As national vaccine production ramps up, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has unveiled the state’s full COVID-19 vaccination eligibility timeline. All Massachusetts adults are set to become eligible for a coronavirus immunization by April 19.
This is, in many ways, good news. The promise of more doses sooner coming to the Bay State brings the light at the end of the tunnel even closer. But the state must see that its constituents all get there equitably, without leaving any vulnerable people — or places — behind.
The timeline announced by the Baker administration Wednesday would see more people become eligible in waves ahead of the planned full adult eligibility in mid-April. Those 60 and older, as well as certain workers, will become eligible March 22; eligibility for those 55 and older as well as those with one qualifying comorbidity will follow on April 5.
Despite a rocky rollout at the state level, Berkshire coordinators have run area vaccine sites incredibly smoothly, drawing much praise from locals lining up to get the jab. But some area public health leaders foresee added difficulty in some regions with the newly announced timeline.
“I think it may translate temporarily into an even harder time getting appointments … we will have to make extra efforts to make sure no group or groups get left behind due to lack of access,” said Laura Kittross, director of the Berkshire County Boards of Health Alliance.
We share those concerns. To be sure, ambitious goals to get everyone vaccinated are welcome and necessary. But as the state’s tiered rollout initially sought, we must prioritize the vulnerable — that is, people 65 and older, particularly those with one or more relevant health conditions.
“We’re squeezing that group,” Executive Vice President of Berkshire Health Systems Darlene Rodowicz told The Eagle. “The 65 and up group is the most vulnerable group we have, when it comes to hospitalizations and death. We want them to be vaccinated and we’re not there yet.”
This demographic is even more vulnerable in Berkshire County and other corners underserved by the state’s mass vaccination site system. While the state last week rolled out an improved registration system to mitigate appointment-making struggles, it’s so far only available for booking a visit to one of the seven designated mass vaccine sites, of which the western half of the state only has one — the Eastfield Mall in Springfield.
So as the impending crunch of increased eligibility looms, seniors in our neck of the woods, often less digitally nimble and lacking decent internet access, face a choice: Either preregister to make the hour-plus trek to Springfield or continue with the mind-numbing wait-and-see process to secure a local appointment. Ms. Rodowicz told The Eagle that Berkshire County has only finished vaccinating 46 percent of 65- to 69-year-olds, and 52 percent of 70- to 74-year-olds. As those on Beacon Hill often need reminding, these Bay Staters bearing higher risk who happen to live west of Worcester are still your constituents — and they deserve protection and consideration as we finish out this viral fight.
When Gov. Baker announced the new appointment preregistration system, Statehouse News Service reported that “the administration said it will work to fold other providers into the preregistration system starting in April.” Berkshire vaccine clinics are doing crucial, life-saving work for the most-vulnerable among us. The state’s revamped preregistration system was a good step forward, but our regional vaccination sites deserve to be in on the loop — and they must be ahead of the April 19 open eligibility target.
Even as vaccine production ramps up, weekly dose allotment — now at around 150,000 in Massachusetts — will still be the main bottleneck to quickly getting shots in commonwealth residents’ arms. Gov. Baker on Wednesday said he expects the federal government to augment the supply in the coming weeks. Whatever the increase, the number of doses shipped to Massachusetts communities by May will likely still be short of what’s required to fully vaccinate all who will become eligible by April 19.
Frustrations, therefore, are likely to continue for some time. As projections become clearer on additional weekly doses from the feds, the state must be proactively transparent so that vaccine sites — particularly regional collaboratives serving areas overlooked by the mass vaccination site system like Berkshire County — can tailor, and temper, expectations as April 19 approaches.
More doses headed our way is good news for Massachusetts. But in the admirable goal to quickly reach open eligibility, the state must not leave behind those who most need the protection of vaccination.