First Responder Vaccine Clinics Provide Glimpse Of Mass. Plan To Vaccinate Larger Public

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A first responder from Needham Fire Department receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Rosemary Recreational Center in Needham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A first responder from Needham Fire Department receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Rosemary Recreational Center in Needham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Massachusetts offers a first glimpse of community-wide coronavirus vaccination Monday as clinics for first responders open in schools, churches, parking garages, recreation centers and the Topsfield fairgrounds. The Moderna vaccine will also be available to many police officers, firefighters and EMTs inside their stations, local health departments or at nearby hospitals.

“We want to make it as easy as possible and as accessible as possible,” said Sigalle Reiss, president of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association. “We know the more accessible and easier it is, the more likely people will do it, and we want to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

The percentage of first responders signing up to get the vaccine ranges across the state but is expected to grow as police officers and firefighters watch co-workers get vaccinated.

In Needham, Fire Chief Dennis Condon expects about 90% of his staff will sign up. Condon says his main concern is that the vaccines aren’t getting out fast enough.

“I wish the process moved quicker,” Condon said minutes after receiving his first dose. “The sooner we get this out, the better it will be for everybody.”

Needham expects to vaccinate 210 first responders from the town as well as from Dover and Medfield this week. Kathleen Brown, a Medical Reserve Corps volunteer, was at the front desk today, congratulated everyone who walked in.

“We should have a marching band outside or a socially distanced and masked chorus singing for them,” Brown said, “it’s pretty exciting.”

Needham has turned a parks and recreation hall into a vaccination clinic. Though it usually holds 100 people, organizers are limiting capacity for the clinic to about 20. Finding enough well-ventilated space for physically distanced, large-scale clinics will be one of the biggest challenges for cities and towns as the vaccination campaign expands.

The local high school is often the biggest building in a town, and usually has one of the largest parking lots. But if school’s in session, that won’t work.

“We’re trying to figure out the best way to do it and not disrupt other critical town operations like daily learning,” said Needham Health and Human Services director Tim McDonald.

Needham will likely shift to the town’s Senior Center as more residents become eligible for the vaccines. It has a large parking lot for cars and chairs. Vaccine recipients must be monitored for 15 minutes in case they have an adverse reaction. It’s a 30-minute wait for anyone with a history of allergic reactions. As the weather warms, McDonald says Needham can vaccinate more people if they can wait — at a safe distance from each other — outdoors.

These vaccination clinics are run by local health departments and school nurses, with assistance from several hundred Medical Reserve Corps volunteers. Paramedics and EMTs will vaccinate colleagues under an emergency order approved during the pandemic. The order also included medical and nursing students for a massive vaccination effort.

One clinic with a lot of outdoor space opened today at the Topsfield Fairgrounds, where firefighters from Topsfield, Boxford, Hamilton, Wenham and Middleton will be able to get vaccinated.

“The fairgrounds is centralized, very well-known, and it has the space, ” said Topsfield health director Wendy Hansbury. “That as well as its familiarity makes it a lot easier for people to travel here.”

The state says it’s looking into other big, mostly outdoor venues such as Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium and the Big E fairgrounds.

A small group of towns including Somerset, Fitchburg, Barnstable and Newton are opening or considering drive-through vaccination sites. Newton won’t open a drive-through option for vaccine recipients right away.

“You have to be sure they are well before they drive off, it is New England in the winter,” said Linda Walsh, deputy commissioner of Health and Human Services in Newton.

There’s another reason cities and towns are looking for larger, centralized sites. The minimum vaccine shipment holds 200 vials, each containing 10 doses, and once delivered, the guidance says vials must be protected from “drops, shocks and vibrations.”

McDonald says the upshot: “treat it like a Fabergé egg.”

Needham and other municipalities are scheduling in 10-person increments. Once punctured, all 10 doses in a vial must be used within six hours.

“We will not waste anything, absolutely not,” said McDonald. “And this is slightly glib, [but if there are leftovers] we will go up to Sudbury Farms and find someone who looks like they're 75 and we will stick it in their arm.”

Needham police officer Matthew Doukas was early for his appointment today. Doukas says he’s excited to get his first dose. He’s lost family members to COVID-19.

“So that adds to my excitement for being able to protect not only myself but other people as well,” he said.

Needham and other municipalities are full speed ahead now. They expect to assist with group homes starting next week and continue vaccinations into the later spring when the state says vaccinations will be available for all of us.

This week, in addition to police officers and firefighters, the state will provide vaccinations for campus police, 911 dispatchers and medical helicopter  operators, a total of roughly 45,000 residents. First responders are the third group to begin receiving shots, after health care workers and the staff and residents of long-term care facilities.

Needham Fire Chief Dennis Condon receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Rosemary Recreational Center in Needham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Needham Fire Chief Dennis Condon receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Rosemary Recreational Center in Needham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This article was originally published on January 11, 2021.

This segment aired on January 11, 2021.


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



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