Leaders from small towns and cities across Massachusetts this weekend criticized a decision by the Baker administration to divert COVID-19 vaccine doses from their communities to mass vaccine sites, saying that the move blocks efforts to protect their most vulnerable residents.
The change, they said, was made after the Department of Public Health encouraged them to plan municipally run vaccination sites before abruptly changing course.
“Whenever any of us... have to try to explain to residents why they are not going to be able to get their vaccine through their local [health] departments, we don’t have any good answers,” said Raymond Barry, chairman of Tewksbury’s Board of Health. “We can’t tell them why.”
The state plans to open two new mass vaccination sites this week, one in the Natick Mall on Monday and one in Dartmouth on Wednesday, while also focusing vaccination efforts in 20 cities and towns — including Boston and Worcester — where communities of color have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic.
But the state’s Wednesday announcement that it would cease shipments of doses to most municipalities undermines work to vaccinate eligible residents, particularly those age 75 and older, officials in some smaller communities said.
In Tewksbury, the town’s senior center gathered the names of eligible residents 75 and older who were interested in getting vaccinated at a local clinic, Barry said.
But town officials have not been able to secure doses from the state, he said in an interview Sunday afternoon, leaving them unable to move forward.
Braintree’s mayor, Charles C. Kokoros, criticized the timing of Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to cut off vaccines part way through Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination rollout.
“We’re very disappointed by the decision of the governor to take away our ability to vaccinate our most vulnerable in Braintree,” he said in a phone interview. “We were well underway to getting that accomplished.”
The state Department of Public Health reported 1,316 new confirmed coronavirus cases Sunday, bringing Massachusetts’ total to 539,644. The state also reported 46 new confirmed coronavirus deaths, bringing its total to 15,508. The department said 35,874 people were estimated to have active cases of the potentially deadly virus, and 927 confirmed coronavirus patients were in the hospital.
The number of coronavirus vaccinations administered in Massachusetts rose by 40,983 to 1,413,889, state officials reported Sunday.
Baker has repeatedly pointed to limited supplies of vaccine from the federal government as a key obstacle in the state’s efforts to vaccinate millions of its residents.
“Due to continued constrained supply from the federal government, the Commonwealth is streamlining the vaccination distribution process to focus on high-throughput sites, including regional collaborations run by local officials to get vaccines to residents as efficiently as possible,” said Kate Reilly, a COVID-19 Response Command Center spokeswoman, in statement Sunday.
The Baker administration has outlined a number of ways that local boards of health can work with the state in the vaccination process, Reilly said, including developing plans for vaccinating housebound residents and hard-to-reach populations.
State lawmakers have been critical of the governor’s handling of the vaccine rollout, including a troublesome website that has vexed many who were hoping to set up vaccine appointments, and concerns that administration officials have not communicated adequately with local leaders.
Baker and other administration officials are expected to meet Thursday with a state legislative oversight committee hearing on the vaccine rollout.
State Senator Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat who is co-chairing the panel, said Sunday that she wants to see far more transparency in the Baker administration’s handling of the vaccine rollout, particularly in its planning process for distributing doses.
Comerford said officials must work to lessen the strife and hardship faced by many people in the rollout.
“My people are in pain; they are confused, they are overwhelmed,” Comerford said of her constituents in an interview Sunday afternoon. “They told me this is like the ‘Hunger Games’ or survival of the fittest. They’ve called it unconscionable. They’ve wept on the phone.
“We can do better as a Commonwealth,” she said.
State Representative Bill Driscoll, who also co-chairs the panel, said in an e-mail Sunday night that lawmakers would be seeking answers from the administration on vaccine distribution.
”We’ve all heard from constituents directly that the local board of health run vaccine clinics were working well for those that had received a first dose already and the local options coordinated by [boards of health] were the preferred way for many seniors... waiting to access the vaccine in a familiar and trusted local setting,” he said.
Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist from Northeastern University, said local agencies are better able to reach people to educate them about the vaccine and administer the shots.
“We know that our rollout has been consistently behind the national average and has not been equitable,” Scarpino said. “Given the state’s past performance, centralizing the distribution of vaccines is likely to only exacerbate these issues.”
Supply issues with the vaccine have forced Baker and other state leaders to make difficult choices as they allocate resources, said Dr. Joseph Betancourt, senior vice president for Equity and Community Health at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The state must race to protect those most at immediate danger to exposure, like residents in those high-risk communities, he said. The municipally run sites will serve a critical role but later in the state’s fight against COVID-19, he said.
“They are going to be essential, they are going to be necessary, and their time will come,” Betancourt said. “If the state had unlimited supply [of vaccine], it would be a non-issue.”
State Representative Tami Gouveia, who represents Concord, Carlisle, and parts of Acton and Chelmsford and has a doctorate in public health, said local vaccination clinics allow communities to build on pre-existing relationships to reach the most vulnerable. They can also ensure that the vaccine is more evenly distributed across groups and regions, she said.
By contrast, the Baker administration is focusing on “supply chains” over equity, she said.
“The towns are really able to do that softer, much more humane approach,” Gouveia said. “These mass vaccination sites are looking [at] it like we just need numbers and that’s shortsighted and not leveraging the resources that are on the ground.”
Emily Lachance, a public health nurse in Swansea and Somerset, said local health officials work closely with residents, particularly older people, administering doses and helping address concerns about the vaccines.
“Our seniors are comfortable with us — we are the people that are assisting them daily with anything from medical emergencies to food/fuel assistance and general social programming,” Lachance said Sunday in an e-mail.
On Thursday about 30 local leaders from communities in Plymouth and Norfolk counties criticized the changes in the state’s vaccine distribution in a statement.
“We stand ready to provide vaccines to our residents if given the opportunity to by the state,” said Jeffrey Lynch, president of the Norfolk County Fire Chiefs Association and head of Medway’s department, in the statement.
In Longmeadow Tuesday, the town’s Select Board voiced frustration in a letter to Baker over the decision to not distribute doses to many towns.
At the state’s urging, Longmeadow created a volunteer program for vaccinations that would have allowed it to administer doses inside a municipal building, the letter said. But just as the program was getting started, the state failed to provide the needed vaccine.
The Longmeadow officials said Western Massachusetts poses a different set of challenges for distributing vaccinations than areas in the eastern part of the state. Local communities know their residents and what will work for them, the board said.
“We implore you to give those facilities a chance to prove they can work,” they told Baker.
In Gloucester, Karin Carroll, the city’s public health director, said it took her team several days to regroup after the state announced it would divert doses away from the city’s vaccination program.
Despite the setback, they decided their main job had not changed.
Whether it involves running a vaccine clinic or outreach to the homeless or finding transportation for seniors, Carroll said, the goal is to find creative ways to serve the vulnerable and keep the community healthy.
“This is an important role that we’ve always filled,” she said. “It’s kind of what we do.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lucas Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.