WHITMAN — A state policy change due to take effect March 1 would eliminate delivery of new vaccination doses for local fire departments and boards of health. It is meeting with near-universal criticism amid local officials and public safety personnel.
“It is highly premature to cut off the line of local vaccine doses, especially at this critical time,” said Whitman Fire Chief Timothy Grenno on Thursday, Feb. 18. “It cuts off a literal lifeline for many residents.”
Cutting off the supplies to the local clinics — operating for several weeks — showed a “gross lack of forethought” and is a waste of municipal time, energy and resources, he argued.
As state legislators, educators and representatives of more than a dozen Plymouth and Norfolk county police and fire departments and health boards looked on, Grenno sounded the alarm over the state’s mass vaccination program at the expense of local clinics. Holding a press conference at the Whitman Knights of Columbus on Bedford Street, officials expressed concern that the vulnerable elderly are especially being left behind.
“Since the Cold War, municipalities have been asked to plan and prepare for emergency situations,” said Grenno, who also serves as Whitman’s Emergency Management Agency director. “As a result, local leaders are uniquely qualified and trained to handle a situation such as the distribution of vaccines.”
State Sen. Mike Brady, D-Brockton, attending along with state Rep. Alyson Sullivan, R-Abington, and state Rep. Kathleen LaNatra, D-Plymouth, said he planned to meet with state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders’ office later in the day to readdress the change.
He said regional legislators sent a letter to the Baker Administration expressing disagreement with the vaccination policy change because local communities have the personnel to handle the situation.
“Our chiefs today aren’t saying that the mass vaccine sites aren’t working, they’re saying that they need it here, locally,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the Baker administration counted on local health officials from the beginning of the pandemic and is now shutting them out.
LaNatra added that Kingston and Plymouth have been in talks with Mass DPH for a long time with “no straight answers” to set up a regional vaccination site at the Kingston Collection.
“We need to put this back local,” she said. “Our chiefs, our boards of health, know their community. They know who is housebound.”
LaNatra, whose first-responder husband has been able to receive his second dose of vaccine, but not all have been able to do so.
“It’s a big lack of supply and every other week they’re changing their mind,” Brady said of state officials.
“We’re not against the mass sites, we’re not against the pharmacies that are having these [clinics] as well,” Abingon Fire Chief John Nutall said. “There’s definitely a need for that, however, they cannot cover all of our residents.”
He said the state cited a question of equity as a major factor in officials’ reason for the policy change, but noted a supply had been approved for a private health spa located in an exclusive country club.
“We’re not allowed to question why these decisions are made,” Nutall said. “It is time to question what is going on, so that we can get the vaccines to our residents that we know best.”
Grenno said there is no doubt that there is a need for regional vaccination efforts, especially in larger areas or areas more adversely impacted by COVID-19, but said they must work in connection with locally led health boards and first responders. It is especially crucial during Phase 2 of the distribution, when seniors ages 75 and older are inoculated.
Whitman has more than 950 residents over age 75, and Grenno’s department offered to help transport them to a mass vaccination site with all proper precautions.
“We’ll register you, we’ll hold your hand, we’ll walk you in, we’ll get you vaccinated and we’ll bring you home,” he said the department told them.
Less than 25 of them accepted that invitation because of fear or mobility problems, he said.
Four Whitman clinics had been scheduled, which would have vaccinated more than 500 of them. The clinics have all been cancelled because the state is denying the vaccine.
“These individuals are the ones who should be asked to drive the least distance and be given the greatest access to quick and efficient vaccination sites,” Grenno said. “They’re our neighbors helping each other … local clinics for the oldest and sickest population, offer a familiar, a comfortable and convenient location when people need it the most.”
Mass sites are difficult for some to get to, involve long lines and staffed by unfamiliar people, while at local clinics they would be greeted by local fire personnel and health agents and involve shorter lines.
Whitman-Hanson Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said vaccinations for teachers and students are also a concern, especially since teachers would run the risk of missing a school day to travel to a mass vaccination site.
“It was surprising to me that our schools aren’t being used as mass vaccination sites,” Szymaniak said. “Our school nurses are available and ready to work with our local health agents and fire chiefs to provide vaccines not only to our 65-and over populations, but sequentially, our teachers.”
He noted teachers have been moved down the priority list for vaccines.
He argued the change reflects either a significant policy change by the state or a major vaccine supply shortage coming to the state from the federal level.
“Either way, it is an issue that should be discussed and addressed,” he said.
Grenno also expressed concern about the status of the state’s online vaccination registration at VaxFinder, which crashed due to heavy demand at about 8:30 a.m. Feb. 18. The state’s 211 information line also went down that morning.
He said Whitman registers its elder residents, noting a lot of senior residents don’t even own a computer.
“We are prepared to provide local vaccine clinics,” said Medway Fire Chief Jeff Lynch, who is president of the Norfolk County Fire Chiefs Association. “We’ve done extensive planning, we’ve done significant investment in equipment and training for our firefighters.”
Lynch said fire personnel stand ready to bring the vaccine to homebound elders, but as of now, he is not aware of the plan to serve them.
Hanover Town Manager Joe Colangelo said his town has already invested $500 in federal CARES Act funds to build up a program to test residents and merge to vaccinations. Hanover Fire Chief Jeff Blanchard added that town’s frustration is palpable.
“We are prepared to do vaccinations, but we have no vaccine,” Blanchard said.
Abington Board of Health member Marty Golightly has vaccinated more than 200 75+ residents and has a plan in place to vaccinate shut-ins, asking only for the supplies to take care of his town’s own people.
Communities represented: Whitman fire and police departments, schools and town administrator, Hanson Fire Department and Board of Health, Abington Fire Department and Board of Health, Hanover Fire Department and Town Manager, Cohasset Fire Department, Duxbury Fire Department, East Bridgewater Fire Department, Halifax Fire Department, West Bridgewater Fire Department, Medway Fire Department and Board of Health, Plympton Fire Department State Representative, Canton, Stoughton Board of Health, Brookline Fire Department and Middleboro Fire Department.