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COVID-19 Vaccinations Begin In Mass. Addiction Treatment Programs

People receiving treatment for addiction listen to a counselor at a substance abuse treatment center run by Spectrum Health in Westborough on March 22, 2016. (John Moore/Getty Images)
People receiving treatment for addiction listen to a counselor at a substance abuse treatment center run by Spectrum Health in Westborough on March 22, 2016. (John Moore/Getty Images)

After 10 months of contending with the coronavirus pandemic, the largest addiction treatment provider in Massachusetts expressed relief as it began vaccinating workers and long-term patients against the virus.

Spectrum Health Systems received 700 doses of the Moderna vaccine last week, and as of Tuesday, the company had administered about half of the first doses to staff and 20 people in residential addiction treatment.

Kristen Nolan, vice president of behavioral health for Spectrum Health Systems, said the vaccines were administered at a clinic set up on Spectrum's Westborough campus, and Spectrum expected to vaccinate most of its more than 500 employees. About 120 patients in long-term treatment in Westborough and at the company's program in Weymouth were eligible for vaccination. Spectrum medical staff will be issuing the inoculations.

"We feel very fortunate to be one of the first providers in the state to have been able to to receive this vaccine," Nolan said. "It's been a long 10 months — for everybody — and addiction is an isolating disease, so folks in recovery are particularly at risk."

Addiction treatment programs were labeled congregate care settings in the state's broader vaccination plans, meaning they are among those able to receive vaccines in the state's first phase of its rollout. That phase also included homeless shelters, group homes and correctional facilities.

Some jails recently began giving the vaccine to medical staff and correction officers. Prisoners are eligible to receive the vaccine, but it's not clear when that might happen.

During the pandemic, Spectrum established a separate COVID-19 unit to care for those receiving addiction treatment who tested positive for the virus. It also started routinely testing patients and staff. Nolan said that in the early months of pandemic Spectrum reduced capacity in some of its programs, and that enrollment in those programs has been largely full since the spring. One of the biggest challenges, she explained, was having enough staff to be flexible to work in different treatment areas in case a worker became ill or exposed to COVID.

"To now be able to provide this vaccination is certainly something that we're really excited about," said Nolan. "It's important to provide this to the staff who have stuck with us through this pandemic and really have been the reason that we've been able to continue to offer this important treatment."

Nolan said once the 700 doses are distributed, she expects another shipment of vaccines from the state. In Massachusetts, Spectrum serves about 6,000 people a day in more than 20 treatment facilities and provides programming to those inside state correctional facilities.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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