at Fenway Park this week. “I know a lot of other people aren’t either. We have work to do and we know that. But one of the best things a good manager does is recognizes and understands that they have a problem and then busts their butt to figure out how to fix it.”
State officials are improving their registration portal, Baker said, enabling residents to search for injection sites by ZIP code, and later this week will launch a call center to book appointments.
Baker was more blunt in acknowledging shortcomings than he has been in the past, but he also defended a decision that he admits has slowed the vaccine program: giving first priority to front-line health workers and vulnerable residents in congregate care settings.
“I get how unhappy many people are with the rollout,” he said. “There are some reasons for that unhappiness that have to do with the decisions we made out of the gate, which I do not apologize for.”
Like other states, Massachusetts has a large share of the doses it’s received so far still sitting in freezers at hospitals and pharmacy warehouses even as thousands of residents clamor for shots. As of Monday night, Baker said, only 654,104 of the more than 1 million doses shipped to providers in the state had been used.
Some of the unused doses have been set aside for health care workers or long-term-care residents who’ve received their first shots in the two-dose vaccine regimen and are required to get their second shot three to four weeks later.
But state officials concede that a distressingly large share of high-risk residents are unwilling to be vaccinated. So hospitals and the pharmacies that run vaccine clinics at senior sites have been left with more doses than they’re able to use.
“One of our big issues here in Massachusetts is [the federal government] gave us way more vaccine . . . than there were actually arms available to vaccinate,” the governor said.
Because of that, Baker said health systems with excess doses have begun contacting some patients over 75 in their physicians networks to let them know vaccine is available.
Meanwhile, CVS and Walgreens, the pharmacies that received bulk vaccine shipments for nursing homes and other senior sites, will be redistributing them to their retail outlets across Massachusetts, including 30 retail pharmacies that will be opening for shots starting next week.
At least eight of those pharmacies are in high-risk neighborhoods, such as Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, and communities, such as Chelsea, Revere, and Everett, that have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic. Vaccines will also soon be available at about 50 community health centers statewide and in cities such as Brockton, where an injection site will be run by the board of health.
CVS Health said it will start offering vaccines at 18 more retail pharmacies in Massachusetts on Feb. 11, initially using 21,600 doses that had been earmarked for long-term-care sites.
The company said eligible residents will have to sign up in advance through the CVS website.
Hospital systems will also reallocate unused doses or use doses from new allotments to run clinics in high-risk communities. Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest system, began vaccinating in Lynn this week and will staff clinics in Revere, Chelsea, and Jamaica Plain next week.
Mass General Brigham is using a lottery system to invite some eligible residents to come for shots in the coming weeks, but weighting the invitations toward patients who live in high-risk communities, said Dr. Tom Sequist, the system’s chief patient experience and equity officer. “We want to infuse equity into our strategy at every step,” he said.
Health officials recognize that many people of color are skeptical of vaccines “based on well-deserved mistrust of the health care system that’s built up over years,” Sequist said. To overcome that resistance, he said, hospitals are working with “trusted messengers,” such as physicians of color, to stress the importance of getting vaccinated.
While about 70 percent of Mass General Brigham health workers got shots over the past six weeks, only 56 percent of Hispanic workers and 42 percent of Black workers did, he said. “We’re not going to solve this [hesitancy] overnight,” Sequist said. “But we’re trying to get a little better every day.”
Baker said Massachusetts should have 165 vaccination sites, large and small, by the middle of February. But even with the unused doses, he cited a shortage of vaccine supplies for the number of newly eligible residents and uncertainty about shipments, with federal officials still giving their state counterparts just a week’s notice on allotments.
“For people seeking appointments, everybody should understand that it may take several weeks in some cases to schedule an appointment,” the governor said.
Baker said CIC Health, the startup that’s managing vaccinations at Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, will work with Boston and state officials to increase vaccinations to community residents at the Reggie Lewis Center.
They’ll be “setting up specific days for people from the neighborhood,” Baker said, and “talking to many of the trusted players in those communities about what they and we can do together to try to encourage people to take advantage of those days” to be inoculated at the center.
Vaccinations began in the gym of the Lewis center on Tuesday. Marty Martinez, Boston’s chief of health and human services, said the city would eventually use the larger track and field house. He said the plan is to ramp up to 2,500 shots a day, but gave no timetable.
Statewide, officials said more appointment slots will open soon so that Massachusetts can be ready when the volume of shipments increases — including hoped-for shipments of a new one-shot vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson that could be authorized for emergency use later this month.
“We just added 100,000 new appointments this week,” Baker said. “We’re going to add more next week and the week after and the week after and the week after.”
Deanna Pan of the Globe staff contributed to this story.
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