Fire chiefs and health officials in several Massachusetts communities have expressed frustration with the state’s program to vaccinate residents against COVID-19.
“As of right now, the state’s vaccination program is an epic failure, and everyone sees that except the governor and the Department of Public Health,” Whitman Chief Timothy Grenno said on Friday, Feb.12.
The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it will increase the vaccine supply to states to 13.5 million doses per week, and send 2 million doses to local pharmacies this week.
A trio of health and EMS officials spoke to Channel 25’s investigative team Thursday, Feb. 11, citing the state’s prioritizing of mass vaccination sites costing local communities access to the vaccine for their clinics. Dr. Dan Muse, an emergency physician at Signature Healthcare Brockton Hospital, has been a medical director for some local EMS departments’ COVID response efforts.
He said there is a “huge amount of frustration” among the personnel who are simply trying to help their communities.
Along with state lawmakers, the Channel 25 report said EMS teams do not oppose mass vaccination sites, but they want the ability to vaccinate residents for whom travel to a mass site is difficult — and they want enough doses to provide their residents.
“They haven’t listened to us from Day One, so I can’t imagine them listening to us now,” Grenno said, adding that the Mass DPH has issued an order not to schedule any first-shot clinics unless the vaccinations are in hand.
“Every time we put in an order we seem to get cut a little bit,” Rutland Health Board Chairman Scott Gilroy told Channel 25’s Investigation Team. “At some point, it’s going to run into a course where we either can’t take care of our townsfolk or we’re going to have to short some of our partnering towns.”
The state has required every town in the commonwealth to have an emergency dispensing site specifically for vaccinations during a pandemic.
Locally, Grenno agrees there is reason for alarm over the state’s plan to send vaccines to mass vaccination sites only, and not to local clinics. Vaccination clinics announced by Whitman Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman for next week, would likely have to be cancelled.
“I think it’s a total disgrace against our elderly population and it just shows the ignorance of the state government to not recognize the personal needs of our elderly people,” Grenno said. “There’s never been a more incompetent operation than what the state is doing, starting with PPE on Day One, straight through until today. The state has made this whole COVID thing a complete debacle.”
Hanson Fire Chief Jerome Thompson Jr., whose department held a successful vaccination clinic for elders over age 75 on Feb. 5, said he has also seen information that first-dose requests for local vaccination clinics are going unfilled, but he said Hanson’s planned second-dose clinic should be able to go forward.
“I don’t think they’ve done anything official [about vaccine supply policy,” Thompson said. “You just have to put in for it every week and see what you get.”
He said he was fortunate that Hanson received the 300 doses for the Feb. 5 clinic.
Whitman Fire Department put in for a second dose of vaccine last week, but it was denied, Grenno said.
“We put in a request for this coming week, which we’ve yet to hear about,” he said, saying he expected to hear back by the end of that day. “I’m anticipating that request will be denied also. … If that’s the case, then we’re pretty much dead in the water.”
Grenno had anticipated earlier this winter that the vaccination site plan he had submitted to the state for a local vaccination site at Whitman Middle School would be used.
Even shifting to a mass-vaccination site in town hasn’t helped.
“We had a vaccination site ready to go in the town of Whitman that will vaccinate all the 75-and-older population either at a mass-vaccination site at the K of C or at the Housing Authority units and we have been unable to get the vaccines to do that,” Grenno said.
Instead, the state is vaccinating the 75-and-over people they are providing shots to at mass vaccination sites such as Fenway Park, Marshfield Fairgrounds and Gillette Stadium.
“Getting those folks up and out of their homes and into a car and drive them to Marshfield or Gillette and stand in the bitter cold just to get a vaccination,” he said, noting that shots have been offered to people who drive them.
That has raised the issue of non-relatives taking to the Internet to try and arrange to drive a senior in order to get a vaccination.
Grenno maintains that, had the vaccine been delivered to Whitman when it was requested the town’s 75-and-older population could have already been vaccinated.
“We spent a ton of time and resourced on developing our clinics to service our residents, to vaccinate our residents,” he said.
Criticism of Gov. Baker is coming from all over the state.
In Springfield, named the “asthma capital of the country” in 2019, residents with the disorder may be forced to wait longer for the vaccine, because it had not been included on the state’s list of high-risk medical conditions to qualify people for the COVID vaccine.
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Boston, advocates it, arguing that the exclusion will have a significant impact on low-income communities.
Baker has indicated his administration is talking about it, according to media reports, but no action has yet been taken.
“A general profile of the people included in the priority group indicates that they are mostly white, mostly young, mostly middle class, mostly healthy and those most likely to have benefit of the best health care and protective health equipment,” a Fall River resident wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Boston Herald last week. “Who are missing from the priority list are the poor, the elderly, sick people, people of color, those living in the most congested neighborhoods and those who depend upon public transportation. The latter groups make up those who are suffering the highest rates of infection and death from the virus.”
Grenno said another part of the problem is that the federal government had been sending the vaccines to the mass-vaccine sites, where official have not been seeing the numbers of people they want to see.