Hospital leaders and physicians expressed dismay on Friday at the Baker administration’s decision to halt vaccine distribution to hospitals and primary care offices, saying it could undercut efforts to reach minority communities and reluctant patients.
But the state’s top health official said that hospitals were scheduling more vaccine appointments than the state could meet with the current level of supplies.
“We all need to understand that we have a limited supply,” said Marylou Sudders, secretary of health and human services.
“The demand is great and the supply from the federal government is flat — 108,000 doses a week. We want to ensure that we have the supply to meet scheduled appointments,” Sudders added. She noted that as of Friday, hospitals had administered 460,000 doses, nearly half the state’s total supply.
She said state officials would meet with every hospital next week to ensure that “their planning and our planning are in sync.”
On Thursday, the state instructed hospitals to stop scheduling new vaccine appointments, saying they could hold appointments already made for next week and for second doses, but no more.
The state intends to focus on “high-throughput locations like mass vaccination sites, retail pharmacy sites, and community health centers until more vaccines are made available by the federal government,” a spokeswoman said. But once the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is authorized, possibly later this month, more vaccine will be available for hospitals.
Critics said steering people to high-volume sites does a disservice to many.
In a series of tweets, Attorney General Maura Healey said, “Shifting shots to mass vax sites and away from hospital and clinical infrastructure increases racial disparities.”
“Turning off the supply to our hospitals isn’t fair to the people disproportionately hurt by COVID, stuck at home, without computers or someone to navigate websites or a ride to Foxborough,” she tweeted, referring to the mass vaccination site at Gillette Stadium.
Dr. David Rosman, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said he feared the state had chosen “efficiency at the cost of equity.”
By cutting back shipments to hospitals, Rosman said, the state dashed opportunities for physicians to bring the shots to communities of color where trust in vaccines is already wavering.
“People have a trusting relationship with their doctor, and when their doctor says, ‘This is safe and as soon as my family is eligible I will get it for them,’ then patients are more willing,” he said.
“Are we concerned now that some populations aren’t going to get access to vaccines? Yes,” he said. “We need more options for people to get it and more options that ideally can build trust.”
Dr. Eric Dickson, president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health Care, called for a balance between sites that can vaccinate large numbers of people quickly and sites that can reach the vulnerable.
“It’s clear the health care systems are much better at getting into underserved areas and populations that we work with every day,” he said.
For example, UMass Memorial runs a mobile unit that delivers vaccines to Worcester’s most underserved neighborhoods and communities of color.
“That’s something that’s very, very inefficient, but that inefficiency gets you equity,” he said. “What takes us all day in an underserved community, Gillette can do in 15 minutes. I get that. But you have to have both or you’re not going to have an equitable system.”
Boston Medical Center, however, isn’t subject to the cutoff in vaccine supplies. Instead, doses are being directed to public access sites the hospital has launched in Mattapan, Hyde Park, Dorchester, Roslindale, and the South End, said Dr. Alastair Bell, chief operating officer.
In Webster, just south of Worcester, Dr. Sheena Sharma receives about 700 doses a week for vaccination clinics and has filled them quickly with eligible residents, and hasn’t been told her supply will be reduced.
With the announcement this week that younger companions who drive a senior to a mass vaccination site can get a shot, too, patients have been calling Sharma’s office to switch their appointments to a mass vaccination site. But they’re asking her to hold open their slots in case they can’t find a way to get to a big site.
“If the goal is to vaccinate our entire public and they have a great system I will bow out gracefully,” said Sharma, a cardiologist. “But I live here and see who is not getting [vaccinated]. I feel a responsibility to the community to get it to them, and these mass sites are not getting to the seniors.”
Dr. Christopher Garofalo, an Attleboro family doctor, found out Friday that the 40 doses he’d requested for the week after next would not be coming.
“We have put a lot of effort into figuring out how to best provide the vaccine to our patients, many who we have known for several decades and who trust us,” he said in a text to the Globe. “I don’t understand the rationale for limiting vaccination to large, central sites. Many people lack the ability or technology to schedule the appointments and get transportation to these places.”
But Sudders, the state health secretary, said there was no intention to permanently limit vaccine distribution to a single type of site. “We expect to have more than one channel for people to get vaccine,” she said.
Edward Jesser, a 78-year-old retired political consultant, was pleased with the channel that led to his vaccination. After spending hours on the phone to secure an appointment at a mass site miles away, he got a phone call and e-mail from his cardiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was offered an appointment at a temple 10 minutes from his West Roxbury home.
Within a few days he had received his shot at a clinic near home. “It couldn’t have been better,” he said.
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