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Vaccine supply increasing, but thousands in state are still waiting for COVID-19 shots

For now, demand is heavy and supply limited in Massachusetts

Tamara Smith, an RN at the new Curative Mass Vaccination site in Dartmouth.
Tamara Smith, an RN at the new Curative Mass Vaccination site in Dartmouth.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna are cranking up production. The feds are boosting allotments to states. The Baker administration is opening big new vaccination sites. And a long-awaited third vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson, could win US clearance in days and begin shipping next week.

But none of that means the Hanovers of Boxborough, newly eligible for COVID-19 shots, will be able to get them soon.

Like tens of thousands of other Massachusetts residents searching in vain for appointments, Norm Hanover, 73, a retired chemical engineer, logs into the state’s forbidding website several times a day. He’s trying to book injections for himself and his wife, Flo, also 73, a retired schoolteacher.

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“A lot of places say they have doses,” Hanover said. “Then you answer their questions and it says no doses available.”

The state added almost a million residents to the eligibility pool last week, setting off a scramble for vaccine slots like never before. It is likely a temporary time of scarcity before promises of increased production and delivery translate into more abundant doses here, but that’s small consolation now.

Indeed, even as he announced residents over 65 and those with two or more underlying health conditions qualify for vaccines, Governor Charlie Baker cautioned it may take more than a month to schedule all who want shots. The state posted 50,000 new appointments on its vaxfinder website Tuesday morning, and they were quickly snapped up, even as many who tried to book slots floundered in virtual “waiting rooms.”

“When you have a million people who are eligible to get a vaccine, and you only get 130,000 first doses a week, that creates anxiety,” Baker said at a press briefing this week. “And what we have tried to say to people . . . is be patient. Everybody’s going to get vaccinated. But everybody can’t get vaccinated at once because we don’t have enough supply.”

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In the stumbling 11-week-old vaccine rollout, never have supply and demand been so out of whack.

Vaccine shipments were more than enough in the early weeks for the first groups eligible, health workers and long-term-care residents. The challenge then was setting up an injection process and prodding the reluctant to roll up their sleeves while unused doses waited in freezers.

Now that the state has let more people qualify, from first responders to seniors to residents living in congregate care sites, supply constraints are coming into play.

The state’s balky website has proved a frustrating bottleneck, but the larger problem is that the current allotment for Massachusetts — 139,000 new first doses weekly for the next few weeks — can’t accommodate all who now want shots.

That has fueled a Darwinian competition by providers for doses and by residents for coveted appointments.

“It’s a strange setup,” said Don Desrochers, 74, a retired defense contractor who’s been hunting for open slots for himself and his wife, Lidia, 71, a retired school principal. “My doctor doesn’t have any vaccine. I can’t get it in Waltham.”

While he’d rather be vaccinated by a physician familiar with his medical condition, Desrochers said he may have to trek to Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium, two of the largest mass vaccination sites — though, he joked, “I’m not interested in having the Red Sox or the Patriots take care of my health.”

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State officials cut supplies to hospitals early this month, only to reverse course and resume sending them doses even as they continued to center their strategy on mass vaccination sites.

Meanwhile, the outlook is brightening on the supply front.

Executives from Pfizer and Moderna told a House panel Tuesday that they’re scaling up manufacturing of the only two vaccines currently authorized in the United States. After overcoming initial production hurdles, they said, the companies plan to add 140 million doses over the next month to hit their target of 220 million by the end of March.

Vaccine makers “understand how important it is that large quantities of every approved vaccine be produced rapidly,” Moderna president Stephen Hoge told lawmakers.

To speed distribution, Cambridge-based Moderna is increasing the contents of each vial it makes to 15 doses from 10. Moderna also said Wednesday that it will bankroll capital improvements to boost capacity in the plants making its vaccine in Norwood and in Portsmouth, N.H.

Nothing will be more critical to ramping up supply in the coming months than broad distribution of the vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson with technology licensed from Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. J&J’s offering, unlike the two-dose vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna, requires only one shot and doesn’t need ultra-cold storage.

If an advisory committee green-lights the J&J vaccine Friday, and it’s cleared by the Food and Drug Administration this weekend, the company could begin sending doses to states next week. But the shipments figure to be smaller than initially expected, at least in the early weeks.

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The company has about 4 million doses on hand to ship at once, Richard Nettles, a vice president at J&J affiliate Janssen Pharmaceuticals, told the House panel. That’s about a third of what was once projected. But he said the company will increase capacity quickly and be able to deliver 20 million doses nationally by late March.

“We are continuing to partner with the US government to explore all options to accelerate delivery,” Nettles said.

Supply increases from Pfizer and Moderna, along with extra doses in Moderna’s vials and the debut of J&J’s one-shot vaccine, should end the national vaccine shortage some time in the next three to eight weeks, projects Prashant Yadav, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, who tracks vaccine distribution trends around the world.

The precise timing, he said, will depend on whether vaccine makers make good on their commitments, on whether states can quickly build effective vaccination capacity, and on how fast states expand their eligibility pools.

While we have more supplies being shipped to states, Yadav said, many states are also increasing the number of people eligible. “So while the supply has increased,” he said, “demand has increased faster.”

Massachusetts officials are clearly hoping for more than the 139,000 first doses they’ve been promised for each of the next three weeks. Those doses, earmarked for unvaccinated residents, are shipped along with second doses for those who’ve already had first shots.

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But those shipments don’t include a separate tranche of vaccines the Biden administration is distributing directly to pharmacies across the country.

Neither state nor White House officials would specify how many of those doses are now coming to Massachusetts. But CVS offered a hint Wednesday when it said it is opening 17 more vaccination sites at retail pharmacies in the state.

White House officials say they expect to get a total of 200 million vaccines by the end of March, another 200 million by the end of May, and 200 million more by the end of July — enough to vaccinate every American.

Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, Wednesday said federal vaccine allotments to states have increased 70 percent in the past five weeks, from 8.6 million vaccine doses to 14.5 million. Zients also said federal officials have doubled allocations to pharmacies in that period, and will be sending 2.1 million doses this week.

The federal signals are encouraging, Baker said Wednesday after touring a new “MassVax” site at the Natick Mall.

But acknowledging the growing impatience, he added, injections in Massachusetts are “not going to happen as fast as everyone would like, and I’m wildly sympathetic to that.”








Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.