Governor Baker's vaccine rollout prompts pressing problems

Governor Charlie Baker provides updates on in-person learning and COVID-19 vaccinations at a State House press conference on Feb. 23, 2021.

With website crashes, changing vaccine supply rules, racial disparities in vaccine distribution, and an unusual companion exception, the Massachusetts vaccine rollout is plagued with major issues, prompting criticism from leaders and citizens. 

Gov. Baker recently moved the vaccine distribution to Phase Two, Group Two, allowing residents and staff of low-income and affordable senior housing, those with two or more certain conditions, and those who are aged 65+ to be vaccinated. As a result, more than one million additional people became eligible for a vaccine.

The Vaxfinder website used to schedule appointments crashed due to the high traffic. While the crash was fixed, appointments became scarce. PrepMod, a Maryland company behind the Vaxfinder website, took responsibility for the website crash, saying their system “did not scale fast enough to accommodate the increased volume.” The state paid $438,531 in its contract with PrepMod. 

Massachusetts representatives and senators signed a letter urging Gov. Baker to create a centralized sign-up system for the vaccine. This would allow people to pre-register for shots rather than register as soon as they are eligible. Individuals would also be able to receive a notification when appointments nearby were available. The current Vaxfinder website mainly shows appointments for mass vaccination locations.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey signed the letter, along with Massachusetts Reps. Katherine Clark, James McGovern, Lori Trahan, Jake Auchincloss, Seth Moulton, Ayanna Pressley, Stephen Lynch, and William Keating. 

Olivia Adams, an Arlington resident, created a centralized website after the website crash. She created her own website due to the difficulties experienced by her mother-in-law and her father when signing up for a vaccine. Adams says she has not been contacted by Baker’s administration directly; Baker said he would like to speak with Adams. 

Baker’s administration has been criticized for their decision to halt shipments of first doses to smaller vaccination sites and communities with local clinics after March 1. Mass vaccination sites and pharmacies will be prioritized for vaccine supply.  About 30 local leaders from towns and cities in Plymouth and Norfolk County issued a statement denouncing this policy. They say the rule undermines their ability to vaccinate those who are eligible to be vaccinated, specifically individuals aged 75+, in their community. 

Baker’s administration also restricted supplies to hospitals on Feb. 11 to prioritize mass vaccination sites. This rule was reversed after several hospitals and health systems created a plan with health officials to receive vaccines. Two hospitals, Mass General Brigham and Beth Israel Lahey Health, can offer vaccines to their own patients, and other organizations will vaccinate anyone who is eligible. The original decision was criticized for compromising efforts to vaccinate at-risk communities and BIPOC residents. 

A coalition, Vaccine Equity Now!, says they will issue five demands to Gov. Baker on the administration’s failure to prevent racial disparities in the vaccine distribution. They state that white residents received 12 times more doses than Black residents. The number increases to 16 times more doses compared to Latinx residents. The coalition is made up of civil rights and immigrant activists, elected officials, public health experts, and organizations like the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and the NAACP.

Another letter was issued to Gov. Baker by 21 House Democrats. The letter voiced concerns that a companion rule issued by Baker, where those who accompany residents aged 75+ to a vaccine appointment will also be vaccinated, favors people who have access to a car and the ability to take time off work. This may create more racial disparities in the rollout as people with those two abilities will tend to be white and wealthy. The letter also states that vaccines will end up going to “healthy adults” instead of individuals who are at-risk for severe illness with COVID-19.

Websites such as Craiglist are showing advertisements from people who are offering rides and money to those who are aged 75+ in order to receive a vaccine. Baker says that people who receive offers to be taken to a site in exchange for a vaccine should report it to authorities.

Currently, 1.4 million residents in Massachusetts have begun the vaccination process. Baker hopes that the pending approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, along with more production by Pfizer and Moderna, will allow the administration to vaccinate more residents.

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