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Merrimack Valley health officials criticize state’s move toward large, regional COVID-19 vaccine clinics

Ann Brady-Lozier (far left), school nurse at the Dr. Frederick N. Sweetsir School in Merrimac, waits with other volunteers at one of the eight vaccination stations set up at Saturday's Lower Merrimack Valley Vaccine Clinic session in West Newbury (Courtesy Photo).
Ann Brady-Lozier (far left), school nurse at the Dr. Frederick N. Sweetsir School in Merrimac, waits with other volunteers at one of the eight vaccination stations set up at Saturday's Lower Merrimack Valley Vaccine Clinic session in West Newbury (Courtesy Photo).courtesy photo/Courtesy Photo

Officials in 9 Merrimack Valley communities have raised concerns about the state’s decision to shift the focus of COVID-19 vaccinations away from local boards of health in favor of regional clinics capable of high-volume operations.

On Wednesday, state officials announced the number of people in Massachusetts eligible for COVID-19 shots is nearly doubling, including residents age 65 to 74 and those with two or more underlying health conditions.

But, the new streamlined vaccination plan, set to begin Thursday, only incorporates regional clinics that can operate five days per week, administering at least 750 doses per day. The threshold threatens to close local facilities including the Lower Merrimack Valley Vaccine Clinic, Merrimack Valley officials said in a press release.

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Twenty municipalities that have had the greatest COVID-19 burden and have the greatest percentage of non-white residents, including Boston and Fall River, will be prioritized as the vaccination pool expands, according to a release from the office of Governor Charlie Baker.

Amesbury, Georgetown, Groveland, Merrimac, Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, Salisbury and West Newbury are calling for the state to reconsider its decision to cut off the vaccine supply to successful regional clinics after the Lower Merrimack Valley Vaccine Clinic experienced a 103% usage rate of allocated doses with zero waste, according to the release.

Since the clinic opened on Feb. 6 at the Dr. John C. Page School in West Newbury, the past two weekend distributions have been “extremely successful.”

With second dose clinics scheduled for Thursday and Saturday, Mar. 6, the clinic projects to actually use approximately 1650 doses and vaccinate 825 people, thanks to careful handling of the vials, according to the statement.

Clinics run by local health boards were once thought to play a key role in distributing the vaccine. But the new rules will make it impossible for community-based clinics like the one in the Lower Merrimack Valley to continue, Amesbury Fire Chief Ken Berkenbush said.

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“The state is certainly aware that nearly all regional clinics will be unable to meet this threshold and are unable to guarantee both facilities and volunteers for 40 hours a week,” Berkenbush said in the release, speaking on behalf of the 9 communities. “This represents nothing short of a moving of the goalpost.”

Hingham announced separately Wednesday evening that the state will no longer be providing first dose vaccines for most individual municipal clinics, effective March. Those who already received their first dose through local clinics will still receive second vaccine doses locally, according to the release.

“The Town of Hingham aggressively sought vaccine doses at the local level,” Hingham Executive Health Officer Susan Sarni said in the relase. “However, we respect the State’s decision to prioritize a more regionalized approach to distribution.”

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.



Sofia Saric can be reached at sofia.saric@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @sofia_saric.