Vaccine hunt: ‘A wild goose chase’

  • The daughter of Chris and Cheryl Mattocks found them appointments for shots, but they were canceled. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chris and Cheryl Mattocks at their home in Belchertown, where they have stayed mostly indoors for the last nine months. “Our favorite thing to do is eat breakfast out and go to the movies, neither of which we have been able to do for the past year,” Chris Mattocks said about getting the vaccine and being able to leave their home more freely. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/31/2021 10:34:07 AM

AMHERST — Just days before Massachusetts opens Phase 2 of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Amherst resident Meg Robertson felt prepared to book an appointment for her mother, who qualifies for the vaccine because of her age.

Robertson, whose mother lives in Falmouth, knew the demand to secure a slot would be high, she said, but the experience proved more frustrating than she anticipated: Robertson spent at least the next hour repeatedly entering the same information, only to be told at the end of the process that no appointments were available at the sites listed on the website.

“It was inaccurate information,” Robertson said, “because there were all these spots on the map that didn’t have the vaccines, and you could waste hours on the site trying to figure that out.”

Robertson initially tried booking the appointment on Cape Cod before turning to the mass vaccination site at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, then eventually settled on the location at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. Although her mother now has an appointment, Robertson knows that many still lack the ability to secure a spot.

“There’s no way my mother could have done this,” Robertson said. “My mom is actually very good on computers … but it’s very rapid-fire, and you have to quickly enter the information. It was just really frustrating and stressful. I ended up having to call out from work because I was exhausted and stressed, which I’m lucky to be able to do.”

But not everyone has this privilege, Robertson said, and not all senior citizens — some of whom may not have as much experience with technology — have friends or relatives who can assist them in booking an appointment.

“Those pieces of inequity really anger me,” Robertson said, later adding, “The bigger system that was not put in place properly is disadvantaging a lot of seniors who are more vulnerable than, say, my mom, so that’s unfair and unjust.”

Belchertown resident Cheryl Mattocks said her daughter Kristin Mattocks went through a similarly haphazard experience trying to book a slot on her parents’ behalf.

Kristin woke up at 1 a.m. on Wednesday to make an appointment for her parents, tried again at 4 a.m., and appeared to eventually secure a slot at around 6 a.m.

“She has spent so many hours on the computer and visiting sites,” Cheryl said. “She’d go to fill out the information, and all of a sudden it would be gone. The site would take it down.”

But after Kristin’s hours-long effort, the family was later informed that the appointment booked for Chris was actually before the start of Phase 2, and was therefore canceled.

Joe and Norene Roberts, who both live in Goshen, have also encountered difficulties. Joe, 82, was able to get vaccinated through the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds. But Norene, 75, has not yet secured a slot through another provider.

Norene has called her primary care provider, Valley Medical Group, but the office does not yet know when it will receive the vaccines, according to an email sent out last week.

Norene also frequently checks the Mass.gov website, she said, but has trouble finding a location that feels safe from a social distancing perspective and within a reasonable driving distance of Goshen. She and Joe worry that some locations, such as pharmacies, may be crowded with shoppers, and driving to a location like Springfield can also take a considerable amount of time for those who live in the Hilltowns.

“That’s not something that the proud state of Massachusetts should be putting up with for its residents,” Norene said. “We shouldn’t have to go that far.”

Joe and Norene both hope to see a spacious vaccination site in or closer to the Hilltowns, such as a school gymnasium. But they say state government has not put forth the effort required to establish such a location and that western Massachusetts has been largely ignored.

“Any big space can be organized,” Joe said, “but it would take someone to organize it, like the state.”

Those who are later in line in Phase 2 also hope to see improvements to the rollout.

Conway resident Donald Joralemon suggested localized options such as booking a vaccine through primary care providers and using resources such as the National Guard to establish more vaccination sites.

Sheila McCormick of Shutesbury, who will be eligible for the vaccine in a later stage of Phase 2, said she has been “extremely concerned about the haphazard quality of this rollout.”

Going forward, “I think there needs to be a vastly improved mechanism to making an appointment through some kind of centralized system,” McCormick said. “I don’t think online is going to work for everybody.”

Local vaccination efforts

In Hampshire and Franklin counties, the state offers vaccination sites at the Northampton Senior Center, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Campus Center, the Bangs Community Center in Amherst, and the Greenfield CVS on Federal Street. Vaccine sites are also available in Springfield, West Springfield, Holyoke, Feeding Hills and other western Massachusetts communities, though the Eastfield Mall in Springfield is the only mass vaccination site in the region. State Sen. Jo Comerford has compiled a list of locations in and near western Massachusetts on her website at senatorjocomerford.org/constituent-guide-to-covid-19/#Vaccine.

According to Northampton Health Director Merredith O’Leary, who spoke at a virtual panel with Comerford on Thursday afternoon, Northampton’s vaccination site has the capability to vaccinate 3,000 people per week. Amherst can vaccinate 5,500 people per week.

But vaccine supply does not match this capacity: Health officials were initially told that the communities would be provided with only 100 doses per week. This supply increased on Thursday, when Domb and Comerford announced that 3,000 additional COVID-19 vaccines will be provided to the western Massachusetts region per week.

While the additional vaccines are “an incremental, people-powered win,” Domb and Comerford said, “we cannot and will not stop there.”

Domb and Comerford are also calling for “our fair share of statewide supplies”; distribution sites that consider the region’s public transportation limitations; a user-friendly reservation portal; and multilingual phone reservation options.

In a joint statement, they said, “We understand and appreciate that the supply of the vaccine is dependent upon the federal government, but ensuring equitable access is the state’s responsibility, and we are committed to ensuring regional equity and equitable access to vaccination scheduling, distribution and administration now and going forward.”

Other area legislators are also calling for the Baker administration to increase the vaccination effort in the western portion of the state.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, called the state’s vaccine rollout “another example of how rural communities have been left behind by this administration.”

“There is a big void in my district in terms of where individuals can get vaccines,” Blais said. “This is a population that is older. It is a population that has limited access to transportation, and asking them to drive for expansive periods of time to get access to a vaccine is really not what we want folks to be doing.”

Some in the region also lack reliable internet connections, creating another barrier.

“Asking a population that is 75 or older to register online for an appointment when you don’t have the internet to begin with goes to show you that there’s a big disconnect between this administration and our rural communities,” Blais said.

The state is currently in the process of launching a call center to help individuals book vaccine appointments, Baker announced on Thursday. But the Baker administration should have planned a phone option in advance, Blais said.

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, said her constituents have also voiced frustration with the online registration and a lack of vaccination sites within a convenient driving range.

Sabadosa hopes the state will “start to lean more heavily into our local boards of health” to coordinate the vaccine rollout by delivering vaccines directly into the hands of city and town health officials.

“The real struggle is that we have very limited vaccination supply, so I think it’s it’s going to be challenging for a while,” she said.

State Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, called for increased attention to the rollout in western Massachusetts and improvements to the state’s registration system.

“We’ve been very busy out in western Massachusetts reminding the governor that we’re out here, not having adequate testing sites and not having adequate vaccination sites,” Carey said, “so there’s definitely been room for improvement throughout. It’s very frustrating.”

Part of the issue is “spotty” supply from the federal government, Carey said, but the state’s rollout plan is also part of the problem.

“Once the vaccines are in the state, we should have a system set up and ready to go that’s a lot smoother for people to actually get the shot in their arm,” he said.

“To open it up to the next phase gave a lot of people hope,” he said of the rollout, “and then for folks to be sent on a wild goose chase to sign up and get the vaccine tears that hope from their fingertips. We can and should be doing a lot better.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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