Local health departments say they could use many more COVID-19 vaccine doses

  • Student pharmacist Wilbur Quimba dilutes vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at University Medical Center of Southern Nevada on Dec. 16, 2020, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images/TNS) Ethan Miller

Staff Writer
Published: 1/28/2021 9:17:36 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The local vaccination site could administer many more COVID-19 shots than it is getting from the state, the city’s health director said Thursday at a virtual panel hosted by state Sen. Jo Comerford.

“We were expecting, if the vaccine was available, the Northampton vaccination site could vaccinate 3,000 people a week and the town of Amherst could do 2,500 a week,” Merridith O’Leary said. “That would be 5,500 vaccinations in one week in Hampshire county with these two sites.”

By earlier this week, the city site had vaccinated about 700 people, and it receives enough for 100 vaccinations each week.

O’Leary urged stakeholders to advocate for more vaccine for local health departments that are standing up clinics: “We have the capacity.”

More than 100 people watched the live event to hear speakers including O’Leary, Tracy Rogers, emergency preparedness program manager at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, and Phoebe Walker, director of Community Services at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and a member of the governor’s COVID-19 vaccine advisory group.

The panelists talked about the vaccine rollout and answered questions from Comerford, D-Northampton, who said she’s been hearing from constituents about it.

“There’s just a ton of questions coming in,” Comerford said. “If I’m in Hampshire and Franklin counties, what do I do? Where do I call?”

Currently, anyone in Phase 1, which includes first responders and health care workers, is eligible for a vaccine. Starting Monday, the state will move into the first part of Phase 2 and those who are 75 or older are eligible.

“I think it’s important that everybody knows that mass.gov/covidvaccinemap shows you all the locations of who’s doing vaccinations,” O’Leary said.

Currently, there is no one place to sign up for vaccines — a problem that Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, hopes to address through emergency legislation he filed Thursday to createan accessible, one-stop online sign-up for the vaccine (story, Page A3).

In Hampshire County, Amherst and Northampton started vaccination sites open to eligible residents in the county.

“If you go to northamptonma.gov that’s where you can register to get on a waitlist for the city of Northampton vaccination site,” O’Leary said.

Not everyone has computer or internet access, and O’Leary said people can also call 413-587-1219 for sign-up help.

“Anyone can call. It’s manned every single day by a human being,” she said. “It’s so busy, unfortunately, a lot of calls are going to voicemail.”

There is also a vaccination site at the University of Massachusetts, but all appointments for the first week of February are booked, according to the website.

One could also make the drive to a mass vaccination site at Gillette Stadium, but there is an issue in the website, Walker said: “When you resister for that site and you register from far away it will automatically try to redirect you to a site closer to you.”

Comerford also asked the panelists about “attestation” — when it’s your turn, you must attest you’re eligible for the vaccine.

“You are swearing you’re telling the truth,” Rogers said, adding, “They will not be asking for ID. Undocumented folks will not be turned away.”


In Phase 2b, those 65 and older or those who have two or more co-morbidities are eligible. Comerford asked the panelists what co-morbidities qualify one to be in that category.

“One thing I know is really confusing to people is that the state website, at least up until yesterday, sends you to a link of the CDC’s, which defines the co-morbidities,” Walker said. That CDC website has two lists of conditions. “It’s the first of those CDC lists,” Walker said.

At the event, Comerford highlighted regional equity. With the governor deciding to open more mass vaccination sites in the eastern part of the state, “those decisions, coupled with a vaccine scarcity, still led us in western Massachusetts, I believe especially in Hampshire and Franklin counties, to just not have our fair share [of vaccines] for two counties,” she said.

Three thousand doses more than expected will be sent to western Massachusetts starting Monday, according to a joint statement from Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and Comerford released on Thursday.

“We cannot and will not stop there,” the statement reads. “Our constituents need and deserve regional equity, which includes: Our fair share of statewide supplies, tracked transparently with uniform metrics so that we can ensure that whatever vaccine supply we have statewide is distributed fairly across all counties.”

O’Leary advocated for more vaccines to be given to local health departments in the area.

“I’ve been in public health for 18 years now,” she said. “The eastern side of the state doesn’t really understand the culture and geography out here and the large swath of land that we have.

“For people out in the hilltowns to get to Gillette Stadium or even the Eastfield Mall in Hampden County, it’s not doable for them. They really rely on local health to be able to support whatever their needs are.”

The state moves into Phase 2 on Monday, but “we’re only about 65 percent through Phase 1 which was 750,000 people,” Walker said. “So there are a lot of people in Phase 2, but just for context there’s about 86,000 doses of vaccine that come to Massachusetts each week and there are 7 million of us in Massachusetts, and everybody in that first phase needs two vaccinations. So you can see it’s challenging math.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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