2020-12-18-VACCINES

Registered nurse Nixon St. Bernard draws a dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe during the first round of hospital employee inoculations last month at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield.

Berkshire County has received its first shipment of vaccines for first responders, with vaccination clinics expected to begin early next week in Pittsfield, North Adams and Great Barrington.

Six hundred doses of the Cambridge-based Moderna vaccine arrived Tuesday morning, according to the Berkshire County Boards of Health Association, enough to cover more than half the police officers, firefighters and emergency medical service providers expected to sign up. 

The association, which represents the 32 local health boards, will coordinate the county’s vaccine rollout for first responders. Officials declined to disclose the location of the clinics.

Laura Kittross, director of the association, said she expects about two thirds of the county's 1,000 or more personnel to request a vaccine during the first responder clinics, though she warned that the numbers are a very rough estimate at the moment.

“We have assurance from the state that, just like with the flu vaccine every year, as we use vaccines, more will be sent,” she said. “So, we're pretty confident that we will have enough to cover everyone.”

County public health officials hope to begin clinics Monday and finish within one week, Kittross said. But, the timing depends on several factors, she added, including how quickly staff can learn to operate the state’s “brand new” online system.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health held training Monday to familiarize health officials with PrepMod, the vaccine administration system purchased by the state, according to Kittross. Berkshire County staff were expected to get access to the system Tuesday.

The online portal will allow residents to sign up for vaccinations and will help health officials keep track of components of the process, including insurance information and consent forms.

“We’ll want people to schedule appointments,” Kittross said. “We don’t want people waiting in line for any period of time. We want them to get there, get their shot and get out.”

The new portal also will provide information directly to the Massachusetts Immunization Information System, which keeps track of all immunizations provided in the state. Kittross said the new system for COVID-19 vaccinations already has been used successfully in other states.

Vaccination clinics will take place at emergency dispensing sites — large indoor spaces such as school and college buildings. As the vaccine rollout expands to include more groups, and eventually the general public, more sites will be added — including locations that had been identified for this purpose well before the coronavirus pandemic, Kittross said.

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“In general, we're looking for larger facilities where people can enter and exit in different places,” she said. “In the era of social distancing, we need enough room. And because the vaccine is new and people need to be monitored for 15 minutes or so afterward, we need space for people to stay and be socially distanced.”

Phase One continues

After first responders, the next priority groups in Phase One of the vaccine rollout are people living in congregate care settings, such as prisons and shelters, home health workers and non-COVID-facing health care workers.

The association expects that local public health officials also will be responsible for vaccinating home health workers.

Massachusetts prison and jail staff already have begun to receive vaccinations, according to the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office. Vaccinations at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction kicked off Tuesday.

Some home health workers and non-COVID-facing health care staff already have been vaccinated through the mass vaccination of Berkshire Health Systems employees.

BHS told The Eagle on Tuesday that the hospital system’s unused doses will go to non-BHS health care providers, including those who work in home care agencies, as well as new BHS employees and any staff who change their mind.

Phase Two groups will begin vaccinations no earlier than February, according to the state, while the general population should not expect to receive a vaccine until April at the earliest. For more information on the timeline and priority groups, visit the Massachusetts DPH website.

Next week’s clinics will be managed and operated on the ground by Northern Berkshire EMS and the Northern Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee in North Adams, the city of Pittsfield and the Berkshire Public Health Alliance in Pittsfield, and Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. Other local partners for the vaccine rollout include Berkshire Medical Center, County Ambulance and health departments across the county.

Health officials urge everyone to keep wearing masks and social distancing, regardless of their vaccination status.

This story has been modified to reflect the correct total number of first responders in the county based on updated information from the Berkshire County Boards of Health Association.

Francesca Paris can be reached at fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 510-207-2535.