After months of limited shots, the Berkshires have hit a vaccine tipping point.
With increased supplies and signs that demand has begun to decline, county and state vaccine leaders have pivoted to the final phase of the vaccine rollout — getting a shot to everyone who might be willing to take one.
To get more doses into arms, the Berkshire Vaccine Collaborative has opened three walk-in clinics this week, one at each of the county’s large-scale public sites.
The Great Barrington clinic will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, followed by vaccinations from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday in Pittsfield and noon to 5 p.m. Thursday in North Adams.
The Pfizer vaccine will be administered at all three clinics.
Collaborative organizers expect the walk-in option will help people frustrated by the appointment booking system. The new offering comes as the collaborative struggles to fill appointments for the first time since early in the rollout, said Darlene Rodowicz, executive vice president of Berkshire Health Systems.
“We’re finding ourselves with over 3,000 vaccines available for first doses,” she said. “So, we want to be as flexible as possible to meet people where they’re at.”
The surplus of appointments appears to be a result of surging vaccine supplies and falling numbers of unvaccinated people, a trend mirrored across the state.
On Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker urged anyone who previously had given up on the registration to try to book a slot, noting that appointments were available across the commonwealth. The collaborative continues to offer scheduled appointments, with details at getvaccinatedberkshires.org.
“This is obviously a welcome change from a few months ago, when demand was exceedingly high and supply was not,” Baker said. “If you’re someone who’s waiting to book your appointment when it’s easier to schedule one, this would be a really good time to sign up and get your shot.”
Local vaccine organizers urged residents not to book appointments through the state’s preregistration system, since the system does not offer slots at Berkshire County clinics.
‘Now is the time’
In the Berkshires, the additional vaccine supplies are set to arrive after many eager recipients already have begun the process. More than 53 percent of Berkshire County residents have received at least one shot, in line with the Massachusetts average, according to state data.
Collaborative leaders estimate that, in order to hit the state’s target of 80 percent of the 16-and-older population, the county needs to administer doses to 24,000 more residents.
“Demand is coming down because we’ve vaccinated so many people,” Rodowicz said. “We’re at the point where we’re trying to find those people who say they’re willing to get vaccinated but haven’t made it to our sites.”
Statewide, dose administration has stagnated and declined slightly after months of climbing. The seven-day rolling average of new doses administered peaked at about 90,000 per day in mid-April, then fell back below 80,000 over this past weekend, the lowest rates since early April.
More than 2.6 million people in Massachusetts have been vaccinated fully against the COVID-19 virus, and over 70 percent of adult residents have received at least one dose.
Even with the slowdown in vaccination rates, Baker has said that the state expects to hit its goal of 4.1 million residents fully vaccinated by early June. In the coming weeks and months, the state will dial back its reliance on mass-vaccination sites — it will close four in Eastern Massachusetts by the end of June — and increase distribution to regional sites, mobile clinics and primary care providers.
The administration also is talking with the Massachusetts Medical Society to work through vaccine storage and appointment scheduling logistics to begin to increase supplies to primary care providers by the middle of May.
Though Berkshire Health Systems has no plans at this point to begin offering the vaccine in primary care offices, the collaborative has begun to look at alternative administration methods.
Rodowicz said that the collaborative held a successful, pilot clinic for a local employer Monday, offering doses to employees and spouses. The hospital system also has considered vaccinating people before hospital discharge and holding a pop-up campus on the Berkshire Medical Center campus.
As vaccination rates increase, the collaborative eventually will look toward winding down the county’s major clinics, said Laura Kittross, director of the Berkshire County Boards of Health Association. She urged residents to take advantage of the ease of booking a shot and try to secure an appointment within the next month.
“These regional sites, they aren’t going to run forever,” Kittross said. “Now is the time to get vaccinated.”
Kittross stressed that, despite slight declines in demand, people continue to seek out vaccinations, with more than 500 recipients registered for a Pittsfield clinic on Tuesday.
“The appointments might not be going in 10 minutes anymore, but people are still registering,” Kittross said. “And one thing I’m seeing in the registration lists is families registering together, which we hadn’t seen previously. I think there’s times when a parent waited until their 17-year-old was eligible, or a couple, a husband and wife, waited for each other.”
The crucial step now, Rodowicz said, will be to reach people who were not willing to enter what many in Massachusetts have called “the Hunger Games” of vaccine registration. Walk-in clinics, which could continue past this week if the trial runs go successfully, might help with that.
“This is the cohort that isn’t necessarily vaccine-averse, but they’re not going to turn their world upside down to get the vaccine,” she said. “For those people that think registering is too complicated … we’re hoping a walk-in clinic will make it a lot easier for folks to grab an appointment that works for them.”
The effort to get shots to people who are hesitant, uninsured or otherwise at risk of not getting vaccinated has so far operated in tandem with the large-scale public clinics.
In a push to protect the county’s most vulnerable, Community Health Programs has held pop-up clinics every weekday through its Mobile Health Unit, working in conjunction with the Berkshire Vaccine Collaborative, nonprofits, councils on aging and towns.
Betsy Strickler, chief communications officer for Community Health Programs, said that demand for the unit’s services has been increasing as the work continues, buoyed in recent weeks by a new supply of doses directly from the federal government.
“CHP is working, both within the Berkshire Vaccine Collaborative and beyond, to expand the vaccination rate in the Berkshires,” she said. “At this time, we are working with a large number of community organizations, primarily those who represent some of our most vulnerable populations, to both educate and vaccinate. These next few months will be critical in reaching a high vaccination level in the Berkshires and reaching community immunity.”