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Massachusetts, Berkshire County Move Into New Vaccination Rollout Phase

People in masks enter a building
Paul Tuthill
People arrive for their appointments at the mass COVID vaccination site at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield.

The COVID-19 vaccination rollout in Massachusetts moved into a new phase today. Residents 65 and up and those with two or more comorbidities can now schedule appointments. But the process has been rocky. The state’s vaccine website crashed immediately this morning when appointment signups were supposed to begin. WAMC spoke today with Berkshire County Boards of Health Association and Berkshire Public Health Alliance Director Laura Kittross of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

KITTROSS: We had gotten to the point where we felt like we had reached many of our 75 and older. We were having appointments going unfilled because there weren't enough eligible people left. We have vaccinated somewhere north of 50%, maybe 55% of 75 year olds in the public clinic, and then a number of others have been done through long term care or they went to Walgreens or CVS, or they were vaccinated through their job and so on. So we were really pleased to go on to this next group.

WAMC: There's been concerns voiced in the community about older people getting access to the vaccination rollout internet resources, and certainly, there's been a fair amount of frustration and confusion over the state's vaccination website. Is that impacting efforts here in the county?

Of course, but we have- So, our councils on aging throughout the county have just been rock stars in this whole effort. They are available, anybody who doesn't have internet access can call a long list of councils on aging throughout the county. We've had town clerks helping people sign up, the health departments have been helping people sign up, Berkshire Health Systems has been calling their patients and getting them signed up, Volunteers In Medicine has been getting, you know- So there have been a number of avenues to go through if you if you've had trouble navigating the website yourself. And you know, we've also seen friends and family and neighbors helping people sign up as well. So I think the benefits that we've gotten from having an automated signup system has been substantial. And I hope that most people have been able to find a workaround if they weren't able to operate it themselves.

With this new phase of eligible people in the county signing up for vaccines – this being the 65 and up and folks with at least two comorbidities – what is the timeframe for those seeking appointments as of today?

So we had a number of appointments that we that went live yesterday. They filled in about four hours, several thousand appointments. We usually hear on Thursdays what our allocation for the following week will be in terms of vaccine. But I understand there's some delays this week due to weather. So it's a little unclear when vaccine will get here for next week. So as soon as we know what our allocation is for next week, and how many appointments we can open up, we will make an announcement on GetVaccinatedBerkshire.org, we’ll try to change the hotline recording. And we'll try to get people 12 to 24 hours’ notice this time that you know appointments are going to open Friday at noon or Monday at eight or you know, whatever it is, but just know that we can't make appointments until we know what vaccine we are going to be receiving. We don't want to ever be in the position of making appointments and then having to cancel them due to a lack of vaccine

With the progress of the vaccination rollout, what does it look like from this point for the wider population? Some estimates on the state level put that happening as soon as April- Are we still on track for that? Or what should folks expect for the coming phases?

Now it's a little hard to make estimates just because we don't know what vaccine the federal government will make available. And then, you know, once it's in the state, we don't know what the state will make available to the Berkshires. So it's a little hard to estimate. I've seen the reports that there's about a million people eligible in this current phase, and then we have that very large group of public facing workers in the next group. I have no reason to believe that we're not on track for those timelines that are put out. And certainly any vaccine we can get here in the Berkshires, we can put it into people's arms.

There's been a lot of criticism of Governor Charlie Baker's vaccination rollout. Are you seeing any impact from the state's planning on efforts to carry out the vaccination in Berkshire County?

Well, I mean, you know- First, let me start off by saying I think that anybody was in an impossible situation. We didn't have a coordinated roll up from the federal government, so each state was kind of on their own. And it's super easy to second guess people and say that you would have done it differently. That said, I understand the equity issues, and I'm totally in favor of the equity issues. But I do feel like we had a few too many small priority groups. You know, the vaccine team always says it's just as easy to do 1,000 people as it is to do 200 people in a clinic and it's been a little bit frustrating that these very nuanced groups have kept us from doing the kind of the large scale clinics that we would like to be doing. And then, you know, obviously, there's not enough vaccine. If there's a million people eligible, there's no matter who's in charge, and no matter what missteps they may have made, it's not possible to vaccinate everybody because we don't have the vaccine. I guess my final thing is that it has been frustrating to get these notifications last minute and not had time to plan. So you know, we literally got, you know, a couple hours’ notice that the governor was opening it up to 65. It's not like we heard, not like we knew a week earlier. So you know, just like everyone else, it would make it much easier if we had a lot of notice and were able to plan. But I don't think decisions are being made better, or in advance and being kept from us, I just think it's a moving target. And I keep saying we're building the road as we walk it.

Next week, there's a panel directed at communities of color in Berkshire County that's supposed to help assuage mistrust of government operations to encourage people in those communities to get the vaccine. Has that consideration been taken into account on the regional level here in Berkshire County, the fact that, you know, maybe some ways of reaching parts of the community are less effective than others?

Absolutely. You know, and we're working with trusted individuals and organizations. You know, again, everything's happening so fast, and there's so much going on. That, you know, had we had a robust planning effort for, you know, several, several months before this happened, we would have done a much better job of it, but we're doing our best to reach all communities and to try to assuage any completely legitimate in some cases concerns from our communities of color about, you know, medical treatment in the past and making sure that they understand that this is safe and effective. And, you know, trying again to reach out through the organizations and individuals in those communities.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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