The Baker administration had hoped companies could play a key role in inoculating their workers, by establishing employer-hosted vaccination programs. Now, that plan is on hold.
Only several weeks after soliciting help from the business community, the administration is telling companies to suspend their COVID-19 vaccination efforts for now.
On Thursday, Marylou Sudders, Governor Charlie Baker’s health and human services secretary, chalked up the problem to supply issues, during an online discussion hosted by the Massachusetts High Technology Council. The official word came out via a memo from her agency Wednesday night.
Sudders said on Thursday that the administration initially reached out to employers for assistance, “hoping that we would be awash in vaccines.”
That has turned out not to be the case. Demand is outstripping supply in Massachusetts, roughly by a factor of four to one, Sudders said. The Baker administration acts as a conduit for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines distributed by the federal government and typically had been getting about 110,000 first doses each week. That number is now closer to 140,000, but still not nearly enough to meet demand.
“We needed to make some tough decisions,” Sudders said. “Until such time we have a lot more supply coming into the state, [we] can’t open up additional channels at this point.”
Sudders said it’s possible the state would restart its program for employer-hosted vaccination sites as the state moves closer to Phase 3 of the rollout and more supplies become available, most notably through the approval of a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which could come as soon as this weekend. That third phase, which had been tentatively slated to begin in April, essentially allows the rest of the public to get vaccinated.
Life-sciences employees are among the categories of workers who are supposed to have access to the vaccine later in Phase 2, along with workers at K-12 schools, funeral homes, restaurants, and utilities.
A number of biotech companies had been working together to plan vaccination sites for their employees, through a cluster approach. Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, sent a note to members on Thursday expressing frustration with the turn of events, noting that state officials earlier had been encouraging employers or groups of employers that had planned to vaccinate more than 200 workers to apply to the state for approval. She wrote that while the halting of this effort is unfortunate, “we know we are not the only ones impacted as the state is also restricting/eliminating vaccine supply to cities & towns and healthcare providers.”
Brooke Thomson, executive vice president at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said in an e-mail that AIM had known since the beginning that supply would be a major issue. Thomson said AIM members are hoping the supply constraints will ease as more vaccines are approved.
That hope was echoed by Chris Anderson, the high tech council’s president. He said there’s some disappointment in the business community, because expectations had been raised by the administration about the promise of employer-hosted sites. But he said the J&J vaccine could significantly increase the flow of doses and would be easier to distribute than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, potentially helping employers to host their own vaccination sites.
“That opens up a number of new avenues that the state can rely on, including employers, to help increase the vaccination rate,” Anderson said.
Based in part on the conversation Thursday with Sudders and Chris Teixeira, a data scientist with the local government contractor MITRE, Anderson remains optimistic that Massachusetts can achieve the long-sought goal of “herd immunity” to COVID-19 by Labor Day.
Lab and factory workers have already been going into work regularly. Anderson said he expects employers to start bringing office workers back to work in large numbers this summer, initially with a hybrid system to limit the number of people in the office on a particular day, before transitioning to a more permanent approach in 2022.