‘A waste of time, energy, and resources’

State ends town vaccine shipments; local leaders say decision endangers seniors

Local leaders from across the region launched a broadside against the Baker Administration Thursday saying the state’s decision to eliminate town-organized vaccination clinics threatens the safety of vulnerable populations.   

“It’s time to question what is going on so that we can get vaccines to our residents,” Abington Fire Chief John Nuttall said, adding that local officials like himself have not even been allowed to ask why these decisions are being made. 

Abington Director of Public Health Marty Golightly said the state’s push toward mass vaccination sites, such as Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park, effectively excludes a significant number of seniors who can’t drive to a location 45 minutes away, or navigate the online scheduling process.

“There’s a lot of people who can’t make it there,” he said. 

Rep. Alyson Sullivan (R-Abington) said the Baker Administration had several months to prepare, finalize, and communicate an effective vaccine rollout plan.

“Now we’re going in to March, and there’s still not a plan in place,” she said. 

Health & Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders notified cities and towns Wednesday that they would not play any upcoming role in helping distribute the COVID-19 vaccines, overturning years of public health and civil emergency planning. Many hospitals, including South Shore Hospital, are also no longer receiving doses. Vaccination efforts will instead be near fully privatized between mass vaccination sites, pharmacies, grocery stores, and other businesses.   

About 20 cities and towns that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, such as Brockton and Randolph, will continue to receive a limited number of doses for municipal-run clinics.   

More than three dozen fire chiefs, health agents, selectmen, town administrators, and nurses from towns across the region attended Thursday’s press conference at the Whitman Knights of Columbus, which had been designated as that town’s primary vaccination site.

Whitman Fire Chief Timothy Grenno said plans to quickly vaccinate residents have been part of mandated civil emergency preparedness efforts since the Cold War.

“Local leaders are trained and qualified to handle emergency situations like vaccinations,” he said, saying the decision to cut out cities and towns demonstrated a “gross lack of forethought” by the Baker Administration and amounted to a “waste of time, money and resources.”

Those who spoke said they didn’t oppose the use of mass vaccination sites as part of a comprehensive distribution plan. However, they argued completely cutting off cities and towns leaves them unable to inoculate homebound seniors, seniors without reliable transportation, or those simply anxious about navigating a mass vaccination site like Gillette Stadium. Many seniors would prefer to be vaccinated by the fire officials and town nurses that they personally know, they said. 

“I”m not dismissing the need for mass vaccination sites,” Golightly said, “the state seems to be dismissing the need for local sites.”

Grenno said the state should be focusing on supporting locally coordinated, senior-focused clinics, instead of making seniors take a long drive in the winter.

Whitman has more than 900 seniors currently on a waiting list to receive the vaccination. Grennell said Whitman offered to rent buses and escort seniors to Gillette to receive their shots. Of the 500 who received this offer, only 25 said they were interested. 

“That’s 475 Whitman residents that are not going to get vaccinated because of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Grennell said. 

According to Nuttall, a state health official said on a recent call that the state would be opening a new regional vaccination site in a town next to Abington. That site is actually located in Dartmouth, which is more than an hour drive away. 

Sen. John Keenan, D-Quincy, was not able to attend the press conference, but told Abington News in an interview later that the rollout has been hampered by problems at multiple levels, including the federal government. He said the state’s next shipment may be delayed because of packaging problems at a key shipping hub as well as the historic stretch of bad weather in the south, prompting Gov. Baker to consider sending the state’s National Guard to pick up the doses.

Although he recognized the state has made significant gains in recent days, Keenan criticized the Baker Administration after the state’s main registration website crashed the first morning those over the age of 65 were able to register for appointments. The site received nearly 2 million hits by 8 a.m., Keenan said

“The appointment system is a mess,” he said, also knocking the state’s constantly changing plans.

“Any time they change the eligibility criteria and move, a group up … it creates chaos,” he said.

The state is slated to receive 139,000 doses from the federal government next week, or enough to provide all 351 cities and towns with about 400 doses. Nuttall and Golightly said in interviews before the press conference that even receiving 50 doses a week would be beneficial for Abington.

“That’s 50 residents that are not going to get the vaccination otherwise,” Nuttall said. 

“We’re not asking for thousands of doses, we’re asking for some doses so we can take care of the most vulnerable,” Golightly said.

In her letter, Sudders asked local officials to identify homebound seniors and refer them to a state vaccination program for that population scheduled to launch in the coming weeks. 

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Nuttall said about the upcoming state program. 

The state is open to providing doses to regional clinics sponsored by multiple communities provided that they meet a number of criteria, including the capability to distribute 850 doses per day, five days a week, that it serves a geographic need, is open to all residents of Massachusetts, and provides links for appointments on the state website. 

Golightly confirmed to Abington News that multiple nearby towns are working on a plan to create a regional town-run clinic.