Massachusetts local health boards frustrated with state over vaccine rollout

Doug Kress sees a lot of stars on the state’s map of COVID-19 vaccination centers — but none of them are in his city.

With a limited supply of shots — because the state’s own federally restricted supply has to be divvied up between pharmacies, local boards of health and mass vaccination sites — there’s not much the Somerville health and human services director can do to set up his own clinics when residents ages 75 and older become eligible on Monday.

“The state’s rollout has not put people first,” Kress said, adding, “We realize the shortage is not the state’s fault. … But they need to include and involve local boards of health, local communities, because we know our communities best and that’s really what’s missing.”

Local health officials who jumped at the chance to partner with the state during Phase 1 vaccinations of first responders and health care workers are now frustrated by what they say is insufficient communication in the run-up to the Phase 2 rollout on Monday. Several voiced concerns about finding out changes in the state’s distribution plan mere “minutes” before Baker administration officials make them public, or hearing about them through other channels.

And they worry the administration is overlooking the usefulness of local boards of health that are both adept at vaccination clinics and that have spent years fostering connections with their communities’ most vulnerable residents.

“Where is public health? Where are our most vulnerable community members?” Kress said. “We’re hoping the state will think about their allocations and be able to either redistribute those or give us a little bit more of an understanding of when a bit more of the vaccine will come.”

Simmering frustrations boiled over when the state told municipalities last Sunday night that local boards of health would be given as few as 100 doses per week for the next few weeks until larger shipments start arriving from the feds — despite the fact many communities can administer far more. Harder-hit communities will receive several hundred more doses, and regional health districts will receive 975 a week — the number of doses in one box of the Pfizer vaccines.

“It was devastating,” Northampton Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary said. “It’s dysfunction, it’s confusion. I wish there was a uniform message coming down.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said “communication is never going to be perfect” — particularly in a pandemic — but she acknowledged “we can always do better.”

Still, with Massachusetts due to receive 101,000 doses a week — up from the 86,000 a week it had been receiving — she said the state remains “constrained.”

“Requests are almost four times what we can distribute,” Sudders said in an interview with the Herald. “If a municipality asks for 400 doses and you can only give 100, that is frustrating, and we acknowledge the tight constraint. That’s just the reality we’re dealing with.”

Local boards of health received 18,700 doses this week, while three mass vaccination sites — Gillette Stadium, Fenway Park and Springfield’s Eastfield Mall — received a combined 45,000.

“The allocations are trying to be as fair and equitable as possible,” Sudders said, outlining considerations including health equity and proximity to existing vaccination sites.

Yet in Brockton, a city of roughly 100,000 that’s long borne the brunt of the pandemic, Mayor Robert Sullivan worries some seniors and lower-income residents face language barriers to registration and don’t have either the technology or transportation to access the closest mass vaccination site at Gillette.

Brockton’s board of health is opening a vaccine clinic soon, according to the state. But Sullivan said, “We need more vaccines. And I’m asking for a state-designated vaccine site.”

The state plans to set up seven mass vaccination sites in total. Locations for some are still being determined. While local boards of health are scarce on the current map, Sudders said she expects more clinics to pop up over time as supply improves.

In Revere, which is now launching outreach to seniors in preparation for eventually getting more vaccines, that means a lot of hurry up and wait.

“I can’t control the fact that we only get 400 doses a week,” Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo said. “What we can control is our communication and the support we can provide to residents.”

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