Baker: Vaccine news points to possible “really big moment”

Hampden County

BOSTON (SHNS) – The designation of 11 regional vaccination collaboratives, plans to make 50,000 appointments available for booking Thursday, and a $4.7 million equity initiative are among the COVID-19 updates Gov. Charlie Baker announced a day before lawmakers plan to question him about the state’s immunization progress.

The new appointments — at the mass vaccination locations in Springfield, Danvers, Dartmouth and Natick and at Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium — will be added to the state’s vaccine-booking website, and Baker said he expects that site’s performance to be “significantly better” than last week, when it crashed amid a massive influx of traffic as roughly one million people were added to the vaccine eligibility pool.

In addition to “bolstered server capacity” to better handle the volume of appointment-seekers, Baker said the site will now also feature a new “digital waiting room” that will place some users in a queue to wait their turn in high-traffic periods.

“We do want to see funds for transportation to the mass vaccination sites especially for senior citizens implemented so I am going to be inquiring whether or not this is funding that can be utilized for that purpose,” said Jesse Lederman, Springfield City Councilor At-Large.

According to the state, the initiative will also include direct service support, community organizing, education, and outreach for the 20 communities.

“I think a lot of the work that’s been done over the past week has been designed specifically to make sure that the website can handle extraordinary volume over a very short period of time, which is basically what happened last week,” Baker said. “And we believe the waiting room in particular, which is a tool that a lot of people use when they don’t know exactly how much traffic they’re going to have, will be a very important part of making sure that people have access to and the ability to determine if they can make an appointment.”

Without a further increase in vaccine supply from the federal government, Baker said, it will probably take about a month for Massachusetts to move through the current eligibility groups and onto the next groups of people in the phased distribution plan.

“If we see an increase, obviously, in weekly first dose vaccines, that process might go a little quicker,” he said.

On his weekly call with governors Tuesday, White House COVID Coordinator Jeff Zients announced the fifth consecutive week of supply increases. States will now receive 14.5 million doses this week, a nearly 70 percent increase from 8.6 million doses per week when Biden took office, the White House said.

The governor said he was encouraged by news about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine candidate’s promise as well as claims by Moderna and Pfizer officials that they plan to substantially boost vaccine supplies.

“I hesitate to draw too many conclusions about it because, honestly, we’ve been disappointed before by some of the things people told us were going to happen and then what ultimately happened with respect to vaccine production and distribution, but on the same day to have Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine deemed safe and effective by the FDA and to have Moderna and Pfizer say they would double their vaccine production in March over the level of vaccine production they did in February is a really positive development in so many ways,” Baker said. “And I think for all of us who are continuing to struggle with some of the issues around the anxiety that’s created by lack of supply, this could be a really big moment if in fact what folks are saying actually plays out over the course of the next 30 to 45 days,” Baker said.

Baker spoke from the new mass vaccination site at the Natick Mall, located in a former Sears store.

According to Bill Haas, a senior vice president at LabCorp, the Natick site is currently delivering about 100 doses a day and has a goal of administering up to 5,000 per day in April.

Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, toured the Natick vaccine site on Wednesday, and said on Twitter that it is “a great site that puts to vital use a space that’s been dormant for some time” but “only works if you can get here” and for those who can secure an appointment.

“What about people who cannot drive? Will undocumented immigrants feel safe coming here given police presence? Who is doing child care?” Rausch wrote.

Another mass site, at the former Circuit City in Dartmouth, opened Wednesday, and CIC Health, which runs the Fenway and Gillette sites, announced it will scale up the vaccine operations at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, adding that spot to the state’s roster of large-scale locations.

CIC Health will begin managing the Reggie Lewis Center site with a soft launch on Thursday, and said it will reserve half of the time slots there for “priority booking of local residents by designated community partners.”

About two months into the state’s vaccination efforts against COVID-19 and with millions more residents to become eligible down the road, the mass sites are a key part of the infrastructure that’s been developed so far.

Pharmacies and community health centers are also delivering the shots and some hospitals, like those in the Mass General Brigham system, are planning to again offer vaccines to their own patients after what Baker described as a recent “pause” on the state’s distribution of first doses to hospitals.

“As we saw not much change with respect to supply, we told a number of the players in the provider world that there was going to be a pause on first doses,” he said. “We now know we’re going to get a little more than we got before, and I think as time goes by, if we get any kind of significant increase in doses from the feds, you’ll see providers do a lot more vaccinating.”

The 11 regional sites Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced Wednesday will become open to all eligible Massachusetts residents starting March 1, with the capacity to administer at least 750 shots each per day, depending on dose availability.

Those regional programs are: Barnstable County, Berkshire County Boards of Health Associations, Franklin County Regional Collaborative, Harrington Hospital with local boards of health, a collaboration between Heywood Hospital and local boards of health at the Polish American Citizens Club in Gardner, Lawrence General Hospital with local boards of health, a Marshfield-Plymouth drive-through site at the Marshfield Fairgrounds, a Northampton and Amherst collaboration, a Randolph location with Avon and Holbrook, a site in Rutland, and a Worcester location with Worcester State University, Commonwealth Medicine and St. Vincent Hospital.

Baker said there are other regional collaboratives in development.

The Baker administration also announced $4.7 million in funding for a vaccine equity initiative announced last week, focused on 20 communities that have been hard-hit by the pandemic.

The state plans to work with Archipelago Strategies Group and Health Care for All to coordinate with local leaders, community groups and faith organizations to reach out to communities of color, homebound seniors, disabled people and other populations. Baker’s office said the efforts “will be coordinated with targeted opportunities for increased vaccine access through existing and new locations, including pop up sites and mobile clinics.”

The governor is scheduled to testify at 11 a.m. Thursday before the Legislature’s new Joint Committee on Covid-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management. Testimony at the virtual hearing will be by invitation only.

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