After several days of wrestling with the state’s COVID-19 vaccination website, I scored an appointment — at a Walgreen’s in Chelsea. With the jab came relief and a stab of guilt.
Chelsea, a densely populated city that’s home to many poor and working-class Latinos, has been hit hard by COVID-19. While it just fell out of the red zone, it still has a high caseload compared with other Massachusetts locales. Getting a shot there turned me into a poster child for all the inequities baked into the system set up under Governor Charlie Baker. I had time, Internet access, and two family members who also entered and reentered the required information in the state’s frustrating website.
That experience illustrates the great coronavirus divide that Manny Lopes, president and CEO of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, is trying to close, in partnership with Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa, a Chelsea-based nonprofit agency. On Saturday, they met up with US Representative Ayanna Pressley at a vaccination site on Broadway in Chelsea that’s aimed at getting shots into the arms of people who live there. Volunteers coordinated by Vega’s agency are going door-to-door to reach out to residents. “We are doing everything in our power,“ said Vega at a press conference after the tour. “We have a waiting list of people who want to be vaccinated.”
According to the state’s vaccination dashboard, 68 percent of those who have received at least one dose of the vaccine are white, 5.1 percent are Black, and 4.3 percent are Latino. Cultural resistance and distrust of government may account for some of that disparity. But political leaders like Pressley say it’s exacerbated by a sign-up system that’s primarily accessible to the tech-savvy, with a focus on mass vaccination centers that are hard for some people to reach.
This week’s “Saturday Night Live” opened with a spoof of a game show, “So You Think You Can Get the Vaccine.” But the real-life competition is not so funny. The Massachusetts website, for example, has been criticized for setting up a “Hunger Games process” even for those able to navigate it. Baker came under increasing fire to fix it when glitches and crashes broke out after the vaccination pool was extended to those 65 and older. At last week’s legislative oversight hearing, the governor acknowledged the roll-out was “lumpy and bumpy” and said, “What happened to the website is on us.” Senator Eric Lesser, a Democrat from Longmeadow, asked the governor, regarding those who encountered sign-up hassles, “Will you say sorry for the million people?” Baker did not say the word “sorry,” but he did say, “Of course, absolutely. Definitely. Yes, of course.”
But what about those vulnerable people who don’t have the time and computer capability to be frustrated by a finicky website but who should still be able to get the vaccine? Baker is now pledging a continued focus on equity.
Yet many have been shut out, due to what Pressley calls “vaccine redlining.” After touring the Chelsea vaccination site, she said the state, with prodding, is “making strides” on the equity front. What’s needed now is “more of this,” she said, referencing the Chelsea facility. Last week, the Baker administration did add several new sites and opened up vaccine supply to hospitals and local boards of health. Mobile vaccination services would also be helpful, Vega said.
According to Lopes, the Chelsea location can handle up to 300 people a day. So far, about 1,500 people have been vaccinated there. Based on zip code data, he said, about 70 percent are from Chelsea. Vaccinations are not limited to Chelsea residents, and the location can be accessed through the state website. The facility is currently open only Monday through Friday. With more supply, Lopes said he hopes to expand it to a seven-day-a-week operation.
“Speed is important. Efficiency is important,” said Lopes. “But we’re concerned about equity.”
Equity has been lacking forever in communities like Chelsea. Changing that takes commitment from every level of government, and much more than a random stab of guilt.