WHITMAN — More than 30 municipal leaders, first responders, public health officials and school superintendents from across Plymouth and Norfolk County came together in Whitman this morning to address the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, following the state’s announcement yesterday regarding the prioritization of mass and regional sites as opposed to local clinics.
“The need for local clinics is especially important during Phase 2 of the distribution, as during this phase we are beginning the work to vaccinate our oldest and sickest portion of the population, and these individuals are the ones who should be asked to drive the least amount of distance and be given the greatest access to quick and efficient vaccine sites,” Whitman Fire Chief Timothy Grenno said. “Local clinics for the oldest and sickest population offer a familiar, comfortable and convenient location when people need it the most, and remove a significant level of anxiety that can accompany the larger mass sites. At a municipal clinic a person is greeted by their local fire chief or Board of Health director, not an intimidatingly long line and group of unknown, unfamiliar workers.”
On Wednesday, Feb. 17, local municipalities were informed that effective the week of March 1, the state will no longer be providing first dose vaccines for most individual municipal clinics. Instead, the state will be placing a greater emphasis on mass vaccination sites and regionalized clinics, which prompted the municipal leaders to gather Thursday at the Whitman Knights of Columbus — the site of a local first responder vaccine clinic — to voice their concerns.
The state’s decision was made despite municipal agencies being uniquely qualified and prepared to handle emergency situations such as the distribution of vaccines.
“We want our residents to know that we are prepared to provide local vaccine clinics as needed, and we have already done extensive planning and made significant investments in equipment and training,” said Medway Fire Chief and Norfolk County Fire Chiefs President Jeffrey Lynch. “One big question for us, for example, is our homebound residents. We are prepared to bring the vaccine to them, but we have not been told what the plan is to allow us to do this. We stand ready to provide vaccines to our residents if given the opportunity to by the state.”
Hanover Town Manager Joseph Colangelo and Fire Chief Jeffrey Blanchard each spoke of the role local municipalities have had to play in assisting their communities since the onset of the pandemic, only to now be cut off from vaccine allotments.
The Town of Hanover has already invested over half a million dollars in federal CARES Act funds to build up a mobile integrated health program that has allowed the Town to test more than 7,500 residents and school-aged children,” Town Manager Colangelo said. “We were willing and able to seamlessly transition from testing to vaccinations.”
Now that the option for such local vaccinations has been removed, residents are wondering what will happen next.
“There is a level of frustration in our town that is palpable,” Chief Blanchard said. “Our Board of Health, our public health and school nurses, our paramedics and fire department have all worked together during this pandemic, and we are prepared to do vaccinations. Our Council on Aging received 20 phone calls before 9 a.m. this morning from residents who are concerned that they now won’t have the opportunity to receive a vaccine. They feel hopeless.”
Those who spoke wanted to tell their residents directly that they will continue to fight for vaccine doses, despite the state’s recent announcement.
“I want to reassure the residents of Abington, and residents throughout the entire region, that we will continue to fiercely advocate for our ability to continue to conduct local vaccine clinics,” Abington Public Health Director Marty Golightly said.
Some were quick to point out that there is a place for regional clinics in the distribution process, but that mass sites should be run in connection with municipal clinics, not in place of them.
“We are not against mass vaccination sites or pharmacies who have the vaccine. There is definitely a need for them, but they simply can’t cover all of our residents,” said Chief John Nuttall of Abington Fire-Rescue. “The real missing piece is an allotment to go to the smaller communities so we can directly administer these vaccines to residents who — for whatever reason — will not be going to these larger sites.”
Chief Nuttall highlighted the geographic disparity of mass sites, saying the Town of Abington was told by the state that a “nearby” site in Dartmouth was opening, despite the two towns being roughly 40 miles apart.
“It is time to begin to question what is going on [with the state’s plan] so that we can get the vaccines to our residents who we know best,” he said.
Whitman-Hanson Regional School District Superintendent Jeffrey Szymaniak said he was surprised that local schools are not being used as mass vaccination sites.
“Our school nurses are available and ready to work with local health agents and fire chiefs to provide vaccines, not only to our senior population but also to our teachers who will become eligible,” Superintendent Szymaniak said.
Superintendent Szymaniak added that he had real concerns over teachers being able to receive vaccines at regional sites instead of at clinics in the direct area of their school district, and the impact that would have on being able to safely reopen schools for more in-person learning.
State elected officials were also on hand to speak and give their full support for municipal-run clinics, including Sen. Michael Brady of the 2nd Plymouth and Bristol district, Rep. Alyson Sullivan of the 7th Plymouth district and Rep. Kathy LaNatra of the 12th Plymouth district.