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Baker administration lays out new plan to get vaccines to hardest-hit communities

Advocates call it a ‘step in the right direction,’ but not enough to offset the inequities

Hilary Anderson, a medical safety fellow at Saint Vincent Hospital, administered the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination to Mary Becker, 75, of Worcester as her husband, Dick, looked on during a media availability at Worcester State University.
Hilary Anderson, a medical safety fellow at Saint Vincent Hospital, administered the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination to Mary Becker, 75, of Worcester as her husband, Dick, looked on during a media availability at Worcester State University.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Following weeks of outcry about disparities in who has access to COVID-19 vaccines, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration announced a new initiative Tuesday aimed at making it easier for people to get immunized in cities and towns that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

The initiative, led by the state Department of Public Health, will focus resources on 20 cities and towns with high “social vulnerability” and coronavirus caseloads: Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Framingham, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, New Bedford, Randolph, Revere, Springfield, and Worcester.

“Our aim is to listen, respond, and work in concert to develop a customized approach for reaching as many residents as we can to increase vaccination,” said Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, in a statement Tuesday.

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The municipalities were identified using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index, a measure of a community’s ability to respond to a crisis or natural disaster, based on variables such as poverty and unemployment rates. The DPH also chose places with the highest average daily COVID-19 infection rates and large proportions of residents of color.

“This approach is centered on equity, a core pillar of our vaccine distribution,” Bharel said in her statement. “Our goal is to work in collaboration with our local communities, to meet people where they are, and to reduce barriers — both physical and otherwise — to getting the COVID vaccine.”

The news followed an earlier commitment by the Baker administration to invest $2.5 million in a public awareness campaign to address vaccine skepticism among residents of color. The campaign, launched earlier this month, includes TV and radio spots in English and Spanish, as well as multilingual public service announcements and animated videos.

Under this new initiative, agency officials will work with local boards of health, faith leaders, and community health centers to raise awareness about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines through town halls and other forums, and pinpoint gaps in vaccination access. The department also plans to hire local residents for “boots on the ground” outreach.

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“The steps that the Baker administration announced today were steps in the right direction,” Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said of the administration’s latest initiative. “But they certainly were not sufficient or comprehensive enough to address . . . the alarming inequities that we’ve seen.”

Pavlos also cochairs the Vaccine Equity Now! Coalition, a group of Massachusetts civil rights and immigration organizations, as well as elected officials and public health experts. The coalition is hosting a kickoff event on Zoom Wednesday, in which it will call on the Baker administration to take “more aggressive action” to address racial and ethnic inequities in vaccine distribution, Pavlos said.

The administration also announced Tuesday a $1 million investment in the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers to combat vaccine hesitancy in communities of color. The funding will be used, in part, to disseminate “culturally relevant and linguistically diverse patient education materials,” a press release said. Qualified health centers can apply for $25,000 grants through the league to “engage patients and community members in vaccination discussions.”


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.