They’re a generation that danced to the Beatles, cheered for Carl Yastrzemski, and spent decades chasing their dreams and raising their families in Massachusetts.
Now in or approaching retirement, eager to travel, meet friends for a drink, and reconnect with their grandchildren, the state’s oldest baby boomers — a graying army ages 65 to 74 — have a new quest: getting the coronavirus vaccine.
And they’re growing impatient. At nearly a half a million strong, the 65-74 contingent is larger than any group now being vaccinated. They also have the second highest COVID-19 death rate, and they were once told they might get shots as early as Feb 1. Now the state won’t even give them an eligibility date, while changing the rules in ways that let some other, younger people move up in line ahead of them.
“Our life’s on hold,” said Larry Butler, 73, lamenting that he and his wife Ester, 68, have had to hole up in their Beverly home for the past year to avoid the raging virus. “We don’t go out to restaurants. We don’t shop in stores. We don’t socialize with people. We take walks with the dog, that’s about it.”
Folks like the Butlers have been in waiting mode for months. They know they’re next in line for shots under the state’s slow-rolling vaccination program. And they’re clamoring for the injections, their ticket back to normal life, in contrast to a surprising number of younger health workers who were offered the first vaccine doses and turned them down.
State officials, focused now on immunizing residents over 75 and other groups deemed higher priorities, haven’t yet signaled when the boomers’ number will be called. But last week they unveiled a buddy system that allows younger people to get shots if they escort someone over 75.
“We’ll move beyond where we are now when we feel like we’ve done as much as we can do to get the folks who are part of the communities who are currently eligible vaccinated,” Governor Charlie Baker said last Wednesday.
Massachusetts initially planned to make shots available to all residents over 65 this month, something nearly three dozen other states have already done. But anticipating supply shortages, it broke the 75 and over group — the one with the highest COVID death rate by far — into a separate category that qualified for vaccines Feb. 1. The move split some couples into two eligibility castes, disappointing spouses on the wrong side of the divide.
“I missed it by a month,” said 74-year-old Winchester resident Joyce Westner, who will turn 75 on Feb. 28. Her husband August, 80, got his first shot just over a week ago.
For now, Westner is putting off visits to her son and daughter-in-law until she’s been immunized. She watches a livestream of services at her church. And she’s sharing her watercolors online with the women in her painting group rather than hosting them at her home. “If we could get our vaccines, we could get together again,” she said. “I miss them terribly.”
Boomers’ anxieties have been heightened recently by repeated shifts in policy as the governor and his lieutenants attempt to balance fairness and efficiency in carrying out the biggest public health program in Massachusetts history.
Currently, more than 1 million state residents are eligible for the coveted vaccines. They include the 75-plus cohort along with health workers, first responders, and people who live or work in congregate settings ranging from group homes and long-term care sites to prisons and homeless shelters.
In a kind of vaccination triage, Baker administration officials reshuffled their priorities on Jan. 25. They put residents 65 and over, along with those with two underlying health conditions known as comorbidities, in line behind the 75-plus group and ahead of essential workers such as teachers, transit, utility, food, and public works employees.
Then, last week, state officials shifted plans again. They introduced the “companion” program that lets anyone who accompanies residents 75 and over to the state’s mass vaccination sites, such as Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, to get their own shots at the same time.
The officials said the change was meant to make it easier for the state’s oldest residents to get rides to the injection sites. But some in the 65-plus group worry the rush of younger relatives, friends, neighbors, and caregivers rolling up their sleeves could push them farther back in line.
“Everybody wants to get a shot, and they want to get it yesterday,” said Margo Young, 69, a retired landscape designer in Newton. “We’re fighting the clock. I want to go out to the West Coast and see my sons and grandchildren.”
For many boomers still in the workplace, and not able to log in from home, the idea of others jumping the line rankles.
Bradford resident Stephanie Dolloff, 69, works as a substitute Spanish teacher in Boxborough. She said she and her husband Steve, also 69, who manages a discount store in Billerica, need the vaccine to keep them safe at jobs where they interact with others, often in close proximity. They also want to fly to Seattle this year to reunite with their daughter and first grandchild.
“I can just see people younger than us who aren’t even working,” Dolloff said. “They’re going to give someone a ride and get shots before we will” by escorting elders.
Dolloff said she has younger friends in New Hampshire, Florida, and California who have already gotten their shots.
Thirty-five other states are now vaccinating residents over 65, according to the latest research data from Kaiser Family Foundation. Alex Azar, the former US Health and Human Services secretary, recommended the move last month.
The very thing that has made the generation born in the decade after World War II so visible and influential, its massive numbers, now could be working against it when it comes to accessing vaccines. There are about 460,000 state residents age 65 to 74, according to the last census. They’ll make up the largest addition to the long line for vaccinations until the shots are open to the general public — and, as such, pose a looming logistical challenge at a time of limited supplies.
Baker referred to them gingerly last week as a “big group that will be very anxious to get the shot.” With the state currently receiving only 108,000 first doses a week of the two-dose vaccines, a figure that’s projected to rise, making sure there are supplies and vaccination capacity for them is key.
State officials also know they’re dealing with a restless generation, raised in the crucible of the ‘60s, that can be brash and demanding. While supplicants as diverse as funeral directors and veterinarians have pressed the Baker administration for faster access to vaccines, boomers’ voices have been some of the loudest.
“The fact that they didn’t start by having the 65-plus folks in the high-priority group was a problem,” said Mike Festa, director of AARP Massachusetts, which lobbies state officials on behalf of older residents. “They’ve listened to the concerns we’ve expressed. But it may not be realistic to open it up until you know there’s enough supply to meet the need.”
Festa said his message to the Baker administration is simple: “When you step back and ask where is the fear of the COVID-19 virus, the statistics tell you that the vast majority of people who’ve died are 65-plus. We are fighting for a group of people who are legitimately the most vulnerable population.”
As the virus persists, many older boomers have been biding their time and taking few chances, forgoing Christmas gatherings, Super Bowl parties, and family reunions.
Spence Ford, 68, retired from his job as a mechanical engineer in Michigan and moved to Hingham last year with his wife Susan Goldsmith, 65, who works remotely from their new home. They relocated to be closer to their children and grandchildren, but the pandemic has limited their visits to winter walks and cookouts in the warmer months.
“We’re just waiting,” said Ford, “and hoping to get our vaccine as soon as possible.”