The Baker administration came under fire Sunday for offering vaccination appointments to staff at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner last month — after rebuffing calls from lawmakers and other officials asking the state to provide shots to funeral home workers.
The vaccination appointments for medical examiner staff, which were described in a pair of January e-mails obtained by the Globe, came from Lisa Riccobene, the agency’s chief administrative officer.
“THIS IS YOUR LAST OPPORTUNITY,” Riccobene wrote in an e-mail sent to medical examiner staff on Jan. 19, the second of the two messages reviewed by the Globe. “Once you are given a date and time you must keep the appointment because it will not be rescheduled.”
The Baker administration’s prioritization of medical examiner staff for vaccinations, and not funeral workers, comes after the US Centers for Disease Control issued guidance for essential workers that placed funeral workers with health care and hospital employees for vaccinations. The state’s funeral industry said it has labored at the front lines of the pandemic.
“It goes to show the disastrous rollout that we have been experiencing, and once again shows that there’s some bias against funeral directors and funeral workers somewhere at the state level, that they are not moving us up to the appropriate category,” said C.R. Lyons, president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, in a phone interview Sunday. Lyons said he hopes Governor Charlie Baker will make vaccinating funeral workers a top priority.
“Other people in the death care field are certainly now being included,” said Lyons, whose group represents about 500 funeral homes. “You have to ask the question: Why are you continuing to not include us?”
The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said in a statement that the work of medical examiner staff places them among first responders at death scenes and in close contact with decedents and potentially infectious tissue and fluids in the workplace.
Vaccines were made available to the medical examiner staff as “COVID-facing health care workers,” according to the statement.
In a separate statement Sunday, the state COVID-19 Response Command Center said funeral directors and workers were moved up from Phase 3 to Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination plan on Jan. 12 in order to align with CDC recommendations. In Phase 2 they are categorized with workers such as school teachers, food service employees, and delivery drivers.
That state vaccination distribution plan is based on recommendations from the Command Center’s Vaccine Advisory group, made up of health professionals, community leaders, and local officials, according to Kate Reilly, a command center spokeswoman.
On Sunday the public health department reported 35,589 new vaccinations, bringing the state total to 1,118,374. The number of COVID-19 deaths rose by 60, and reached 15,176. The state also reported 529,255 total infections, including 1,820 new cases Sunday.
Samuel Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist, said the CDC prioritized funeral home workers for vaccinations because they are at a high risk for COVID-19 exposure.
“Funeral directors and embalmers regularly enter hospitals and nursing homes and employees often wear the same PPE as frontline health care workers,” Scarpino said in an e-mail. “In addition, these individuals are providing an essential service, which we know is under considerable stress due to COVID-19.”
Lyons said funeral workers face specific dangers due to the nature of their occupations.
“We can very much control the deceased. But going into the environment of a nursing home, or hospital, or congregate care setting, where there are other living and breathing people we know are sick with COVID in that room, it’s a lot harder to put ourselves in a safe environment,” he said.
About three dozen states, including New Hampshire and New York, have categorized funeral home staff in the same phase as other health care workers, according to a Jan. 14 letter from nearly 120 Massachusetts lawmakers to Baker, urging his administration to prioritize the vaccinations for funeral home employees.
As of Sunday, lawmakers had not received a reply to their letter from the Baker administration, state Representative Sally Kerans and state Senator Anne Gobi, both of whom signed the letter, said in separate interviews on Sunday.
The case for funeral workers to be prioritized for vaccine doses is “so obvious,” Kerans said.
“It remains a mystery to me weeks after the administration was made aware of, and asked to correct, what is a mistake in the prioritization of funeral directors and workers,” Kerans said. “I can’t explain it.”
Criticism of the state’s handling of vaccinations for funeral workers comes as the state’s plan to inoculate millions of adult residents has been roiled by controversy in recent weeks.
The day after the lawmakers sent their letter to Baker, Riccobene e-mailed staff at the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner about obtaining the optional vaccinations.
“Please be reminded that THIS IS NOT MANDATORY,” she wrote in the message.
On Sunday, Gobi and Kerans said they learned of the vaccine appointments for medical examiner staff from a Globe reporter.
“The state recognized the danger basically that these folks are put in,” Gobi said. “And to offer it to one group, and not another that is dealing with the same universe of people, is really outrageous,”
Lyons, an owner of C.R. Lyons & Sons Funeral Directors in Danvers, said he agreed with offering vaccinations for medical examiner staff, but doses should also be available to funeral home employees.
He said his group has continually pressed the state since December to prioritize funeral workers, citing recommendations from the CDC and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which both determined this group is at high risk for COVID-19.
The state association cited a study that found the presence of COVID-19 persisted in the bodies of dead coronavirus patients. Data from a German study published on the CDC’s website indicated a “potentially high infectivity of human corpses, requiring hazard assessments in professional fields concerned and careful and conscious handling,” according to the researchers’ report.
The state’s last response to the group, on Feb. 8, said the Massachusetts vaccination plan “is informed by” recommendations from the CDC and the National Academies, according to the message Lyons received.
That response, Lyons said, was maddening.
“Those are the exact two associations and agencies that we point to in saying we should be in Phase 1,” he said. “I laughed at the e-mail, because there is a feeling that they aren’t even reading what we are sending them.”