With the holidays in full swing, Massachusetts residents are searching for COVID-19 vaccine boosters in greater numbers, making appointments difficult to find.
Rest assured, there are booster shots aplenty. Governor Charlie Baker on Monday defended the state’s booster rollout and said officials will look to increase the number of appointments as tens of thousands of people receive the additional doses each day. .
“We’re doing somewhere around 55,000 boosters and first and second shots a day, okay? At our peak we were doing about 80,000 last spring,” Baker said during an appearance on GBH’s Boston Public Radio. “We’re going to continue to see if we can increase capacity.”
Baker noted about 1 million people have received booster shots in the state so far. State data showed 1,056,088 booster doses had been administered as of last Friday.
But getting on the schedule? Not an easy task.
“The holiday season is driving demand,” said Greg Wilmot, interim president and CEO of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. “Folks want to complete their vaccination series to get together safely and enjoy any gatherings.”
Around 800 locations across the Commonwealth administering extra shots have little to no availability in the coming weeks.
The online scheduling portals for CVS and Star Market often bear an unfortunate message: No time slots are available. (CVS told Boston 25 News that select stores cannot book more than four appointments an hour.) At Wegmans supermarket, “appointments continue to book quickly,” a company spokesperson wrote in an e-mail. And a Walgreens representative noted that chain has “seen an uptick in appointments,” too.
Wilmot said an “encouraging” increase in booster demand has left the clinic with no open slots until next week. The center offers 150 booster shots each day and has administered 3,000 extra doses since September.
“Once they’re open, they’re gone,” he said.
There were “tons” of open booster appointments two weeks ago, Baker said, but demand has increased for the shots after state and federal officials opted to expand eligibility to all adults. Massachusetts preempted the federal government’s expansion, a decision Baker said was made after “waiting for them to go there and eventually just said ‘screw it’ and did it.”
“I’m happy to have increases, and we’re going to talk to our folks about whether we can come up with additional [appointments],” Baker said. “When I go look at Vax Finder at mass.gov, I can always find appointments. Now, they may not be in the place somebody wants to go to get one and it may be a week or 10 days out or two weeks out before they can get one, but given the fact that we have far more demand now than we had a couple of weeks ago, we’re going to see if we can increase our capacity to do more.”
Watertown resident Cathy Cahill hoped to get the jab ahead of her family Thanksgiving in Chelsea and a December visit to her parents’ Florida home. On a morning hunt last Tuesday, she found that multiple CVS pharmacies — in Belmont, Waltham, Watertown, Cambridge, and Dedham — were without appointments until early December, she said. “I was like, oh my god, I can’t find anything.”
Cahill eventually landed a Nov. 27 slot at the Waltham Costco.
“It’s just a matter of patience,” she added.
The bottleneck could be partly attributed to the absence of mass inoculation sites. When COVID-19 vaccinations first opened to the public last spring, a swath of residents received the shot at Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, the Natick Mall, and other large sites. (Today, there are four state-sponsored vaccination sites, in Springfield, Lowell, Danvers, and Brockton — each with hundreds of available appointments.)
Still, Wilmot said, “the difference between now and when the vaccines became available in the spring is that then, pharmacies had not yet ramped up their capacity to offer the doses. So it’s like comparing apples to oranges.”
Availability of the Pfizer booster may also be hampered by the need for children’s shots. Kids ages 5 to 11 can receive the Pfizer vaccine under an emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. The Moderna and J&J shots have not been cleared for that age group.
But Wilmot said folks should remember that “the actual volume [of] vaccine that goes into the kids’ shot is less than it is for adults.”
Residents can use the VaxFinder website to book their booster dose and filter by vaccine type — Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.
US regulators opened booster shots to all adults last week, hoping to ward off a winter surge. On Nov. 18, Massachusetts allowed people ages 18 and older to receive the extra jab, six months after their second Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two months after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The widespread rollout of boosters coincides with a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases across New England. In Massachusetts, daily case numbers rose sharply in November, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.