In vaccine rollout, cities find themselves on the front line 

Revere reaching out to senior citizens to help navigate problem-plagued state launch

IN ALL THE finger-pointing over the state’s shaky COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the criticism may have been aimed at Charlie Baker, but in Revere, the phone calls went to Brian Arrigo.

Local government is where people often turn first for help, and Revere’s mayor said they have looked to him and city government throughout the pandemic. That was no different last week when the state website was launched on Wednesday to allow residents 75 and older to begin signing up for coronavirus vaccine appointments for Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination plan, which began this Monday. 

Revere’s 311 constituent service hotline usually fields 150 to 180 calls per day. “That day we got 400,” said the 40-year-old mayor. “It was really clear that we had to not wait for people to be calling us. We had to flip that.”  

That meant reaching out proactively to senior citizens to try to help them with the confusing vaccine sign-up process, where there are multiple options for where to get immunized and, for those able to navigate the portal, the effort was often leading to a frustrating dead-end with no appointments available anywhere nearby. 

Starting on Monday this week, the second floor of Revere’s senior center — home to an indoor bocce court usually buzzing with seasoned bowlers —  was transformed into a call center where up to 30 city workers and volunteers were making phone calls to some of the roughly 2,500 Revere residents aged 75 and older now eligible to get vaccinated. Plexiglas dividers separate the callers. 

The second floor of Revere’s senior citizen center, home to a now-shuttered indoor bocce court, has been turned into a call center to reach out to seniors about the COVID vaccine.

Working off voter registration rolls, Census information, and other city data bases, about 500 calls were made on Monday, with about 375 households reached. After trying to reach the priority 75-and-older population, the phone bank callers will expand their reach to include those 65 and older, who are part of the next wave of residents who will be able to sign up for a vaccine. 

There are callers fluent in Spanish, Arabic, and Portuguese, the three most widely spoken languages in Revere after English. 

The city’s outreach role is a bit “middle man-ish,” said Arrigo, since the callers are primarily trying to help seniors connect with a vaccine sign-up. He said callers first ask seniors where they get health care, since various providers serving Revere residents — including Mass. General Hospital, Beth Israel Lahey Health, and the Cambridge Health Alliance — have their own hotlines to help patients schedule vaccination visits. 

Arrigo said the phonebank workers are scheduling follow-up calls for residents who need extended help trying to navigate the state sign-up website. 

“We are digging into the fact that a lot of our seniors are going to face some real challenges around this,” he said. As for the mass vaccination sites that have been established, he said, “They aren’t just going to be able to get up and go to Foxborough, a lot of them aren’t going to be able to go to Fenway.”

Over the summer, Revere used federal CARES Act funding to hire a dozen people to serve as “COVID ambassadors” to conduct outreach among communities that are often less connected to city and state government. Their work included mask distribution and literature drops with information on the pandemic to the city’s large non-English speaking immigrant community. 

Arrigo said the city is now considering redeploying the COVID ambassadors, with iPads, to make house calls to help sign up seniors citizens for vaccination appointments. 

Revere’s ability to make a difference directly in the surge of demand for vaccinations is limited. The city’s public health department has been told it will be allotted at least 400 doses per week. “We can get that in the arm of residents in a day,” Arrigo said. 

Along with all the technical and logistical problems with the vaccine sign-up for seniors, many don’t use computers or even have internet access. Responding to heavy criticism last week, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that a statewide call center would be set up to help senior citizens book appointments, but it has yet to be launched. 

Arrigo said it is important to simply establish a human connection with senior citizens, many of whom have been essentially housebound for nearly a year. “We’ve got to talk to people about what’s going on. I think that was lost in the rollout,” he said of the new vaccination phase targeted older residents. “It’s really important right now because there’s been so much anxiety and fear.” 

As the city’s mayor, Arrigo said he feels “responsible for the health and wellbeing of all these people.” He said that has led him to focus more on what the city could do to help rather than joining the torrent of criticism of the state. “Instead of pointing fingers we said, what are the solutions we can come up with?” he said. “What can we control and what can we do for our residents?”

“We’re the folks that everyone looks to first,” he said. “They’re not going to call the governor. They’re going to call the mayor.”

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

And sometimes the mayor is going to call them.

Arrigo took a turn working the phones himself for about two hours on Monday. “Obviously a conversation with the mayor ends up being a little different than the ones others in our team are having,” he said. “It went from the vaccine to ‘can you help me shovel out my driveway’ to ‘can you help with tax preparation.’ Every call went a little longer.”