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Gillette Stadium Is Usually Busy In January. This Year, It's Because Of Vaccines

Buttons and wrist bands were handed out to vaccine recipients at the Gillette Stadium COVID-19 Vaccination Site. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Buttons and wrist bands were handed out to vaccine recipients at the Gillette Stadium COVID-19 Vaccination Site. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, is the latest U.S. sports venue to become a mass vaccination site during the coronavirus pandemic. On Friday, about 100 police officers, firefighters and EMTs received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine in a clubhouse overlooking the nearly 66,000 seat stadium.

“It's surreal,” said Foxborough police officer Brendan Fayles, “but we got to do it, there’s no choice in the matter.”

Organizers plan to vaccinate 5,000 people a day as priority groups expand, and will eventually offer injections around the clock.

“It’s what is going to get us out of this,” said Vinay Gidwaney, who oversees technology at Gillette for CIC Health, a Cambridge-based firm hired to run this site. "The light at the end of the tunnel."

Gillette, like many large sports and entertainment venues, is nearly an ideal site for a vaccination clinic. Sports stadiums are generally easy to reach by car, have plenty of parking and lots of indoor and outdoor space for the physical distancing needed to avoid spread of the coronavirus. But there are some drawbacks.

“They may not be accessible for portions of the population,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor of health policy at the CUNY School of Public Health who has studied vaccine supply chains in the U.S. and around the world. “Low income areas may not be able to reach the stadiums that readily.”

There’s currently no public transportation to Gillette.

Registered nurse Samantha Schuko prepares to vaccinate Foxborough Police officer Brendan Fayles with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Registered nurse Samantha Schuko prepares to vaccinate Foxborough Police officer Brendan Fayles with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The state and city of Boston are in talks to use Fenway Park and possibly the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury as mass vaccination sites. Owners of the Topsfield Fairgrounds opened their facility for first responder vaccinations this week. The Baker administration said it expects to have at least five such sites soon.

Moving to mass vaccination can’t happen fast enough, according to Dr. Barry Bloom, who serves on the state’s vaccine advisory group. He cited the daily rise in cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the country.

“And the more cases, the more viruses, and the more viruses, the more variants” said Bloom, a professor of immunology at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. “So there’s an urgent need, not only to control the disease in people but to reduce the number of viruses.”

Bloom said the U.S. has seen mixed results with previous mass vaccination campaigns. The classic example of success unfolded over four weeks in 1947, when New York vaccinated more than six million people against smallpox and stopped transmission. But a widespread vaccination effort against the H1N1, or swine flu, in 1976 turned chaotic and undermined confidence in government-run vaccination efforts.

Early challenges with coronavirus vaccination roll-out got more complicated today as some governors said that they aren’t receiving the supply of vaccine they requested for required second doses.

Gov. Charlie Baker says so far, Massachusetts isn’t getting less than expected but he had hoped for more. Baker has repeatedly expressed frustration that the state has less than a week’s notice about how many doses are coming, which makes it difficult to plan ahead.

“One of the things I’ve expressed to the incoming administration is they really need to find a way to create more clarity and visibility about what exactly is coming in the pipeline going forward,” Baker said.

If the supply increases, some public health leaders say the state should prioritize churches and school as well as major sports arenas.

“This is a time where we need as many non-traditional sites as possible,” said Dr. Howard Koh, the former assistant U.S. Secretary for Health under President Obama. “The key themes here are accessibility and convenience and respect for the people who come so that their time is well used.”

There are some churches and schools among the more than 100 vaccination clinics the state has opened for first responders.

With Gillette, organizers hope to benefit from the Patriot’s loyal following and well-known brand.

“The idea here is that we’re taking the lead from a great organization,” said Dr. Eric Goralnick, the medical director at Gillette on behalf of Mass General Brigham. “The Krafts and Gillette have shown us the way on how a team can come together to help a community and that’s what we’re doing.”

A spokesman for the Patriots said the Krafts are donating use of Gillette for the vaccination site for as long as it's needed. If the stadium is needed for New England Revolution soccer matches this spring, vaccinations might be scheduled around games, he said.

First responders sit in the waiting area for 15 minutes before leaving to ensure they do not have any adverse reactions to the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
First responders sit in the waiting area for 15 minutes before leaving to ensure they do not have any adverse reactions to the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This segment aired on January 15, 2021. The audio for this segment is not available.

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Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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