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With capacity increasing, signs of progress in Mass. vaccination push

Thousands of appointments open at Gillette Stadium, Eastfield Mall

Marion Clark of Tewksbury was vaccinated this week by Leanne Voye, a registered nurse, at the Cross River Center in Lowell.
Marion Clark of Tewksbury was vaccinated this week by Leanne Voye, a registered nurse, at the Cross River Center in Lowell.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

After weeks of missteps that left frustrated residents struggling to sign up for COVID-19 shots, there are increasing signs the Massachusetts vaccination campaign is picking up speed.

The number of doses injected have jumped by nearly 40 percent since the start of the month, to more than 910,000 so far, state figures released Tuesday show, marking the strongest period yet in a rollout that began in mid-December. Just a week after they became eligible, more than 46 percent of the state’s roughly 430,000 residents 75 and older already have been vaccinated.

State officials, citing the latest data, said 50,000 residents got shots on Monday alone, and 256,000 since the second phase of the program began Feb. 1.

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Those figures are still far short of the more than 4 million adults in Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has pledged to have vaccinated. He hasn’t specified how long the drive will take, but the three-phase timetable he laid out in December runs through June 30.

The opening of mass vaccination sites around the state has eased a shortage of appointments that, in late January, left thousands unable to schedule their shots. But as of Monday, state officials said more than 7,000 appointments were still available later this week at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough and a newly opened site at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, though officials said they thought most or all of the slots will be claimed.

“Things are getting better just these last couple of days,” said Norwood health director Sigalle Reiss, president of the state health directors association. “People are finding they can get appointments, even if they’re farther out, so stress levels are coming down.”

Reiss and others said they weren’t sure whether the available slots meant the state was progressing faster than anticipated. It could also mean some residents were still having trouble registering for shots, or were unable or unwilling to travel long distances in winter weather to big vaccine centers.

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But state officials pointed to the open appointments as a clear signal that — even before a boost in federal shipments expected next month — they are building capacity to meet demand and that the vaccination drive, marred in the early weeks by large volumes of unused doses at hospitals and nursing homes, is now speeding up.

State officials say they are also becoming more efficient at distributing vaccines soon after they arrive. Just in the past week, the percentage of doses shipped to the state that have been injected climbed from 58 percent to 71 percent, largely because the giant new sites have been better at matching supply and demand.

“The mass vaccination sites are batting 100 percent in terms of doses delivered and doses administered,” Baker said.

But state officials are clearly playing catchup.

Massachusetts ranks 33rd among states in per capita doses administered, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Baker said that’s partly because his administration initially allowed only front-line health workers and long-term-care residents to be inoculated while other states cast a wider net.

Access and equity have also been shortcomings. Despite a state pledge to prioritize high-risk communities hit hardest by the coronavirus, white residents have received 14 times as many doses as Black residents and 11 times as many as Latino residents.

Boston city officials hope that gap will shrink when the new mass vaccination sites at Fenway Park and the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury ramp up to a total of 3,000 shots a day in early March, from about 750 a day now.

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At a Boston City Council hearing Tuesday, Marty Martinez, the city’s health and human services chief, said officials are also looking to open the Hynes Convention Center as another site in April.

In Boston, at least, “we don’t have enough doses for those who are eligible,” Martinez said.

Councilor Andrea Campbell warned that even having a vaccination site in every neighborhood does not guarantee equal access. “It is critically important that the city of course take the lead in developing a multilingual, culturally competent strategy to ensure that every single person in the city of Boston is vaccinated,” she said.

Immunizing the state’s oldest residents also will be key to slowing the pandemic, said David Williams, president of Health Business Group, a Boston management consulting firm, who has been critical of the state’s slow start.

“There’s been good progress over the past week or two in reaching the 75-and-over group, and that will make a difference in reducing severe illness, hospitalization, and death,” Williams said.

Over the past week, the Baker administration has taken steps to make it easier for the 1.1 million residents currently eligible for the vaccine — a group that includes residents who are 75 and older, as well as police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians — to get shots.

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It launched a call center to help older residents book appointments. It can be reached by dialing 211 Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is staffed by more than 500 representatives, speaking both English and Spanish.

At the same time, the state added features to improve an online portal that had proved clunky for many residents.

State officials even set up a meeting this week with Olivia Adams, a software developer who, during her maternity leave, built a website that aggregated state vaccine sites in a format widely considered more user-friendly than the state government portal.

The Baker administration also launched a $2.5 million public awareness campaign to combat vaccine hesitancy in the Black and immigrant communities. The campaign opened with television ads in English and Spanish aired before the Super Bowl.

Retired businessman Bruce Hauben, 79, a Littleton resident who had been struggling to navigate the state’s online registration portal for weeks, said things finally got easier in the past week.

He found an appointment last Thursday at the DoubleTree hotel in Danvers. It was the last slot available there, so he booked it for his wife, Joyce, also 79, a retired technology transfer director at Harvard University. Hauben was then able to book his own shot, through a lottery of eligible patients in his physicians’ network, at the Tripadvisor headquarters in Needham on Monday.

“We’re all in favor of vaccines,” he said. “We’re an early part of what will be necessary to get to herd immunity.”

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Many seniors, like the Haubens, are willing to travel if necessary for their injections. Many others would just as soon get their shots closer to home. But for now, most local health departments don’t have enough doses to meet the demand. In Norwood, which receives an allotment of about 100 first doses a week, the senior center helps residents who can’t get shots there book them at Gillette.

“Not everyone wants to travel,” said Reiss, the local health director. “It’s easier for the senior population to get it locally if they can.”

While many older residents can’t wait to be vaccinated, state officials acknowledge there are still many residents eligible for injections in the first phase of the rollout — first responders, prison inmates and workers, employees of group homes and other congregate care facilities — who have yet to be inoculated.

And the Baker administration hasn’t said when it will move to the next stage of the rollout, when residents age 65 to 74 — a population numbering about 540,000 — along with those with two or more comorbidities qualify for shots. That will depend on how many people from the currently eligible groups can be vaccinated in the coming days and weeks.

“We’ll move when we think we’ve done a pretty good job with the communities that are already eligible,” the governor said.

Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this story.


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.