PROVINCETOWN — When it comes to allocating Covid resources, Cape Cod has been treated like a distant afterthought. The state hasn’t opened a free Stop the Spread testing site here, and it was even a struggle getting the money to organize the self-pay, $75-per-test site in Hyannis.
Initial inquiries were made about opening a MassVax site at Cape Cod Community College, but the state ultimately opted for only six sites, all on the mainland. Local boards of health representing the 15 towns of Cape Cod have received a pitiful 200 doses total since vaccinations began. The Barnstable County Health Dept. has taken a leading role in vaccine requests and delivery on Cape Cod, yet it has been given only 975 doses per week.
The Baker administration has been prioritizing MassVax sites and the CVS and Walgreens pharmacy chains in its vaccine distribution decisions. Those outlets require people to register online for a vaccine appointment, a process that has been so frustrating and flawed that state Rep. Sarah Peake called it the “Covid Hunger Games.” Once secured, a MassVax appointment requires a long drive off Cape, which is why state Sen. Julian Cyr said, “The current registration and appointment system is benefitting the fittest, the most tech-savvy, and those with wheels.”
Amid this uproar comes a glimmer of good news. Even though Gov. Charlie Baker told hospitals and local boards of health they wouldn’t be getting new vaccine allocations this month, he kept community health centers (CHCs) as part of his plan. President Joe Biden’s administration has also announced a plan to funnel vaccines to CHCs nationwide. This makes Outer Cape Health Services (OCHS) and the Community Health Center of Cape Cod, both of which are federally qualified CHCs, more important parts of the local vaccine picture.
Even so, local leaders see a Cape Cod-sized loophole forming. On Feb. 17, the state announced that towns and cities would receive direct vaccine allocations only if they formed a “regional collaborative” that could collectively administer 750 doses a day. Barnstable County already is a “regional collaborative,” and it has administered multiple 800-dose-per-day clinics in various parts of the Cape.
“If they can send us 800 doses per day, we can get that into people’s arms,” said Peake this week.
“We could meet that capacity requirement,” said Sean O’Brien, the county’s health director.
“We are organizing to make a request for vaccine on those terms,” confirmed Frank Schulze, Cyr’s communications director. “Hopefully, we’ll have more to say about this next week.”
Calling the Vulnerable
One of the reasons CHCs are receiving attention is they have existing provider relationships with vulnerable, hard-to-reach people. CHCs tend to be located in remote or under-resourced areas. They can directly schedule their oldest and sickest patients for vaccination appointments, instead of forcing those patients to navigate an online version of Thunderdome. They also do not present a transportation challenge. For remote communities such as the Outer Cape, it’s the difference between getting vaccinated at home or a few minutes away, in Wellfleet or Provincetown, or driving a few hours to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.
OCHS has administered first and second doses to 300 phase-one medical workers, said Gerry Desautels, the clinic’s communications director, and, as of Feb. 22, it had given first doses to another 1,100 people.
“We are receiving a few hundred doses per week between our three health center sites” in Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Harwich, said Desautels. “We are working through a list of eligible patients as quickly as we can, making sure to personally reach out first to our most vulnerable patients.
“For those who are homebound or otherwise unable to travel, OCHS will be working with the local towns to vaccinate those populations in their residences,” Desautels added.
‘Closed’ vs. ‘Open’ Clinics
“If we can get to those oldest, most vulnerable people first, that’s going to do a heck of a lot of good in saving lives,” said Cyr. “If we’re going to have limited vaccine, I would prefer to see [vaccines going to] these targeted closed clinics that get to the most needy residents, instead of this privatized MassVax system.”
Vaccination appointments at “closed clinics” are made directly. They’re not available to the wider public. Most of Barnstable County’s clinics have been “open” — like MassVax — with appointments made via the state’s main site, which has been plagued with problems. Barnstable County is running its first closed clinic on Thursday, Feb. 25, in Eastham, said the county’s communications director, Sonja Sheasley. Its 280 doses will be allocated equally to the four Outer Cape towns, with the local health depts. in charge of identifying underserved residents who are eligible for vaccination. The Feb. 25 clinic is the only closed clinic currently scheduled by the county, Sheasley added.
This means that, for people who are currently eligible for the Covid vaccine, it’s a good idea to be in touch with your doctor, your local board of health, or possibly both.
“Vaccine-eligible OCHS patients can call to schedule an appointment,” said Desautels. People who are not existing patients can go to outercape.org’s Covid page and fill out a patient registration form first.
People who don’t have a doctor already may find it easier to go directly to their town’s health dept. If the CHCs and the county continue to get increased allocations, they may become an easier route to vaccination than a trek off Cape.
Update: On Wednesday, Feb. 24 (after this week’s Independent went to press), Cape Cod leaders announced that the state had approved the Cape Cod Regional Vaccine Consortium. Cape Cod Healthcare will run a large-scale vaccination site at Cape Cod Community College in Barnstable, with the capacity to administer at least 3,750 doses per week. Outer Cape Health Services and the Community Health Center of Cape Cod will collaborate with the 15 municipal boards of health on a program to vaccinate homebound seniors in their homes. The county health department will continue vaccination clinics at four sites: Falmouth, Orleans, Eastham, and Truro. Collectively, these efforts will account for nearly 6,000 doses per week on Cape Cod, contingent on the state’s ability to supply that many doses.