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All aboard: State launches ‘Vax Express’ to expand access to COVID-19 shots

Train enthusiast Joshua Ricketts Johnson gave a thumbs up as he received a vaccination from Lea Grieco-Kwong.on the Vax Express train.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Ever since childhood, Joshua Ricketts Johnson has loved trains — from Thomas the Tank Engine to the MBTA. So when he learned the Vax Express was scheduled to stop near his home in Mattapan on Wednesday, he decided it was the perfect opportunity to get vaccinated.

The Vax Express — a commuter rail train turned vaccination clinic — is one of Governor Charlie Baker’s latest attempts to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates in the state’s hardest-hit communities, like Mattapan, both with access and incentives. It made its first stops today at stations in Boston, and it is scheduled visit five other stations later this week.


Ricketts Johnson, 18, was eager to receive his shot aboard the train, which usually carries commuters on the Fairmount Line. He arrived at Blue Hill Ave. Station at exactly 10 a.m., and snapped photos on his phone as the train pulled into the station.

“It’s beautiful,” he said of the locomotive, an F40. “Most trains don’t look like this.”

Soon, Ricketts Johnson made his way inside — to the first coach car for paperwork, and through to the second coach car for his shot. Some seats had been removed to accommodate the vaccinations.

After the jab, he waited out the observation period in the back of the train, sporting a sticker that read, “I got vaccinated aboard the Vax Express.”

Outside, on the platform, volunteers handed out free hotdogs. Those who received shots were also rewarded with other vaccination incentives from the state: a $25 gift card to Shaw’s and a chance to enter the state’s $1 million vaccine lottery, announced Tuesday.

More than 4 million residents of Massachusetts — about 58 percent of the state’s population — have been fully vaccinated, as of Tuesday,

But African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans in Massachusetts are receiving vaccines at much lower rates; just 47, 45, and 42 percent, respectively, have received a first dose, compared to 65 percent of all residents.


Devin Edwards of Boston waited the required 15 minutes of observation time after getting his COVID-19 shot seated onboard the train. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Vax Express — a partnership between the state, the MBTA, Keolis Commuter Services, CIC Health, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts — is one effort to close that gap.

“Here in Mattapan, we are still working to increase our vaccination rates, and we still have relatively high positivity rates, and so I’m really grateful for this initiative to bring the vaccines to the community and give folks the access they need to keep their family, friends, and loved ones safe,” state Representative Brandy Fluker Oakley said at a press conference Wednesday.

Marilyn Forman, who accompanied her daughter, grandson, and godchildren to receive shots on the Vax Express, lauded the initiative for bringing vaccines to Mattapan.

“Typically, people of color have always had trust issues, and rightfully so,” Forman said. “But how awesome is this? Right in your own community, you walk around the corner, and you don’t have to fear, because this is where you live, and there are other people that you know.”

For Leslie Milton, the convenience of the Vax Express was “awesome” — it took just 10 minutes for her son to receive his shot. Milton also said she enjoyed the experience aboard the commuter rail, which she used to ride to work.

“I haven’t been on one in years, so this is cool,” Milton said. “It brings back memories.”


Omari Long, 12, held his mother's hand as he got a COVID-19 shot while on the Vax Express.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Forman noted the significance of the history behind the Blue Hill Ave. Station, which opened in February 2019.

“We fought long and hard for the commuter rail to actually ride through our communities, and be able to get on, and get into town,” she said.

State Representative Russell Holmes echoed her sentiment

“For decades — decades! — folks travelled through this neighborhood, and there was no stop,” he said at the press conference. “So I’d like to just remind folks that we’re able to do this today because we have decided that it is important to make sure we serve the community that these trains travel through.”

Forman also linked this week’s vaccination efforts to Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating emancipation that takes place on June 19.

“We want to believe that this is also a sign of freedom for us. We’re no longer in bondage, staying inside because of this nasty COVID thing,” she said. “It’s a kickoff to Juneteenth for us, because that is freedom for African Americans, and this again is another freedom for us so that we can roam about and enjoy one another.”

Kerin McManus, a Keolis employee, greeted those who wanted to receive a COVID-19 vaccine by the train entrance. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

After four hours in Mattapan, the Vax Express made its way to South Station, where it spent the afternoon.

Later this week, it will make stops at Worcester’s Union Station on Thursday; at Lowell Station and North Station on Friday; at Lawrence Station on Saturday; and at Fitchburg Station on Sunday. In July, the Vax Express will return to the same locations for a second round of vaccinations.


Camille Caldera was a Globe intern in 2022.Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.