Harvard is currently located in a COVID-19 vaccination desert, but area town administrators and state legislators have a proposal to create an oasis: a regional COVID-19 vaccination site at Devens.
A letter describing the problem and a broad outline of the Devens proposal was sent to Gov. Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders on Feb. 11. It was signed by the town administrators of the 16 towns covered by the Nashoba Associated Boards of Health, or NABH, as well as the state legislators that serve the Nashoba Valley and northern Worcester County, NABH Director Jim Garreffi, Devens Executive Vice President Jessica Strunkin, and U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan.
While the state is focusing its vaccination efforts on large-scale clinics and pharmacies in hard-hit areas, residents in this part of the state have been left high and dry. The lack of area vaccination sites will be a problem for a new group starting Feb. 18, when residents over 65 will be eligible for the vaccine, along with those with two or more chronic health conditions, and staff and residents of low-income and affordable senior housing. This will add about one million more eligible residents. As eligibility increases, taking time off from work or finding child care in order to travel to a distant vaccination site will make the vaccine harder for many to get.
Local vaccination availability is slim in part because Harvard and 15 other Nashoba Valley towns are lumped together under the umbrella of the Nashoba Associated Boards of Health. Under the state’s current distribution model, town boards of health receive 100 doses of vaccine each week to distribute locally. But not Harvard. Instead, NABH receives 100 doses per week for the 16 towns it covers to share, resulting in about six doses per town per week. Local councils on aging are currently allocating the doses, and NABH administers them at a weekly clinic in Devens.
But in March, even that meager allocation may dry up. The state announced on Feb. 17 that starting March 1 the state will curtail allocations of first doses to about 65 municipal clinics. Whether that will include NABH is as yet unknown, but in a letter to town administrators, Garreffi said the future of NABH’s vaccine allocation is uncertain.
With so few vaccines available locally, older residents are left with no options but to travel long distances, which many are unable or reluctant to do. The closest large-scale site is Worcester State University, which opened last week, about a 40-minute drive from Harvard.
Three steps to a clinic
Establishing a regional clinic would require three major steps, as the plan outlines: establishing a site, finding ample staffing, and identifying a vaccine storage location.
According to the letter, two major hotels in Devens are willing to offer banquet room space and parking for the clinic. NABH would provide some staffing, and town administrators are promising support from EMTs, medical professionals, and volunteers in their towns, enough to adequately staff the clinic. The third piece, finding a place to store vaccine doses for a clinic of this size, turned out to be the easiest to solve, thanks to Masy BioServices in Pepperell, a company that provides cold storage for pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical industries.
Masy BioServices offers cold storage
The Press spoke with Masy’s owners, John and Laurie Masiello, about their involvement in the proposed regional clinic. John said for the past three months, he has called the governor’s office weekly to offer space in his facility for vaccine cold storage.
“No one ever called back,” he said. But about two weeks ago, state Rep. Sheila Harrington, whose district includes Pepperell, contacted Masiello and asked if his company could handle storing and shipping a large number of doses of vaccines to a local regional clinic. The answer was an enthusiastic “yes.”
Masiello said the facility in Pepperell has the capacity to store one billion vials of the Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored at a temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius, and one billion vials of the Moderna vaccine, which requires minus 20 C. Freezers have temperature monitors and alarms, and the company has four generators to keep them running in a power outage. The vaccine vials could be held as long as necessary, packaged in any amount, and shipped out quickly to a clinic, in packages with temperature sensors and alarms. “We’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he said.
The Masiellos are so eager to help that they spent last weekend making a video of the facility, hoping it might persuade the state to trust them for their participation in the proposed local regional clinic. The video is available on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZqN5_LeMdg& feature=youtu.be.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who represents Harvard, told the Press that he and Harrington have been the point people advocating for the regional COVID-19 vaccination clinic for the Nashoba Valley and northern Worcester County. He said he was “really disappointed” in Gov. Baker’s decision last week to discontinue distributing the vaccine to Massachusetts hospitals. Doses that were going to hospitals are now going to the state’s large-scale sites instead, creating what Eldridge called a “double whammy” for this area.
It’s now up to the state to decide if it will supply sufficient COVID-19 vaccine to make a regional clinic at Devens feasible. Eldridge said he and Harrington are setting up a phone call with Secretary Sudders to discuss the problem and the proposal. “It needs to be fixed as soon as possible,” he said.