State plans to wind down mass vaccination sites

Baker shifting resources to targeted community efforts

WITH 70 PERCENT of Massachusetts adults having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday announced plans to wind down operations at mass vaccination sites while making the shots more easily available in local communities. The shift comes as demand for the shots has been leveling out, indicating that most people eager to get a shot have already done so. 

Now that we believe we are going to hit the 4.1 million goal we started with over the next few weeks, it’s time to adapt our vaccination efforts to make sure we get to some of the harder to reach populations,” Baker said at a State House press conference.  

According to the CDC, 3.9 million people in Massachusetts have received at least one shot as of Monday, or 70 percent of eligible adults. Another 180,000 people have scheduled appointments to get a first dose in the next week. When the COVID-19 vaccines first rolled out in December, Baker set a goal of vaccinating 4.1 million state residents, and he said those people are on track to be fully vaccinated by the beginning of June. 

As a result, the governor announced that four of the state’s seven mass vaccination sites will close by the end of June. These include Gillette Stadium, Hynes Convention Center, DoubleTree hotel in Danvers, and the Natick Mall. Baker said those sites were chosen because of the availability of alternative vaccination sites in the area and projections about interest in appointments there. The Hynes site is also part of a federal partnership with FEMA, which was always scheduled to end after eight weeks. The seven mass sites have administered 1.2 million vaccine doses so far. 

At the same time, state officials will pivot toward making the shots more accessible within communities.  They will provide more doses to regional collaboratives, in which community boards of health and health care providers team up to run vaccine sites. The state will expand the use of mobile vaccine clinics, which can go to community centers, houses of worship, senior centers, housing complexes, or other accessible locations. The state will also double the vaccine allocation given to 20 communities hard-hit by COVID. 

State officials are also working with the Massachusetts Medical Society to make more vaccines available to primary care doctors by mid-May, although Baker said planners have to work through the logistics of storing the vaccine and scheduling the appointments, since both the Pfizer and Moderna shots need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures and distributed within a certain time frame of being thawed. 

Among the efforts that are already starting: a regional collaborative is opening new clinics at Encore Casino in Everett, the Tufts University campus in Medford, and a Cambridge Health Alliance location in Somerville. Boston Medical Center set up a vaccine scheduling location at South Bay Shopping Center. Several cities are operating bilingual mobile clinics at churches. 

“We hope to make the process more convenient and more accessible and continue to add to the count of those already fully vaccinated,” Baker said. 

Until now, the mass vaccination sites had been open for appointments only through the state’s pre-registration system. The sites have now been opened up so anyone can make an appointment using the state’s vaxfinder website. The sites will soon host walk-in clinics as well.  

In  contrast with previous months, Baker said appointments are now readily available across the state.  

“There’s no more waiting or hassle, you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to get an appointment. You can protect yourself, your family, and get back to normal by getting vaccinated soon – today, tomorrow, this week, next week,” Baker said.  

Baker said survey data has shown that many of the 30 percent of remaining unvaccinated individuals “aren’t people who never want to be vaccinated, they just didn’t want to go first.”  

“In some cases, it’s literally just us getting to them and making it easier for them to get vaccinated,” he said. 

The state’s preregistration system will remain operational, with state officials eyeing it as a scheduling tool to use if the CDC authorizes vaccines to children ages 12-15. Baker declined to go into details on how the state would handle vaccinations of children, saying he would consult with medical experts and announce more details when a shot is approved. 

While all the data shows that the vaccines have been effective in reducing COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations, there has been a shift in thinking since the state first set its goal of vaccinating 4.1 million people. At the time, Baker suggested that a high vaccine rate could lead to herd immunity, the level at which enough people are immune to COVID that it can no longer circulate through society.  

Baker said his approach now is that vaccinations will reduce sickness, hospitalizations, and deaths, and “the more people you get vaccinated the safer everybody will be as individuals and as a community.” But he shied away from declaring that the state would reach herd immunity. 

Dr. Paul Biddinger, the director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Disaster Medicine  who led the state’s vaccine advisory commissionsaid  that there is “evolving thought about whether we can eradicate COVID in the community,” and the current thought is “probably not.” 

Now, Biddinger said, “It’s about managing consequences.” That means making sure that most of the population – and particularly those who are most vulnerable – are less likely to get sick or die from COVID-19, even if it continues circulating within the community. “We hope to minimize the consequences and get this coronavirus as close to an ordinary infection as opposed to an extraordinary one,” Biddinger said. 

For several months, Baker had touted the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine as a potential game-changer in the state’s vaccination effort because it is a single shot with easier storage requirements. Monday, he backed away from that characterization, acknowledging the vaccine was less of a game-changer than he had hoped, mainly because it has not been available. Manufacturing has been uneven, and the federal government paused its use for over a week due to an investigation of rare blood clots in some women who received the vaccine. Only 230,000 Massachusetts residents have gotten a Johnson & Johnson shot so far. 

“The biggest reason J&J has been less of a solution for a lot of people is it hasn’t been available,” Baker said. 

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Baker emphatically doubled down on his stance that he will not require any segment of state employees to be vaccinated in order to keep their jobs. “The idea I’d kick someone out of a job, especially in this economy we have now, because you wouldn’t get vaccinated right away on an (emergency use authorization) approved vaccine, no, I’m not going to play that game,” Baker said. 

Baker said his focus will be on making it easier for people to get vaccinated. “The idea that we would take those folks and basically make them choose between their rent and their food on the table and all the rest when they have in some comes case very legitimate reasons to be nervous about a government-run program that’s going to put a shot in their arm. No, I’m not going there,” Baker said.