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As state approaches vaccination goal, it must ‘pull out all the stops’ amid Delta variant threat

Ritu Jain was inoculated by nurse Gerriley Lucas at the UMass Memorial Health Care COVID-19 Vaccination Center in Worcester in April.
Ritu Jain was inoculated by nurse Gerriley Lucas at the UMass Memorial Health Care COVID-19 Vaccination Center in Worcester in April.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

As the state moved very close to achieving Governor Charlie Baker’s goal of fully vaccinating 4.1 million residents, a local epidemiologist on Sunday urged the state to step up inoculations, warning that a more contagious variant could become the country’s dominant COVID-19 strain this summer.

The Department of Public Health reported Sunday that nearly 4.09 million residents are fully vaccinated — about 58 percent of the population — and roughly 11,500 people short of Baker’s goal.

But Samuel Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist, warned Sunday that the state’s goal is not enough to fend off the threat posed by the Delta variant, a strain identified in India last year.

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“We need to pull out all the stops this summer and aim for at least 80 percent coverage of the entire state,” Scarpino said in an e-mail.

The state reported five new deaths and 41 cases Sunday, along with 23,667 new administered doses, after local and national health officials issued recent warnings of the new potential coronavirus threat.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, cautioned in recent days that officials believe the Delta variant could soon become the most dominant strain in the United States.

And with the goal so close, the governor himself said on Tuesday that he would want more vaccinations after crossing that line.

Scarpino said if the Delta variant threat is realized, Baker’s vaccination goal is not enough to prevent surges in under-vaccinated populations, or in schools where children are too young to be vaccinated.

Any community with vaccination rates much below 75 percent to 80 percent will be at risk from the Delta variant, he said.

Given that existing vaccines are safe and highly effective, he said, “any future surges will be unnecessary tragedies.”

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Dr. Andrew Karson, the chief medical officer at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, praised the state’s progress, but said in a phone interview the vaccination work must continue as COVID-19 remains a “major risk.”

“While it’s a time to celebrate a milestone that helps protect us, there is still a lot more protection we need,” Karson said, noting the threats of Delta and other variants. “We have to keep working hard... fighting this disease. This is nowhere near over.”

UMass Memorial works with community organizations and local leaders in mobilizing vaccination efforts, including locations such as senior centers and places of worship, he said. Much of the work now focuses on the advocacy and support of local leaders within at-risk communities.

“We have to reassure people who are skeptical of [COVID-19] vaccine, we have to overcome misinformation,” Karson said. “And that’s going to take more than just a van showing up, or local clinics having it.”

That work requires the support of trusted people within communities to encourage vaccinations, according to Karson.

“It’s almost going to be, ‘group by group, person to person,’ work now,” he said.

About 50 miles west of Worcester, in Springfield, residents gathered Sunday for a Father’s Day cookout in the city’s Adams Park. Music was playing, children ran around the playground — and people could also get tested for COVID-19, according to Gwendolyn Smith, president of the city’s Bay Area Neighborhood Council.

Smith is a local vaccine ambassador and has walked the city knocking on doors to encourage people to get the shots.

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“We need everyone to be COVID-free in Massachusetts,” Smith said.

State Representative Bud Williams, a Springfield Democrat who was also at the event, said he expected the work to encourage vaccinations was going to be a “one-on-one” effort. That means lots of small vaccination sites, volunteers going out to peoples’ homes, and labor-intensive outreach in communities.

“We’re trying to save lives. As hard as it is, as much as we have to do, we’re going to do the job,” Williams said by phone. “And it is tough... we’re going to grind it out.”

Dr. Joseph Betancourt, senior vice president for Equity and Community Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, which operates a community health center in Chelsea, lauded the state’s gains in the fight as it pivots away from large sites toward small clinics and doctor’s offices.

Many needed conversations are going to occur between people and trusted caregivers, Betancourt said.

“That is going to be a huge boost to where we need to be,” he said.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.