On the day that more than 1 million Massachusetts residents gained eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines, lawmakers and local officials from Cape Cod slammed Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to shift the administration of doses away from many municipalities.
Speakers on a Cape Cod COVID-19 Response Task Force call launched a new volley of criticism at Baker’s vaccine management, arguing that the region will struggle to balance the needs of adults 75 and older who have not yet received doses with the many people — adults 65 and older, those with two or more medical issues creating a greater COVID risk, and residents of low-income and affordable senior housing — who now qualify as well.
Baker announced Wednesday that the state will halt shipment of first doses to most municipalities that offer local clinics for only their own residents starting March 1, instead emphasizing locations that can make more doses available to a wider population such as mass vaccination sites and regional collaboratives.
Sean O’Brien, director of Barnstable County’s Barnstable County Department of Health and the Environment, told reporters that only a handful of Cape Cod towns received shipments of a couple of hundred of vaccine doses each, so the administration’s shift will not dramatically alter the existing distribution pattern.
But he said the approach ignored municipal plans and infrastructure that had been carefully developed for years to handle large-scale vaccine campaigns.
“These are plans that towns really worked very hard on, identifying places where vaccinations could take place,” O’Brien said. “These plans were developed, and over the years, the towns have exercised them. They’ve done a great job putting them together. They deserve all the kudos, and it’s very unfortunate that what they put together is not being used.”
The latest round of frustration builds on a string of complaints from the Cape and adds to an increasingly tense political environment for Baker. Lawmakers had already planned to start exercising a greater oversight role with hearings next week before Thursday morning’s website issues further intensified their scrutiny.
Six days ago, nearly 100 officials from towns across the region — including some Republicans as well as Democrats — implored the administration to open a mass vaccination site on the Cape and provide doses to local health boards.
They have not yet received a response, officials said Thursday. Rep. Sarah Peake, newly elevated to a leadership role as second assistant majority leader, said “out of fairness” that the letter dated Friday likely landed with the governor during a holiday weekend.
“I’m sure their planning efforts were all focused around opening up the Hunger Games to include people 65 and older now,” she said, comparing a fictional dystopia to the real-life search for available vaccine appointments.
“I understand that Massachusetts is still receiving far less in the way of vaccine doses from the federal government than what the demand is, as we saw this morning,” Peake, a Provincetown Democrat, continued. “But we need to have a serious conversation with (the administration) because the day will come when the vaccine supply increases, and when that day comes, we expect to see an increase in the number of doses that are being shipped to Barnstable County.”
Asked about Barnstable County at a Wednesday press conference, Baker again cited a lack of vaccine supply from the federal government and praised the regional collaborative in place in Barnstable County.
Only Berkshire County has administered more first doses than Barnstable, Baker said.
“It might feel more like a competition to the people who are in it, but it is a collaborative, and between Cape Cod Hospital and the community health centers and local boards of health in Barnstable, they are currently sitting at 14.2 percent of their population vaccinated,” Baker said Wednesday. “They’re performing well, and we’ll continue to work with them to expand capacity and to make sure they have access.”
Sen. Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat, said during Thursday’s call that he believes the administration’s focus on high-volume vaccine sites is in part driven by an effort to improve the statewide rate of vaccines administered per doses distributed from the federal government.
“If you live near one of the mass vaccination sites, that may be working for you, although when I talk to my colleagues elsewhere in the state, it’s not working for them either,” Cyr said, noting that it would likely take two hours in each direction to get from his hometown to the mass vaccination site at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
The percentage of doses Massachusetts received that have been administered was slow off the blocks, but has improved substantially in recent weeks. On Wednesday, the state had put about 79.2 percent of doses into arms, according to Department of Public Health data — more than 20 percentage points more than the rate two weeks ago.
Cape officials believe that 12,000 adults over 75 in the region have received first doses, but there are still thousands more who have yet to get inoculated.
O’Brien and Cyr argued that pressing forward into the next rollout step could make it more difficult for not-yet-vaccinated older adults to find appointments.
“The fact that the state vaccine website crashed — it just shows how big that competition is going to be to get the limited supply of doses coming into the commonwealth,” O’Brien said. “There’s just going to be more people trying to get that shot. We still have quite a bit left from the 75-plus group that we’d like to get that out to, but there will be a lot more competition.”
(Copyright (c) 2020 State House News Service.