A wave of vaccine jitters rippled through the state Friday after a Quincy-based urgent care company began canceling second shot appointments for residents who’d already received first doses of the two-dose regimens.
CareWell Urgent Care, which vaccinated 6,000 people at 16 clinics in Massachusetts, said the state had cut off its supply, forcing it to cancel an unspecified number of patients’ second shots. But state officials said they were working to assure residents who’d received first shots at CareWell clinics that they would be able to get their second shots there as well.
Until now, there have been few reports of Massachusetts residents being denied second shots after getting the first, despite a shortage of vaccines. But amid shifting state policy on which providers will receive limited shipments, some worry whether everyone will get their scheduled second doses, at least in the prescribed window to assure they’ll be fully immunized.
The anxiety was clear this week in Amesbury, where residents who had their first vaccinations at a local church thought their second shots had been canceled after they received phone calls from the town Thursday saying the state had cut off its vaccine supply. They assumed that meant their appointments for shots from a private pharmacist at the church were being scrapped.
By Friday, after many residents had spent hours online trying to find open vaccine slots elsewhere, they learned that their second shots at the church were still on schedule.
“My parents and their friends were scared,” said Melanie Smith, whose 83-year-old parents were among those who received their first shots at the Holy Family Parish. “These people are fragile, and a lot of them were freaked out.”
Massachusetts providers have administered about 1.1 million first doses, but only about 450,000 second doses, according to data released Thursday. So far, virtually everyone who has been scheduled for the second dose has received it. But with demand for shots so high and the supply still limited, there’s a risk that providers could be forced to delay second shots.
Across the nation, there have been scattered cases of second dose appointments canceled or postponed this month either by winter storms or the cutoff of supply to providers.
Last week, the Beaumont Health system in Michigan said it was trying to reschedule thousands of appointments canceled due to an unexpected cutback of Pfizer vaccine allocations. And vaccinations were interrupted in Texas last week after hundreds of thousands of second dose shipments were delayed because of power outages and frozen roads.
“It’s not surprising,” said David Williams, president of Health Business Group, a Boston management consulting firm. “When you’ve got millions and millions of doses being administered every week, you’d expect to have some sampling of this. You can’t expect everything to go smoothly.”
Public health officials say a single dose of the two currently authorized vaccines confers protection against coronavirus. But they caution against skipping prescribed second doses, scheduled three weeks after a first Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shot and four weeks after a first Moderna shot.
Clinical studies, conducted last year before the emergence of COVID-19 variants, showed the two-shot vaccines’ efficacy rates climbed from over 50 percent between first and second doses to 95 percent seven days after the second dose.
Many health experts, though, say people should be adequately protected even if they don’t get their second dose precisely in the prescribed window.
“My guess is the rigid intervals are optimal, but it’s not like if you’re a day late or a week late, you’re not going to get an antibody response,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of Boston College’s global public health program and a veteran of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Delayed appointments are “certainly an inconvenience for the person who was planning to get a second shot, but it’s not a public health problem,” Williams said.
Residents given first doses of the Moderna vaccine earlier this month at CareWell clinics in the Boston area said they were told Thursday the outlets are no longer receiving vaccine from the state and they’d have to look elsewhere for their second shots, which were scheduled for March.
Marcia Hertz, 67, of Brookline, who took her 94-year-old mother, Marilyn, to be inoculated at the CareWell clinic in Cambridge’s Inman Square — and then got a shot there herself — said a CareWell representative told her their second shots were canceled.
“The explanation was they had no vaccine,” Hertz said. “They’d been asking the state for a week, and they weren’t getting any more. So they were canceling all the appointments.”
CareWell released a statement Friday that attributed the cancellations to vaccine supply shortages, suggesting it could reschedule second shots only when more doses arrive.
“We are committed to making second doses available to eligible residents at all 16 clinics in Massachusetts...” the company’s chief executive, Shaun Ginter, said in the statement. “We hope to receive a new allocation soon, and are prepared to immediately resume appointments as soon as a new shipment arrives.”
At the same time, Ginter said in the statement, CareWell is “encouraging residents who are eligible to sign up for a vaccine at one of the state-run mass vaccination sites.”
Kate Reilly, a spokeswoman for the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center, said Friday that the Baker administration is working to making second vaccine doses available to all residents who’ve received first doses.
Reilly said the command center and the state Department of Public Health have asked CareWell to complete a required survey and “are actively working with CareWell on their request for second doses.” Once the company completes the survey, she said, “we will get the doses allocated and delivered to CareWell for second dose appointments.”
State officials, without discussing the CareWell case specifically, have been at odds with urgent care centers that have flouted Massachusetts rules by not properly logging vaccination data in a computer system and offering doses to residents before they meet the state’s eligibility criteria.
Speaking before a legislative committee on Thursday, state Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said some clinics had been “disenrolled” from the state vaccine program because of rules violations.
“Basically if you went into some of the urgent care places, they were just ‘We opened up a vial, would you like to have a vaccine?,’ which completely contradicts the public trust,” Sudders said.