PROVINCETOWN — Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to prioritize six mass Covid-19 vaccination sites around the state, while sending hardly any vaccine at all to Cape Cod, has people here feeling “frustrated, disappointed, and, frankly, pretty enraged.” Those were the words of state Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro. He was joined in those sentiments by a wide range of Cape Codders, including 92 local leaders who delivered a letter to the governor on Wednesday, Feb. 17.
The entire legislative delegation of Democrats and Republicans from the Cape signed the letter, as well as eight town managers or administrators and the entire select boards of Provincetown, Truro, and Eastham.
“The situation on the ground is untenable,” the letter said. “Each of us have received hundreds of emails and calls with urgent pleas for help from constituents who cannot drive to Gillette Stadium or Dartmouth.” The four mass vaccination sites that are currently open are in Boston, Danvers, Springfield, and Foxborough, the site of Gillette Stadium. Sites in Natick and Dartmouth are expected to open next week.
“We will need 55,000 doses to vaccinate all Cape Codders 75 and older,” the letter said. “The county is only receiving 975 doses a week. Cape Codders are being left behind.”
These numbers may be understating the problem. Gov. Baker has signaled that he wants to prioritize the mass vaccination sites. He has told hospitals their allocations will be cut, and, in January, he told towns and cities not to expect much supply in February. Community health centers like Outer Cape Health Services are still a part of his plan, but retail pharmacies appear to be taking a much larger role.
Last week, 53,000 doses were allocated to the four mass vaccination sites, and CVS was allocated 30,000 doses, according to State House News Service reports. Walgreens was allocated another 7,000 doses. The Stop & Shop and Hannaford supermarket chains combined were allocated 2,000 doses last week.
Retail pharmacies and mass vaccination sites give their doses to whoever can register online the fastest. Older, sicker, and more isolated seniors are at a disadvantage, especially if they have no help registering or getting to vaccination sites.
Community health centers and town boards of health, however, can take action by calling their most vulnerable patients and scheduling appointments. Yet they’re not being allocated enough vaccine. Instead, it’s going almost exclusively to CVS locations and to four mass vaccination sites.
This is part of why local leaders are so frustrated. “Local boards of health have coordinated with councils on aging, police, fire, and other departments in their respective towns to identify the most vulnerable older adults, and are doing so across town boundaries,” their letter said. “Municipalities are working with Cape Cod Healthcare, community health centers, and Barnstable County to execute a plan to reach homebound and vulnerable older adults who are not able to access the current vaccine scheme … but we need vaccine to do so.”
Whenever Barnstable County has posted vaccination clinics online, available slots have been snapped up in an hour or less. The mass vaccination sites, on the other hand, appear to suffer from a demand problem. Hundreds or thousands of appointments can sit unclaimed for days. As of press time, there were 1,000 appointments still available at Gillette Stadium on Friday, Feb. 19 and Saturday, Feb. 20. More than 1,500 appointments were still available for Sunday, Feb. 21.
To encourage people to go to mass sites, the governor introduced a “companion vaccine policy,” which allows those who drive eligible seniors to vaccine appointments to receive the vaccine themselves — literally, anyone. There are no rules requiring the two parties to be linked, and these escorts need not be eligible themselves. Immediately, a gray market popped up of strangers hoping to drive elders to vaccine appointments and get vaccinated themselves; some were willing to pay for the privilege.
“I have no idea why the governor is placing such an emphasis on off-Cape mass vaccination sites,” said state Rep. Sarah Peake. “It clearly does not serve the people of Barnstable County. Please send us the doses so we can get them into people’s arms here on Cape Cod.”
“An all-of-the-above strategy makes sense when you don’t have a vaccine supply problem,” said Cyr. But “if you have to choose, I’d rather see vaccine going to entities that can make sure the most vulnerable people get access.”
Only two boards of health on Cape Cod have received vaccine: 100 doses went to Sandwich, and 100 to Barnstable. The CVS in Yarmouth has been posting about 140 appointments daily, according to Cyr’s office.
The Community Health Center of Cape Cod has been receiving vaccine, and CEO Karen Gardner said she is expecting to receive about 300 doses a week for the near future.
Outer Cape Health Services has also vaccinated hundreds of medical workers, and “has started to vaccinate our 75-and-older patients,” said CEO Pat Nadle. “We will continue to submit requests for more vaccine, and hopefully DPH will honor them.”
“Our boards of health and our county government have been planning for years for this,” Cyr said. “And now, the county is receiving 975 doses a week? There’s a real disconnect here.”
Late Update: On Wednesday, Feb. 17, Gov. Baker announced that people between the ages of 65 and 74, and people with two or more co-morbidities on a CDC list of conditions that can worsen the impact of COVID, can register for vaccine appointments starting Thursday morning, Feb. 18. According to the Cape Cod Commission’s datacapecod.com, there are about 36,000 people between 65 and 74 in Barnstable County, and about 28,000 people older than 75. To find appointments, go to mass.gov/vaccine.