There’s nothing like an “impending doom” warning from the nation’s top public health official to dampen a celebration of progress in the vaccination drive against the coronavirus.
But a day after Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sounded the alarm about rising COVID-19 cases, state and federal officials — including Walensky herself — stressed the progress, not the infections, on a Tuesday visit to the state’s newest and largest vaccination site, at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center.
Anticipating an eight-week supply surge that could take the nation from a scarcity of vaccines to a glut, Governor Charlie Baker said Massachusetts is entering “the final turn in this terrible fight” against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senator Ed Markey, joining the governor at the Hynes, said the planned ramp-up to 7,000 doses a day at that location creates an “accelerated pathway to recovery from the coronavirus.” The site will be jointly operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and CIC Health, with the US government adding 6,000 doses daily to the 1,000 from the state’s allocation.
None of the speakers at a press briefing brought up Walensky’s disquieting remarks in Washington on Monday that “right now I’m scared” by a national resurgence of COVID-19 that she said has left her with a “recurring feeling ... of impending doom.”
Even the CDC director, returning to Boston where she’d been chief of the infectious diseases division at Massachusetts General Hospital, was muted in her admonitions about the risks of a new surge on Tuesday. Walensky said she was optimistic that the vaccines will help vanquish the virus while cautioning that Americans must keep taking steps to protect themselves.
“We have so much reason for hope,” Walensky told reporters after touring the Hynes site. “We have 95 million Americans vaccinated with one dose of vaccine, and 53 million Americans who are fully vaccinated.” She noted that Massachusetts has fully vaccinated about 1.2 million residents, about 20 percent of its population, topping the national average of 16 percent.
Walensky, who has criticized state and local officials around the country for lifting COVID-19 restrictions prematurely, didn’t call for the Baker administration to reverse its plan to permit increased indoor capacity at restaurants, event venues, and casinos. And Baker, while acknowledging “we do make changes when we think it’s appropriate,” didn’t backtrack on his reopening plan.
But critics, noting Walensky had been a member of a task force advising Baker on vaccine priorities, said in interviews that the CDC chief’s Monday warning strengthened their case for the governor to reimpose tougher virus restrictions. Even as vaccinations increase in the state, Massachusetts saw a 15 percent rise in average coronavirus cases last week, slightly higher than the national increase.
“All of us wish we were sprinting toward the conclusion of the pandemic,” said Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, a nonprofit advocacy group that is urging the governor to delay parts of his reopening plan. “But if we move to reopen too quickly, we’re going to see a resurgence of the virus.”
Northeastern University epidemiologist Sam Scarpino agreed, cautioning, “We’re reopening too fast.” If there’s a fresh surge of hospitalizations and death, he said, “we could see a trajectory where we won’t get back to normalcy for months.”
There was little consensus on whether a surge in infections could be followed by a surge in serious illnesses and deaths, as happened this winter in Europe and last year in the United States. The vaccination rate is much higher in the United States than in countries like Germany, France, and Italy, which Walensky cited in her Monday warning. But even if deaths don’t reach the same level of past surges here, health experts are increasingly alarmed.
“Many of us share [Walensky’s] concern that the virus might be getting ahead of us once again,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Americans are feeling fatigued. They want to get away from the cramped lifestyle. I’m telling people: Don’t fumble the ball on the five-yard line.”
The seeming contradiction that coronavirus infections are climbing again even as vaccinations increase has several explanations, according to health experts. COVID-19 variants now circulating in Massachusetts and elsewhere are more contagious. States are easing restrictions, and residents are letting down their guard. And many of the newly infected are younger people not yet eligible for the vaccines.
“As spring comes, people in their 20s are relaxing their behavior and going out to restaurants with their friends,” said David Williams, president of Health Business Group, a Boston management consulting firm. “They don’t have to feel as guilty about infecting them if Ma and Grandma have already been vaccinated.”
Walensky’s “impending doom” remarks Monday drew headlines around the country. While not addressing the phrase in her comments at Tuesday’s press briefings in Boston, she sought to put it in context when asked by a reporter there.
“When I said I had a feeling of impending doom, it is sort of this feeling that I’ve had, surge after surge, serving on the front lines of Massachusetts General Hospital,” she said. “And recognizing that right now ... we know what we need to do to stop the surge and we would ask everybody to go ahead and do that.”
She again urged governors around the country to impose mask mandates and residents to wear masks and observe social distancing in public.
Under the Biden administration, the federal government has been taking a larger role in vaccinations in recent weeks.
FEMA Administrator Robert Fenton said the Hynes location will be one of more than 20 the agency is operating across the country. The federal sites have already vaccinated nearly 1.7 million people, many from marginalized communities, he said, augmenting state-run sites.
“The goal of establishing those joint federal pilot centers is to expand access to vaccinations that focuses on communities with a higher risk of COVID-19 exposure and infection,” he said, noting that mobile units will bring vaccine from the Hynes to hard-hit neighborhoods in Boston, Chelsea, and Revere.
Fenton said FEMA will supply the additional 6,000 doses a day at the Hynes for the next eight weeks. Residents will get two-dose vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech for the first six weeks and one-shot vaccines from Johnson & Johnson for the last two weeks.
Other federal doses are being shipped directly to CVS pharmacy outlets and to community health centers in Massachusetts. State officials, meanwhile, are sending their own vaccine allotments to more than 200 sites, including mass vaccination centers, hospitals and doctors practices, regional collaboratives, and local boards of health.
“We continue to ramp up our capacity to be able to handle additional doses from the federal government when supply increases,” Baker said.
Baker said the state received 382,000 total doses from the federal government this week. That included 215,000 first and second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 137,000 first and second doses of the Moderna vaccine. In addition, he said, the state is receiving 40,000 doses of the J&J vaccine.
Shipments have been rising steadily over the past month, but are expected to increase more sharply in coming weeks.
“This is the time when we’re going from scarcity to surplus,” said Williams of the Health Business Group. “People who are eligible are now getting appointments, even if they have to work a bit, and a lot more people are now eligible. It still feels tight. But in the next two to three weeks, instead of waking up at 1 in the morning to book an appointment, you should be able to do at 2 in the afternoon.”
Amanda Kaufman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.