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Baker opens call center to help seniors book vaccine appointments, rolls out ad campaign to combat hesitancy

Stacey Kokaram, clinic manager for the vaccination site at the Reggie Lewis Center, checked the vaccination booths.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker announced a $2.5 million public awareness campaign Friday aimed at addressing vaccine hesitancy among residents of color, a move that comes amid widespread frustration about vaccine access in Black and immigrant communities that have borne the brunt of the virus.

The campaign will launch with TV spots in English and Spanish ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl and will run for the next five months, with PSAs and animated videos developed in 10 languages appearing on TV and streaming platforms, or on paid social media. The state is also running radio spots on multilingual stations and print ads in English and Spanish outlets.


The state plans to run more than 5,900 television spots in both the Boston and Springfield markets through the end of May, according to the Baker administration.

“This campaign is a crucial part of our work to ensure equity in the vaccine distribution process,” Baker said at a press briefing, adding that the state is working with “trusted partners,” such as local health centers, to launch vaccination sites in communities of color. “But we recognize that ensuring access isn’t enough. We need to reach out to people in these communities who may be hesitant about the vaccination.”

The campaign was unveiled as local leaders and advocates raise alarms about vaccine availability in predominantly Black and Latino communities and emerging racial and ethnic disparities in inoculation rates. Grass-roots organizations say they have been stretched thin, responding to the many crises COVID has wrought, and are now crafting plans to immunize hard-hit groups in the absence of state guidance.

“The decentralized nature of this [vaccine] rollout is highly concerning because it is delegating to struggling community-based groups responsibilities that belong to the state,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. “That is not leadership, and it is going to replicate patterns of inequity that we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic.”


The advertising blitz stems, in part, from a survey the state conducted of 977 Massachusetts residents. About 29 percent of those polled were people of color, and it found several stark differences among racial groups, according to a summary provided by the state Department of Public Health. Of those who said they were “very likely” to get vaccinated, 78 percent were white while 15 percent were people of color. Those most likely to get vaccinated had a median household income of $70,800.

But among those most hesitant, about 40 percent were Black or Latino. Nearly half of all Black respondents said they plan to wait a year or more to get vaccinated, or forgo immunization entirely.

“Within the Black community, there’s a historical lens we have on this,” said Tanisha M. Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston branch and a member of the state’s vaccine communications advisory committee. “A lot of this does come down to empowerment: People truly feeling they have access to the information they need to make the best decision for themselves and their families.”

Still, combating vaccine skepticism won’t alleviate tangible barriers that prevent many people from getting vaccinated. Currently, the lion’s share of available appointments are at mass vaccination sites at Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, and the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, which may be difficult for people with limited transportation options to access.


“I don’t think the problem ... is that many Black people are not going to get this vaccine — it’s when can we get this vaccine, and how fast can we get this vaccine, and where can we get this vaccine?” said Beverly Williams, co-chair of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, a coalition of 52 houses of worship, which sent a letter to the governor this week, urging him to open more public vaccination sites in Boston’s Black and Latino neighborhoods.

“They want something in their community,” Williams continued. “Some people have said, ‘Why do I have to go to South Boston?’ and ‘There’s no way I’m going Foxborough,’ and being irritated when Fenway Park opened up. It was another spot that they didn’t feel was that accessible to them.”

As in the rest of the nation, studies show Black and Latino residents in Massachusetts have suffered disproportionately since the pandemic began. Yet white residents appear to be the primary beneficiaries of the vaccines so far, according to limited data reported to DPH. They have received at least 14 times as many doses as Black residents and 11 times as many doses as Latinos. Meanwhile, the proportion of white residents in the state is 9 and 6.5 times higher than for Black and Latino residents, respectively.

The criticism is only the latest snag in the state’s lumpy vaccine rollout. State officials are still struggling to match vaccine supply and demand. After making 55,000 new appointments available to eligible residents Thursday at mass vaccination sites, about 15,000 were still unfilled as of Friday night.


Baker also announced the launch of a call center Friday to help seniors 75 and older book appointments. The call center can be reached Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. by dialing 211, and will be staffed by more than 500 representatives, speaking both English and Spanish. Translators also will be available in about 100 additional languages, he said.

About 1.1 million Massachusetts residents are now eligible for shots. They include about 450,000 newly eligible residents 75 and over, along with health workers, congregate care residents, and first responders. The Baker administration hopes to be vaccinating 1 million residents a month by spring.

Increased federal allocations and new guidelines to reduce vaccine inventory should help make the process more efficient in the coming weeks, said Dr. Paul Biddinger, medical director for emergency preparedness at Mass General Brigham.

“Scheduling has been week to week because the supply has been unpredictable,” Biddinger said. “And on the demand side, I think it’s been hard [for people] to identify where vaccine sites are open and navigate how to sign themselves up. But as the system matures, people’s ability to figure out where and when to get vaccinated will get better.”

Time and patience will do little to comfort the seniors coming to Lisette Le, executive director of VietAID, for help. Based in Dorchester’s Fields Corner, VietAID serves Boston’s large Vietnamese population, which has struggled with spikes in unemployment since the pandemic began.


Scheduling an appointment through the state’s online system, Le notes, requires Internet access, technological savvy, and knowledge of English, which many of her clients lack. Some have asked if they can come to the VietAID office to get the vaccine, but Le isn’t sure if her scrappy nonprofit, which has been distributing meals and helping Vietnamese speakers file for unemployment, can take on yet another responsibility.

“We understand why people would feel very comfortable coming to us to get vaccinated, but at the same time, I am hoping there would be other locations in the community, and that it’s not always just us trying to pack yet another thing in,” Le said.

“The state really needs to be responsible for doing the hard work,” she added. “We will do our part and we want to do our part, but we can’t do it all.”

Robert Weisman and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this story.

Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her @DDpan. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.