Some Community Health Centers, Key Partners In Vaccine Rollout, Don’t Have Any

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The Lynn Community Health Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Lynn Community Health Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Lynn is a coronavirus hot spot. Roughly one in six residents has tested positive. So Dr. Elizabeth Quinn was fuming this week as she told frail patients, 75 years and older, that they might have to wait for shots even though hospitals nearby were vaccinating young, back office employees.

"Knowing that there is vaccine in our community that could be helping to protect these extremely vulnerable patients but is being used not in that most strategic way is infuriating," says Quinn, who practices family medicine at the Lynn Community Health Center. "And it's demoralizing."

Demoralizing because Quinn and other clinicians have worked hard to help their sickest patients get to this moment and persuade them to be vaccinated. On Friday night, Lynn and some community health centers heard they’ll get an order of Moderna vaccines next week.

That’s welcome news for community health centers that expected to be key partners in the state’s effort to vaccinate residents of cities and towns with the highest coronavirus infection rates. But as phase two begins, some community health centers aren't sure they can be players. They have little, if any, vaccine.

Elizabeth Hale, chief of clinical services at Lowell Community Health Center, has been working flat out to train staff, set up vaccination sites then identify and reach out to patients.

"All of that is ready to go," says Hale, "once we have vaccine."

But Hale says her facility doesn’t have any. Lowell Hospital will offer vaccines to some of the health center's patients, says Hale. But the health center is a unique, trusted provider for many hard to reach, chronically ill patients. Hale says it's not clear when the center can become a vaccine pipeline for many of Lowell’s most at risk residents.

"It’s not happening right now," says Hale.

This is just the latest setback in the state’s bumpy vaccine roll-out. Dr. Paul Biddinger, the director for emergency preparedness at Mass General Brigham, says he understands the frustrations that health center clinicians are feeling.

Biddinger says his hospital network sent more than 3,000 doses of Moderna back to the state over the past week.

"I think we’re all a little bit hamstrung by the lack of vaccine and the lack of predictability."

Sue Joss, CEO at the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center

"I don’t know where it is right now, but we’ve been working with the state’s vaccination program so that they were able to have more access to Moderna for others," he says.

Governor Baker’s office has not responded to questions about whether the state is redistributing Moderna doses from other hospitals — and to whom. But decisions about where to send limited vaccine doses may get even more heated as more people become eligible.

Biddinger, who chairs the state’s vaccine advisory group, says there’s an agreement in the works where hospitals with the deep freezers needed for Pfizer’s vaccine could loan space to community health centers, allowing them to inject the Pfizer vaccine as well.

"A big piece of this problem is that health centers, we weren’t really set up for Pfizer," says Sue Joss, the CEO at the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center.

But if it becomes available, Joss says she’s found a way to store it. Joss has a side agreement with Brewster Ambulance for space in its ultra cold freezer. She discusses problems and work-arounds a couple of times a week with the city and Brockton hospitals.

"We’re working as best we can on a coordinated plan and coordinated management of this." Joss says. "I think we’re all a little bit hamstrung by the lack of vaccine and the lack of predictability."

But Joss has no lack of commitment to getting patients vaccinated. About 20% of Brockton residents are health center patients. Joss says Brockton has just finished renovations on a local venue, the Shaw's Center, with lots of space for vaccinating patients when the supply comes in.

This article was originally published on January 29, 2021.

This segment aired on January 30, 2021.


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



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