Facing criticism for the state's vaccine rollout, Gov. Charlie Baker detailed plans Monday to move residents 65 or older higher up the priority ladder and substantially bolster the state's distribution infrastructure in the coming weeks.
Baker announced plans to add dozens of new vaccine sites by Feb. 15, including three new mass vaccination sites, and directed people to the state's website where people can locate pharmacies and clinics closest to them on a map, check their eligibility and schedule an appointment.
The success of the plan, however, will depend on the availability of vaccine from the federal government, according to the governor, who said supply continues to be one of the most constraining factors in the state's ability to vaccinate more people.
Baker said that by the end of the week there would be 103 public vaccination sites open at pharmacies, retail chains and other providers, including a new mass vaccination site at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield opening on Friday. That infrastructure is capable of administering up to 242,000 doses per week.
The number of vaccine clinics is expected to grow to 165 by mid-February, with the capacity to administer up to 305,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine per week. That would include five of seven planned mass vaccination sites across the state, with the Double Tree Hilton Hotel in Danvers coming online Feb. 3 and the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury opening for vaccinations the first week of February.
The governor also said that beginning Feb. 1, residents 75 and older will become eligible to be vaccinated for COVID-19 as the state opens the second phase of its vaccine distribution plan. Residents 65 and older have been bumped up in priority in Phase 2, and will join people with two or more high-risk conditions in the second group to become eligible in the next phase some time in February.
People 65 and older have been pushed ahead of teachers, transit and utility workers and people with just one comorbidity.
"We're setting up the capacity to administer far more doses than we are currently receiving or are projecting to receive from the feds. What this means is if we continue to get the same number of doses that we're getting now, we may end up with some empty seats and empty appointments at some of our sites," Baker said.
President Joe Biden has set a goal of administering 100 million doses of vaccine nationwide in his first 100 days, but Baker said the state so far has not been told yet to expect to receive more than its typical allotment of 80,000 doses per week. The 100 million doses would represent a substantial boost in distribution across the country, with 41 million doses distributed and nearly 22 million doses administered so far.
Baker held a press conference at the State House to update the state's vaccination plan after a weekend in which his administration faced criticism from public health and political leaders worried that the state's vaccine program was lacking.
Senate President Karen Spilka, in an interview that aired on WCVB on Sunday, said the state's phased approach was confusing to some people, and called on the administration to share more information about when and where people can expect to be vaccinated.
According to the governor and lieutenant governor, as of this weekend 876,125 doses had been shipped to pharmacies and other providers in Massachusetts, and 448,982 first and second doses of vaccine had been administered. Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control put Massachusetts 28th in the country for doses administered per capita, behind New York and all five other New England states.
Baker, however, defended his health team's approach to vaccination, suggesting that decisions made early on to prioritize certain high-risk, hard-to-reach populations like those living in congregate care settings led to a slower rollout than other states that didn't prioritize the way Massachusetts did.
"I get the fact that by choosing a number of very targeted communities and populations that we thought we should start with that would create a slower rollout and a slower ramp-up than you would see where you just took big groups by age and said go. But I do believe at the end of the day we made the right decision out of the gate," Baker said.
State officials have also encountered some resistance in long-term care settings, where 84% of residents but only 52% of staff have chosen to get the vaccine. The long-term care population, including workers, totals about 80,000 people.
The state, however, is making some adjustments to its vaccine distribution to speed up the rate of administration, including halting deliveries of new vaccine this week to hospitals in order to force them to use the supply they currently have.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said all providers have been notified that they have 10 days to administer vaccine once it's been delivered, or the state will redistribute the doses.
Sudders said the state "pulled back" 20,000 doses and will redirect 17,500 doses a week for the next several weeks from the federal pharmacy program targeting nursing homes and congregate care facilities to CVS and Walgreens retail locations.
As of Jan. 19, 300,000 doses had been allocated to the federal pharmacy program, but only 80,000 doses had been administered. The federal program and its rules for distribution has contributed to the state's overall lag in vaccine administration, officials said.
The expansion of vaccine sites and redeployment of vaccine supply will not change the state's commitment to reserving 20% of its vaccine allotment for communities of color and cities and neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, officials said.
Sudders said retail pharmacies that will be among the public vaccination sites will also be told to prioritize sites in communities of color like Chelsea, Revere, Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury and hard-hit communities outside of Boston.
Michael Curry, the president and CEO of the League of Community Health Centers, joined Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Sudders at the State House Monday, talking about the need to address fears in some communities of color of the vaccine.
Curry served on Baker's COVID-19 vaccine advisory group.
"I want to urge people to trust the science, to trust the facts and to not trust the misinformation that they get on social media and that they hear from, in many cases, their home countries, their home communities and to know the facts about this vaccine," Curry said.
This article was originally published on January 25, 2021.
This segment aired on January 25, 2021. The audio for this segment is not available.