Beginning March 1, Massachusetts municipalities will no longer receive first-dose COVID-19 vaccines to distribute to their residents, except for 20 towns and cities identified by the state as disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a letter to all local boards of health informing them of this decision on Feb. 17.
As a result, Jim Gareffi, director of the Nashoba Associated Boards of Health, announced last week that the weekly vaccine clinic run by NABH at Devens will be suspended as of March 1. The clinic had been receiving about 100 vaccine doses per week, and those were typically split among the 16 towns served by the organization. Allocation was being managed by local councils on aging. NABH will still hold clinics at Devens to provide second doses to individuals who received their first dose there.
‘A punch in the gut’
The HHS letter said the reason for diverting vaccines from local clinics to mass vaccination sites is to make sure every available vaccine is used as quickly as possible and that availability is not restricted by geography. State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who represents Harvard and 13 other towns in the Middlesex and Worcester district, told the Press the letter was “a punch in the gut” to local boards of health.
The state continues to invite municipalities to propose regional collaborations, but those collaborations must now meet strict requirements, including the capability to vaccinate at least 750 people per day, five days per week. In addition, a collaborative must serve “an unmet need geographically, as identified by the Department of Public Health,” and it must be open to everyone in the state.
Town administrators from the 16 towns NABH serves, area legislators, and MassDevelopment officials recently proposed a regional vaccination site at Devens to serve towns in the Nashoba Valley and northern Worcester County. Eldridge told the Press the new state requirements for regional clinics are “devastating” to that proposal. He added, “The Baker-Polito administration has set the bar so high, it’s setting up regional boards of health and communities for failure.”
Eldridge said he spoke with those involved in the proposal yesterday to try to figure out if the NABH communities could provide enough support to run a clinic of the scale now required by the state. The problem, he said, is trying to determine all the resources needed to meet the new requirements, and there is no guidance from the state or even a name to contact for information. He added that he will speak to HHS Secretary Marylou Sudders this week to get a better idea of what it would take to get a regional clinic approved. His fear, he said, is that the 16 NABH towns will partner and move ahead to create a plan, only to have the state say it’s not good enough.
The HHS letter asked that municipalities continue to plan vaccine programs for residents living in low-income or affordable senior housing and homebound residents. At a Feb. 22 Board of Health meeting, member Libby Levison said the board is planning to partner with Acton Pharmacy to set up a program at Foxglove Apartments; management at Bowers Brook Apartments is working with Ayer Family Pharmacy. The letter said the state will launch a vaccination program for homebound people in the coming weeks.
In a letter to NABH staff and area town officials, Gareffi said the HHS announcement was disappointing. “We believe local clinics provide an important venue for residents to receive their vaccinations.” He also thanked everyone who was involved with the clinic, including the local councils on aging, Devens officials, and “all those who volunteered their time and skills to help protect their fellow residents.” He called working with the many people involved with the clinic a “bright spot” in his office’s experiences during the pandemic.
Harvard Council on Aging Director Debbie Thompson told the Press the news of closing the Devens clinic was “sad for all of us.” But, she said, “We have to work with what we’ve got.” She said the COA has vetted volunteers who will drive seniors to appointments at the mass vaccination site at Gillette Stadium.
As for the Harvard Board of Health’s plan to run a drive-thru vaccination clinic in town after the general public becomes eligible, Chair Sharon McCarthy told the Press that is now off the table. She said the board is disappointed, especially given the number of residents who volunteered to help with the clinic. “We are humbled that there are so many people who wanted to help, in some way, to bring an end to the pandemic.”