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Lawmakers urge Baker to abandon plan to let companions of elderly get vaccine

The entrance to the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, now a mass vaccination site during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The entrance to the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, now a mass vaccination site during the COVID-19 pandemic.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The Baker administration’s move relaxing eligibility rules to let younger people who accompany older residents to mass vaccination sites get shots themselves benefits healthy, white, and wealthier communities at the expense of people of color and those with major health risks, a group of state lawmakers contends.

Led by Representative Tami Gouveia, a Democratic representative from Acton who holds a doctorate in public health, more than 20 lawmakers urged Governor Charlie Baker to immediately halt the companion vaccination plan, which began this week.

“We encourage you to put the companion program on hold until those 65 or older and those with chronic conditions as well as essential workers and our teachers are vaccinated,” the lawmakers wrote Baker. ”The companion system will put thousands of healthy adults ahead of those who have the most significant risk of getting and dying from COVID-19.”

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The companion plan also will reduce the opportunity for residents of color to keep their appropriate places in the vaccine distribution lines, the lawmakers argued.

“The companion plan is most likely to benefit communities that are white and affluent,” they wrote. “This only further exacerbates our state’s health inequities and the burden of COVID-19 on our Black and Brown communities.”

In response, the Baker administration asserted that the companion plan is “widely supported” and that it will provide a safe way for those 75 or older to get the lifesaving vaccine they might not otherwise be able to receive.

“The policy to allow a 75 or older residents to be accompanied by a caregiver, who can also schedule their vaccine appointment, to a mass vaccination site is widely supported by senior groups and provides critical support and comfort for seniors who may be hesitant to go a mass vaccination site alone,” Kate Reilly, spokesperson for COVID-19 Response Command Center, said in a statement. “The Command Center implores seniors to only bring a companion who they know and trust.”

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Reilly cited favorable comments from the Massachusetts Senior Care Association and Massachusetts Nurses Association as evidence of public support for the plan.

In their letter, the lawmakers also demanded that Baker shift vaccine distribution away from private companies with minimal track records operating large-scale vaccination programs and redirect that supply to local boards of health who already run annual flu clinics and have been preparing to do the same with the COVID-19 vaccine.

The lawmakers asserted that two mass vaccinations sites operated by Curative Inc., in Springfield and Danvers, were badly managed, leading seniors to stand in lines during bitterly cold weather for extended periods of time, and that the company itself is only about a year old with no long-term track record operating logistically complex vaccination programs.

“We encourage your administration to immediately dedicate the time, resources and vaccine doses to local public health departments that are ready and able to quickly stand up their clinics,” the lawmakers wrote. “Many of our local departments are at their wit’s end.”

They added that “the state’s over reliance on private, for-profit entities to manage mass vaccination sites is hurting our ability to vaccinate and protect our seniors throughout the Commonwealth.”

The lawmakers voiced concern that some healthy residents have turned to Craigslist to find elderly people in need of rides to mass vaccination centers, saying it raises safety issues and exposes the elderly to yet another opportunity to fall victim to COVID-related scams.

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John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.