Some 40,000 new COVID-19 vaccine appointments were snatched up in a matter of hours in Massachusetts on Thursday, the same day the state’s teachers and other educators became eligible to get vaccinated.
“Due to high demand and a very limited vaccine supply from the federal government, all 40,000 first-dose appointments at mass vaccination locations for next week have been booked,” the state tweeted shortly before 11:30 a.m. Thursday from its official mass.gov account, roughly three hours after the state’s Vaxfinder website opened for reserving appointments.
Governor Charlie Baker elaborated during an afternoon briefing at a vaccination site in Roxbury.
He told reporters the 40,000 appointments “were booked quickly, and the website worked the way it was supposed to. ... Tomorrow we launch a new pre-registration system for the state’s seven mass vaccination sites,” and more sites are expected to be added to the system in April.
He also defended the priority groups established by the state during the rollout of the vaccine, a list that included teachers starting Thursday.
“We believe in a program that was established by our vaccine advisory board that the two fundamental objectives with respect to vaccine priority here in Massachusetts should be the preservation of life and the preservation of the healthcare system that preserves life,” said Baker, who was shockingly moved to tears during a prior briefing Wednesday when discussing the pandemic. “And that’s why we targeted a number of the communities that we targeted to begin with.”
Baker said officials “also said we wanted to make it clear that equity will be an important focus for how we move forward. And if you think about many of the groups that we focused on ... it’s pretty clear that we took that idea seriously. There are very few states that chose to vaccinate straight out of the gate residents and staff at congregate care facilities that serve homeless people, folks with developmental disabilities, or folks with mental health issues.”
He said there were “very few [other] states, I’m not sure of any, that chose to focus straight out of the gate on personal care attendants, or on home healthcare workers. Very few states straight out of the gate chose to focus on making sure that inmates and correctional officers in the correctional system had a chance to get vaccinated. And very few states straight out of the gate put the amount of work and effort that we put in to doing all we could to make sure that staff at senior care facilities, longterm care facilites, and assisted living facilities got vaccinated. And all that took time. but it was important work.”
The work, Baker said, “made it possible for us to consistently over-perform national averages on delivering doses to some of those most vulnerable populations, and it’s part of the reason why 75 percent of our over 75 population, which is the most vulnerable population, has been vaccinated here in Massachusetts.”
He noted that four days have been set aside in the coming weeks at mass vaccination sites for teachers. About 25,000 appointments will be available for educators on those four days combined, state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said Wednesday.
“But I am not going to be in a position where I take vaccine away from people who are extremely vulnerable, who have multiple medical conditions, that are over the age of 65, to give it to a targeted population,” Baker said Thursday. “We’re just not going to play that game.”
Earlier in the day, users logging on to the state website were being directed to so-called digital waiting rooms to book appointments at the mass vaccination sites, with wait times ranging from around 40 minutes to more than an hour as thousands of people competed for the limited slots.
“I was online with many educators scoping out the chance to get vaccines early this morning,” said Beth Kontos, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, in an e-mail Thursday. “The worst part is that people [are] in a queue that didn’t open until 8:30am. Educators are working at that time! ... And of course, there were more than 90k people in front of us.”
Tim Buckley, a senior adviser to Baker, fired back at the unions in a strongly worded statement issued before the governor’s briefing Thursday. Buckley made an apparent reference to a proposal from unions representing teachers and firefighters to have firefighters administer vaccine doses to thousands of school workers — a program the unions say would facilitate a more timely and convenient inoculation of educators across Massachusetts.
“The Baker-Polito Administration is dismayed that despite reasonable efforts to prioritize educator vaccinations, the teachers’ unions continue to demand the Commonwealth take hundreds of thousands of vaccines away from the sickest, oldest and most vulnerable residents in Massachusetts and divert them to the unions’ members, 95% of which are under age 65,” Buckley said. “Building an entirely new, exclusive, teacher-only, school by school distribution system would make Massachusetts’ vaccination system slower, less equitable and far more complicated. The Administration implores the unions to do the math: the state only gets 150,000 first doses every week.”
The appointments made available Thursday were an increase from just 12,000 slots that were opened last week, when state officials said no first-dose appointments would be added to several mass vaccination sites because of limited vaccine supply.
The rollout of teacher eligibility comes in advance of the Friday launch of a new online preregistration tool intended to make it easier to book an appointment. Baker announced the new tool Wednesday in an effort to ease growing public frustration over the competition to secure a COVID-19 shot.
Beginning Friday, residents will be able to sign up using the new preregistration tool by phone or online, and they may make appointments on behalf of someone else to help those with limited Internet access. The tool will be available online at mass.gov/COVIDvaccine.
With the new preregistration system, residents will be matched with only the mass vaccination site nearest them. Users will be able to choose from several available times.
Following Baker’s announcement last week that K-12 educators, child-care workers, and other school staff members would be eligible to be vaccinated beginning Thursday, officials said Wednesday that the state’s mass vaccination sites will be devoted exclusively to vaccinating educators on four weekend days.
The dates — Saturday, March 27; Saturday, April 3; Saturday, April 10; and Sunday, April 11 — were set several weeks in advance because officials hope to have more vaccine supply from the federal government by that time, Baker said.
“Even the CDC has said that teachers don’t need to be vaccinated to be educating kids,” Baker said during Thursday’s briefing.
Rodrigo Martinez, a spokesperson for CIC Health, which is operating some of the mass vaccination sites, said via email Thursday morning that 1,300 slots were available at Fenway Park, 1,300 were open at the Reggie Lewis Center, and 6,000 were available at Gillette Stadium. In addition, Martinez wrote, with the Fenway site soon moving to the Hynes Convention Center, there will be a “soft-launch next Thursday” with 800 slots available at the Hynes, eventually “ramping up quickly” to 5,000 appointments daily.
Educators also can sign up to be vaccinated at other locations, including through a federal program offered at CVS.
Officials have said it will take about a month to get the state’s 400,000 teachers and other school and child-care workers vaccinated, as they compete with other eligible groups for appointments.
The state has not said when it will expand eligibility further, and Baker has continued to point to limited vaccine supply from the federal government and manufacturers as the biggest barrier to speeding the process.
And the governor, as he has done repeatedly during the vaccine rollout, said Thursday that he hoped the federal government will soon be able to supply states with more doses of the coveted vaccine.
He said officials are “frustrated about where J&J is at this point” with their vaccine “and where we thought they were going to be,” because their doses “don’t require a deep freeze and the overnight prep and the thaw process that’s associated with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine. Which means, and it’s one dose, which means you can use it on a mobile basis to visit community health centers, senior centers, senior housing. There’s so many things you can do with a vaccine that doesn’t require all of these very particular storage and prep issues that come with Pfizer and Moderna on a mobile basis.”
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox. Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com. Christina Prignano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano. John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.