As demand outstrips supply in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Berkshire County has emerged as a leader in Massachusetts.
In an update to lawmakers Thursday morning, Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said that the county had the highest vaccination rate per capita so far in the commonwealth, according to state representatives who were on the call.
About 7 percent of county residents have received at least one dose, lawmakers told The Eagle, citing the secretary. They said Sudders credited the Berkshires for successful collaboration between private health care providers and public health officials.
“She gave special recognition of how well we have worked out here,” said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams. “With Berkshire Health Systems being the depot center, that’s something they are using for a model now statewide.”
Under the depot system, BHS serves as a central distribution point where most of the county’s doses arrive before being sent out to three large-scale public vaccination sites. In other parts of the state and country, smaller numbers of doses are shipped to a wider set of providers, which must follow specific procedures to transfer vaccines.
The praise comes even as seniors in Berkshire County and across the state struggled to sign up, with websites crashing or failing to load entirely as appointment slots filled up. As of Thursday morning, all available appointments in the county had been taken.
Local and state health officials say that people should continue to check maimmunizations.org for new available appointments.
Residents also can visit mass.gov/covidvaccine to check eligibility and find information on local pharmacies that have been offering a limited number of vaccination appointments. As of Wednesday evening, there were no available appointments at Stop & Shop or Walgreens pharmacies.
For more details on registering for an appointment, including phone numbers to call, see this guide.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said that he received several phone calls from colleagues after the secretary’s update, asking how to emulate the county’s distribution success. The state delegation had urged the Department of Public Health to approve the county’s depot plan for several weeks.
Laura Kittross, director of the Berkshire County Boards of Health Association, said that existing partnerships have been key to the success, with collaboration between the BCBOHA, Berkshire Health Systems, Community Health Programs and public health nurses countywide, among other partners.
“It’s really been exceptional the past few weeks,” she said. “Everyone has been willing to chip in and do their part and work together without worrying about who is getting credit or where the money is going to come from.”
According to an estimate from Berkshire Health Systems, there are about 18,000 people ages 75 and older in the Berkshires. On Wednesday at noon, more than 3,000 appointment slots opened for the whole county. By 9:30 a.m. Thursday, there were just two available slots.
Estimates for how long it will take to get through this part of Phase Two in Berkshire County range from three weeks to two months. Officials have stressed that the limiting factor is vaccine supply from the state, which depends on federal shipments.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker said he understood the public’s frustration.
“We expected the first few days would be difficult because there are far more people who are eligible to get a vaccine than there are vaccines available,” he said. “I do believe that as we continue to expand our capacity and anticipate an increase in weekly first-dose supply from Washington, that will make it possible for more people to make appointments.”
According to the governor, there are about 1 million people eligible across Massachusetts, and the state is set to receive 100,000 doses next week from the federal government, an increase from the previous shipment of 80,000.
But, Baker pointed out that the Biden administration’s stated goal of providing 100 million doses in 100 days would mean only 50 million Americans could receive two doses by the end of April.
“We’re talking about really large numbers here,” he said. “Not just in Massachusetts, but across the country.”
After widespread confusion and frustration during the first day of sign-ups, some elected representatives statewide have called on the commonwealth to create a single registration portal that would streamline the online system. Currently, people who want to make an appointment can access a single online map for vaccination sites but might be required to visit several different websites to find an open appointment.
The segmented vaccine sign-up system, though, has proved to be only a minor issue locally. In Berkshire County, most vaccine doses for Phase Two are scheduled for large-scale public clinics, which means that a vast majority of the county’s appointment slots can be found directly at maimmunizations.org.
Representatives for Western Massachusetts also called attention to the scarcity of vaccination clinics in Hampshire and Franklin counties.
In a statement, state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, pointed to the absence of mass vaccination sites, limits on the number of doses being sent to local boards of health and a lack of public transportation.
“The Baker administration has left the people of Hampshire and Franklin Counties high and dry and utterly disadvantaged as the Commonwealth heads into Phase Two,” she wrote. “When seniors … woke up this morning to news that it was their turn to sign up, they had virtually nowhere to turn.”
After advocacy from Comerford, as well as other area lawmakers including state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, the state announced that it would provide 3,000 additional doses each week to the region, according to an update Thursday afternoon.
Hinds celebrated the additional doses but called on the Department of Public Health to deliver doses equitably moving forward.
“This is a stark example of the kind of a dogged attention to regional equity we need to ensure the safety of everyone in the Commonwealth,” he told The Eagle.
According to the state’s map, Franklin County has only one vaccination location, a Greenfield CVS, and no large-scale public sites, while Hampshire County has three sites — two in Amherst and one in Northampton. According to census estimates, there are a combined 44,000 people ages 65 and over in the two counties.
In Berkshire County, which has about 30,000 people age 65 and older, there are three large-scale clinics and eight vaccination sites in total.