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Mass. Should Be Nailing The Vaccine Rollout. Why Are Most States Ahead Of Us?

Registered nurse Samantha Schuko prepares to vaccinate Foxborough Police Officer Brendan Fayles with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Gillette Stadium COVID-19 Vaccination Site. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Massachusetts is home to some of the most respected medical institutions in America. More than half of our estimated 800,000 frontline workers are in health care. Back in the spring, we managed to go from having one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the nation to a brief but much-lauded summer reprieve when hospitals logged zero new infections. So, naturally, if you live here, it might seem intuitive to expect that Massachusetts would nail the vaccine rollout.

The reality, however, has been surprisingly dismal. Massachusetts falls well below most of the country for the percentage of the population — 5.2% — that has already received the first shot. As of Sunday night, the commonwealth has only administered 49% of its available COVID shots, according to Bloomberg's COVID-19 vaccine tracker — less than 42 other states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

And while all residents grouped under Phase 1 of the state vaccine plan can now schedule their shots, the Baker administration hasn't changed its plan to prioritize more seniors or frontline workers who are at heightened risk of suffering COVID-19 complications (a change that many states have made, due to the arrival of the more contagious COVID-19 variant).

[T]he commonwealth has only administered 49% of its available COVID shots ... less than 42 other states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

So why are we trailing so many other states when it comes to getting shots into arms? The list of potential reasons is vast. Vaccine supply chain disruptions could happen, and the state could be bracing for them more conservatively than other states. Our list of Phase 1 recipients may be relatively longer than other states. There's also the possibility that Gov. Charlie Baker’s prioritization guidelines are being followed too rigidly by the vaccine providers. (Anecdotal stories of soon-to-expire vaccines being thrown away, rather than offered to whomever is available, are spreading vociferously.)

But given how many doses of our vaccine are sitting in freezers, waiting to be distributed, one can get the impression that the Baker administration wasn't fully prepared for the crucial first stage of the rollout. The announcement of mass vaccination sites being set up at venues like Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park is promising, but this doesn’t address the dearth of vaccination sites in hard-hit BIPOC communities like Lynn and Chelsea, which have suffered some of the worst COVID death rates. Nor does it help high-risk elderly residents who can’t drive all the way to Foxborough or schlep their way into Boston via public transportation.

The vaccine rollout is one of the most ambitious and complex projects in American history and some bumps were inevitable. But because Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed framework puts the onus on states to come up with their own vaccine distribution plans — and because we live in a hyper-connected world where social media offers us glimpses into regions beyond our own — the shortcomings of Baker’s vaccine rollout have felt particularly frustrating.

For the last week, I’ve watched friends and colleagues in other states celebrate as their aging parents are vaccinated, or as teachers and other vulnerable frontline workers are granted vaccine access. What makes the situation in Massachusetts more fraught isn’t merely the fact that our vaccine rollout has been more of a slow trickle, but also, Baker’s failure to offer us two essential things: insight as to why our rollout has been slower, and an idea of what people can expect in the next few weeks.

If the current vaccination rate sustains, then most of us will not be protected until fall.

Consider, for instance, the question of how people can get their elderly relatives scheduled for vaccinations once we hit Phase 2. The state has given no advance information on how we’ll be able to do this. There’s no website where people can pre-register, no definitive list of where the vaccine will be administered, and no word about whether we will have to scrounge up various credentials or documents to “prove” their eligibility (a problematic approach to the vaccination effort, which public health experts have criticized). Knowing these things, even as we hunker down, wait our turns and try to avoid exposure to COVID-19, would be edifying. But it would also be a confidence-booster that the Baker administration empathizes with those who are more at-risk for COVID complications, and is working hard to protect them.

This confidence is particularly needed because Baker himself has previously pointed to the arrival of the vaccines as a game-changer, and — more troublingly — a rationale for not taking more muscular measures to slow down community transmission of COVID in the near term. When the current winter surge was taking shape in November and early December, the Baker administration was urged to take protective "slow the spread" measures like renewing the state's recently-expired eviction moratorium, expanding free COVID testing sites, and rolling back the reopening of venues where viral transmission can more easily happen (most notably, indoor dining). While Baker did make modest rollbacks on capacity allowances at these venues, he declined to go further, like other governors did, citing these steps as “a bridge to the vaccine.”

Now, we’ve crossed the bridge, and as of this week, Baker will scale back the recent business restrictions. But for the majority of commonwealth residents, even the most vulnerable among us, the vaccine is missing. And regardless of whether the fault here lies more with the federal government or the state, it is Gov. Baker’s responsibility to offer clarity about what’s going on with our state rollout, and to provide assurance that things will get better — ideally, through a tangible explanation of what the state will do to accelerate the vaccine rollout in the weeks ahead and how we can get ready. If the current vaccination rate sustains, then most of us will not be protected until fall.

And some of us won’t make it.

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