'It Feels Like A Gut Punch': Some Mass. Residents Are Left Hunting For Second COVID Vaccine Doses

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COVID-19 vaccine vials. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
COVID-19 vaccine vials. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Traducido en español por El Planeta Media.

Stephanie McPherson can’t find coronavirus vaccine appointments for some of her staff members who need them anywhere. She’s the administrator at the Alliance Health at Rosewood nursing home in Peabody, where most employees were able to get fully vaccinated thanks to CVS and the state Department of Public Health, which set up vaccine clinics at the home on three separate occasions.

But, she says, some of her employees only made it to the third and final clinic.

“We had a few who decided at the very end that 'yes, I definitely want this vaccine.' Two were actually sick with COVID during the first two clinics, so they had to wait until the third,” McPherson says.

She promised that she’d be able to get them second doses, even though no more clinics were coming to the nursing home. The staff at DPH told her that anyone who got their first dose should be able to find a second appointment at a mass vaccination site, community clinic or pharmacy.

“You should be able to get an appointment, super easy. I’ll help you with it,” she relayed to her staff.

But the process has been anything but easy. In the weeks since those final employees were vaccinated, McPherson’s been scouring the web to find her staff second doses. Every time she looks, the appointments are all taken. That makes her feel like the state's vaccine rollout left them behind, and now there are too many eligible people and too few vaccines.

Registered Nurse Delia Murphy dispenses a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at the Gillette Stadium COVID-19 Vaccination Site. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Registered Nurse Delia Murphy dispenses a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at the Gillette Stadium COVID-19 Vaccination Site. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“I can’t find them an appointment, and they can’t find an appointment. It feels like a gut punch to me that I can’t deliver for my staff,” McPherson says. “It just didn’t feel like we were done with health care [workers] yet, and all of a sudden it moved to other groups. Which was wonderful but, at the same time, there’s not enough allocated doses for all those people. It’s incredibly frustrating.”

That problem might get worse in the coming weeks. The state announced Wednesday that vaccine eligibility will open for more people, starting with residents age 60 and older, and some types of workers, on March 22.

It's unclear exactly how many Massachusetts residents are currently hunting for second doses, but McPherson’s staff aren’t the only ones stuck in this vaccine limbo. The customer help line at CIC Health has received dozens of calls from people who didn’t schedule a second appointment right after they got their first shot at a CIC Health-run mass vaccination center, a company spokesperson told WBUR.

Guests who are vaccinated at CIC Health-run sites are supposed to receive a QR code, a type of bar code readable by a smartphone or computer, that allows them to book their second shot. But in some cases, people didn’t receive that QR code, or they simply forgot to book an appointment using the code, which expires after a couple of days.

At that point, the patients face a dilemma. The state's vaccine web portal doesn't allow them to sign up for just a second dose. All they can do is call the state’s 2-1-1 line or CIC Health, but often there are simply no appointments available.

A group of people stand in line inside the Reggie Lewis Center to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A group of people stand in line inside the Reggie Lewis Center to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

CIC Health says the state has added a new system at mass vaccination centers that will send a special link via text or email after people receive their first dose. That link can be used to sign up for a second appointment.

At CIC Health's sites, staff members also check in with guests before they leave to make sure they get a second appointment and help them through the sign up process if they need it. Most people don’t leave without getting that second spot. But for those who do find themselves hunting for a second appointment, frustration abounds.

Part of the problem is that members of high priority groups like health care workers and people 75 and older now have to compete with a growing list of people, including educators, those with two or more health conditions that put them at a higher risk from COVID, and others, all for the same limited number of doses. At the moment, there just aren’t enough for everyone who is eligible and wants to be vaccinated, says Dr. Paul Biddinger, chief of emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“It’s a challenge we have to address and one that will be made easier to deal with when we have more supply,” Biddinger says. “Hospitals, clinics and other vaccinators are being asked to basically use 100% of supply within 10 days, so you don’t have extra on shelves. It makes it extra hard to give an additional second dose when it’s not anticipated.”

A Department of Public Health spokesperson said the state will ensure that everyone who received a first dose will also get a second dose, although the DPH doesn't have information on how many people are in-between shots. The state also provides some guidance on its website for people seeking second dose appointments.

The schedule for receiving a second dose does have some wiggle room, Biddinger adds. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no harm in getting it a couple of weeks late.

“We reassure people that the CDC has said very clearly you have up to six weeks [to get the next shot] without any concern,” he says.

The CDC guidance also says it’s better to delay a second dose up to 6 weeks from the first injection than to mix shots of the Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. However, in cases where someone cannot receive the same vaccine they did for the first shot, federal guidance says one of the other coronavirus vaccines can be used to complete the vaccination process.

That’s not particularly reassuring to McPherson, though. State guidance says you must get the same type of vaccine for both doses. And she says she might feel nervous mixing and matching vaccines, and she doesn’t want that for her co-workers either.

“Then they’d have to be the ones who are going to have to feel like the guinea pigs when they mix doses from two different vaccines,” she says.

McPherson says her employees — and health care workers on the front lines in general — should get the best protection that science and society have to offer. After all, she says, every day they've gone to work in the last year, they've taken risks.

“They showed up to work every day in the height of the pandemic. Not only showing up, but basically not leaving because they knew we needed help,” she says. “They deserve to be able to have that sense of security at work.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a new system put in place to help people sign up for second doses.

This article was originally published on March 18, 2021.

This segment aired on March 18, 2021.


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Angus Chen Reporter, CommonHealth
Angus Chen was a reporter for WBUR's CommonHealth.



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