Massachusetts officials on Wednesday relaxed vaccine eligibility rules to let younger people who accompany older residents to mass vaccination sites get shots themselves.
The new policy set off a rush by younger spouses, relatives, friends, neighbors, and caregivers of seniors 75 and over to book “companion appointments,” which start Thursday at sites ranging from Fenway Park to Gillette Stadium to the Eastfield Mall in Springfield.
“We are trying to do everything we can to help people 75 and over,” said Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary.
The move was a departure from the original vaccine rollout, which has drawn criticism for strict eligibility requirements that slowed the pace of inoculations. The change sparked complaints that making COVID-19 shots available to companions is unfair to others not yet eligible for vaccines, that the shots aren’t available to companions at small community sites, and that they aren’t being offered retroactively to those who already escorted seniors to be vaccinated.
“You can be a 30-year-old Uber driver and take someone to one of those big sites and get a shot” as a companion, said Nazira Wightman, 73, of Haverhill. “I just think the way they set it up is very unfair.”
Wightman won’t qualify as a companion for her 76-year-old husband, Walter, when he gets his second shot at Lawrence General Hospital, because it’s a community hospital not classified as a mass vaccination site.
Under the new policy, companions can book two separate appointments, for a resident over 75 and themselves, through the state website www.mass.gov/covidvaccine. Only one companion accompanying an older resident can get a shot.
“Any caregiver is eligible to receive the vaccine at the same site as their 75-year-old partner,” Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday at the DoubleTree hotel in Danvers following a tour of the large site there. “The mass vaccination sites will make every effort to take both individuals at the same time.”
Baker said officials “hope this change will encourage more 75-and-older residents to get their vaccines,” noting that people in that age bracket have been the most vulnerable to serious illness, hospitalization, and death in the pandemic.
State officials, meanwhile, said they’ll be opening two more mass vaccination centers at the Natick Mall, west of Boston, and at the Circuit City site in the Southeastern Massachusetts town of Dartmouth in the coming weeks. Those will boost the number of mass injection sites to seven.
The governor made it clear his administration is building its immunization strategy around larger venues, saying other states have been successful with them.
Currently, the biggest limitation is the supply. Massachusetts is receiving 103,000 first doses weekly, the first half of the two-dose vaccines authorized by federal regulators. While shipments are expected to increase in the coming weeks, Baker said they’d have to more than double to 250,000 doses a week for the state to meet its goal of inoculating 1 million people a month by spring.
On Wednesday, new state figures showed that the total number of vaccinations given rose by 40,103 to 950,515.
Sudders acknowledged that state health care providers who have extra doses left over at the end of the day — that have been thawed and can’t be refrozen — are now being permitted to inject them in residents who aren’t yet eligible for shots.
While that’s not official state policy, she said, “we don’t ever want shots left idle and wasted” because eligible patients don’t show up for appointments. She said only 0.13 percent of doses sent to providers — about 1,200 doses — so far have gone to waste.
The number of wasted doses doesn’t include the nearly 2,000 doses of vaccine spoiled last month at the Jamaica Plain VA Medical Center when a cleaning contractor accidentally loosened a freezer plug.
Wednesday’s moves to relax restrictions on who can be vaccinated highlight the push by officials to get more people vaccinated as the program expands at sites across the state.
Sudders said the companion appointment policy “helps mass vaccination sites become that much more age-friendly,” especially for older residents hesitant to travel to large venues by themselves.
But some public health figures said they were uneasy with the plan.
“Giving the younger companions a dose is better than wasting it,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “But I wish we could just do a better job of vaccinating older people because they’re the ones at risk.”
He said that every younger person who gets vaccinated as a companion represents “another older, high-risk person that you’re not going to be able to vaccinate.”
Jha also said the policy did little to address racial equity in vaccine access, and could even make the problem worse.
“Who can take time off to take their elderly neighbor to a vaccination?” he said. “It’s not the essential worker, who probably doesn’t have much flexibility in their job. It’s the person working from home, who can afford to take a day off.”
Other public health officials applauded the new policy.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, saying vaccinating others in a household with high-risk relatives provides one more layer of protection. “The state is doing the right thing by protecting people with the highest risks.”
Dr. Sarah Fortune, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also said the idea made sense. “If you unpack this, it’s both rational and a step towards getting the population vaccinated,” she said. “Anything we can do to get the vaccine to people, I think we should.”
State officials said 74,000 new appointments will be made available Thursday at the mass vaccination sites and CVS and Walgreens retail pharmacies. About 30,000 other appointments will be posted during the week at pharmacy outlets.
Sudders said the new mass sites will start giving about 500 shots a day and eventually ramp up to about 3,000 a day in Natick, which is set to open Feb. 22, and 2,000 a day in Dartmouth, which is scheduled to open Feb. 24, depending on federal vaccine supplies.
Eligible residents and companions can book appointments at both sites starting Feb. 18 through the state’s website.
In the near future, the state is expected to make vaccinations available to the largest group yet, residents between the ages of 65 and 74.
Sudders said officials understand lines have been long at some sites.
Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno’s office said police were dispatched to the Eastfield Mall on Tuesday to “immediately get our seniors and those who are waiting in line” inside rather than waiting in the long line that formed outside in the cold. Long lines also formed Wednesday at the Danvers site.
“We strive to offer a no-line experience, trying to encourage people to not come early for their appointments,” Sudders said, adding that people at the mass sites should “remain in your car until 15 minutes before your appointment. You won’t lose your place.”
Dasia Moore, Brian MacQuarrie, and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.