With Phase Two vaccine registration scheduled to begin today, state representatives for the Berkshires want to assure residents that they will receive their doses when they are eligible.
“You will not miss out,” said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams. “There will be glitches, but I’m very confident in the infrastructure that’s been set up in Berkshire County.”
Despite public frustration and confusion, Barrett and other representatives say they believe that the next phases of the rollout will go smoothly. But, they have called on state and local officials to provide more clarity and ensure that residents without access to the internet can sign up.
Local health officials have asked residents 75 and older to go to maimmunizations.org to book an appointment. People can also check their eligibility and sign up for an appointment at mass.gov/covidvaccine.
Reservations are mandatory for vaccination.
Registration is expected to go live at noon, according to Laura Kittross, director of the Berkshire County Boards of Health Association.
Clinics for people 75 and up are scheduled to begin Tuesday, Kittross said, and will continue throughout the week at three major sites: Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School in Great Barrington, and the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish Center in North Adams. Some Walgreens and Stop & Shop pharmacies also will offer vaccinations.
Kittross said that councils on aging across the county will help register people who do not have internet access. Anyone who wants to register a family member or friend can do so, as proxy registration will be allowed, said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.
“Help your parents, help your aunt, help your neighbor,” she said. “This can be collective work. This is how we come together as a community.”
But, as the county gears up for the biggest test yet of its vaccination infrastructure, the state delegation expressed concerns about people who might fall through the cracks.
Four members of the delegation told The Eagle that they have heard from constituents frustrated by a lack of available information. And those complaints and questions have not just gone to local lawmakers. Over the past few weeks, vaccine hopefuls have flooded health departments, pharmacies and doctor’s offices with calls.
Many residents mistakenly made appointments during Phase One vaccinations, and some even showed up to get vaccinated out of turn. At a Saturday clinic in Great Barrington, health officials had to turn away 40 to 50 people; one person who went to the clinic said they simply did not understand that they were not yet eligible.
More clarity; better communication
State representatives blamed the general confusion on several factors, including a lack of clear communication from the state and the county’s proximity to other states with different timelines.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said he has been inundated with queries from constituents about how to register.
“[State senators] have expressed our concern that there just needs to be more information, more clarity in the rollout,” he said. “The frustration that you can’t even get the basic information you need on timelines or access is a real problem.”
Farley-Bouvier said frustration mounted because of varying eligibility criteria across state lines. State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, pointed to the fact that Berkshire residents are considered to be part of the Albany, N.Y., television market.
“We’re hearing about what’s going on in New York, and not understanding what we’re doing in Massachusetts,” he said. “[The state] is gonna do a media campaign, but for those of us who live in the Berkshires, how are you going to reach people out here?”
Some confusion also might stem from shifting state priorities. People with two or more comorbidities, who had expected to be eligible at the outset of Phase Two, learned just a week before the phase was set to begin that they would have to wait longer.
Pignatelli said he approved of Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to prioritize elderly residents. But, he added that the strict prioritization categories could make it harder to get large numbers of people vaccinated — and to do so fairly. Prioritizing comorbidities, he worries, might lead to some people lying and cutting the line.
“I think they’ve gotten too cute with the different categories,” he said. “I like what the governor did for people 75 and over, but trying to figure out who’s got comorbidities and who doesn’t? And what if I’m 75 and my spouse is 74?”
Potential pitfall in local rollout
Lawmakers praised the local vaccination infrastructure, including the decision to use Berkshire Health Systems as a central distribution point — and they stressed that supply, not capacity, will be the limiting factor for the rollout.
“I think our plan is probably better than other parts of the state,” Pignatelli said. “Just give us the vaccines.”
But, representatives also called on the county to focus on residents who do not have access to the internet or might not be computer savvy. They said they would like to see a local phone line that could connect seniors, and other residents, to volunteers who would register them.
“My greatest fear is those people who don’t have access through a computer,” Barrett said. “They should’ve had call centers opened a week ago. They should’ve had volunteers lined up and phone numbers to call.”
Kittross told The Eagle late on Tuesday that public health officials will work to register those residents by collaborating with councils on aging in Adams, North Adams, Williamstown, Pittsfield, Dalton, Lenox, Lee, Sheffield, Great Barrington, Stockbridge and possibly others. She did not provide phone numbers but said a list would be available on Wednesday and that people should wait until noon to begin calling.
Barrett also suggested that the state might be able to ease vaccine anxiety by allowing people to sign up even when they are not eligible and be notified later, when they can get vaccinated.
Like other representatives, he added that he understands the public’s frustration, but he also urged patience, and perhaps a bit of optimism.
“I’m very optimistic that a good portion of those 75 and up will be done in the next few weeks,” Barrett said. “If vaccines are delivered from the feds.”