‘I want to see my family again’

Abington seniors line up for COVID-19 vaccine; town health officials want to go faster

Dick Merrill is looking forward to going out to eat again. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic washing over the world for the past year, many seniors like Merrill spent large portions of 2020 in their homes, forced to avoid hugging family members, attending gatherings at the senior center, or dining out.

“I feel like a prisoner in my own home,” Merrill said shortly after receiving a dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. “I figure [getting the vaccination] was the safest thing to do.” 

Abington’s first COVID-19 vaccine clinic for residents 75 and older was a hotter ticket than Sinatra at the Sands; all 150 slots for Wednesday’s event at the Senior Center were filled fast. More than 500 seniors are on a growing waiting list for future Abington clinics. 

While happy to finally be inoculating Abington residents from the virus that has claimed 14,652 Massachusetts residents, more than 447,000 Americans, and over 2 million lives worldwide, Abington health officials are disappointed they can’t move faster. Their frustration is directed at both the lack of supply available at the national and state levels, as well as an opaque state distribution plan that has provided little information about how doses are being distributed to a growing network of private and public organizations and businesses. 

Abington Health Agent Marty Golightly, who helped coordinate vaccination clinics while a health officer in the U.S. Navy, started preparing the town’s COVID-19 mass vaccination plan last spring while the virus’ first wave was raging. He said the town could currently vaccinate upwards of 1,000 people a day — if they had the doses. This week the town requested 3,600 doses but was allocated just 100. 

The state Department of Public Health has currently capped the number of doses a municipality can receive at 100 per week through February.

However, the distribution rules appear to be different for some private organizations. 

For example, Massachusetts has been allocated 21,600 doses to give to 18 CVS Pharmacy locations starting next week – or 1,200 per store.   

Skin Esteem, a med spa in Kingston, has also started offering vaccinations for seniors. They say they are receiving 300 doses weekly and anyone who currently qualifies to receive a vaccination under the state’s guidelines can sign up online

Matt Naylor, the facility’s CFO, said his wife, who founded the business and is a nurse practitioner, started the permitting process and invested in the needed infrastructure, such as a freezer to store doses, when the lack of designated vaccination sites in the region became clear. 

“It was next to impossible for people to find a place to get vaccinated, especially on the South Shore,” Naylor said.   

The clinics are overseen by staff and volunteers with the proper licensing and training. All four clinic dates so far are fully booked but Skin Esteem is building a waiting list when more doses come available.

“This is 100% pro bono,” he said. 

Golightly said he’s glad the state is building out its network of locations, or “decompressing” the system. And he encourages Abington’s seniors to search out multiple locations to get their shot. But he also admits being itchy to shed the systematic handcuffs limiting the pace the town can move. 

“I wish there was more of a focus on what we at the local level can provide,” he said. “It’s just a little frustrating for us to have a site that can do 1,000 shots to at least be in the same target number of any place.”

Abington isn’t alone in its frustration. 

Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan recently took to Facebook to voice his displeasure.

“Brockton’s emergency management team has planned for public vaccinations for some time,” he wrote. “We have sites and staff ready but we are not getting a high number doses.”

Abington News sent multiple inquiries to the state Department of Public Health asking for more information on its policy for determining how many doses businesses and organizations receive, but did not receive any reply.

State Sen. John Keenan, whose district includes Abington, said the vaccination rollout has been an “enormous undertaking” requiring coordination at the federal, state, and local levels.

“As we move forward, it is my hope that Massachusetts will receive an increased allotment from the federal government so we can vaccinate our community in a more effective and efficient manner,” he said.

Meanwhile, Abington continues to prepare for the day it can hit the gas pedal. 

Wednesday’s clinic at the Senior Center was a hive of activity. Volunteers met seniors at the door to see if they needed any assistance. Staffers inside the auditorium checked in those with appointments, another layer of staffers made sure seniors were feeling good and healthy. There were multiple vaccination stations set up near the stage staffed by nurses and Abington Fire paramedics. After they received their shot, seniors were directed into the center’s main activity space where they hung out for 20 minutes under the watchful eye of council on aging staff and paramedics to ensure they didn’t experience any adverse effects. None did.

Ann Reilly was among those eagerly getting their first shot today.

“I was ready to come down at 6 a.m.,” she said. “I love that it’s in Abington and I didn’t have to drive in to Fenway Park.”

Reilly, 80, said the need to protect her health made this past a challenge.

“If it wasn’t for pickleball, I would have been really upset,” she said, adding that she only played with the same cohort of friends. 

Council on Aging Director Suzanne Djusberg said seniors have had some questions, such as which shot it is, and when they’ll get their second shot, but haven’t voiced concerns or worries about the safety.  

“This will give them a sense of normalcy in their lives,” she said. “Death for most seniors is loneliness not COVID.”

Mary Graham, 78, is another looking to reconnect with loved ones now that she’s getting vaccinated.

“I want to see my family again,” she said.

[Disclosure: the author was a staffer for Sen. John Keenan from 2011-2012.]

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