The first vaccine for COVID-19 isn’t expected to be available for at least a few more months. And even when it is, there aren’t immediately going to be enough doses for everyone.
So officials in Massachusetts, as well as nationwide, are determining priorities in those early stages.
According to a recently released draft vaccine distribution plan, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration is preparing for three phases of availability, as outlined by the COVID-19 vaccination “playbook” released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (All states were required to submit respective distribution plans.)
During the first phase, Massachusetts expects initial allocations of between 20,000 and 60,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine (less than 1% of the state’s population of nearly 7 million residents). The state’s Department of Public Health says that, during the first phase of limited doses, it will prioritize three populations:
- Healthcare personnel likely to be exposed to or treat people with COVID-19;
- People at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including those with underlying medical conditions and people 65 years of age and older;
- Other essential workers.
According to the plan, healthcare workers will come first during that period, with DPH prioritizing hospitals; long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes; emergency medical services; and other providers.
“MDPH knows that this initial allocation of vaccine will be insufficient to immunize all providers associated with health care institutions and long-term care facilities,” the plan says. “Within each participating facility prioritized by MDPH, prior identification of clinical providers and non-clinical staff with anticipated direct contact with COVID-19 patients, patients over 65, and those with specific co-morbid conditions will be identified and flagged for prioritized vaccine allocation. Strict allocation management by facility and specificity of eligible recipients at the facility level will be required to ensure complete and equitable distribution of vaccine in this initial phase.”
The plan also says that the Baker administration intends to deploy the Massachusetts National Guard to help nursing homes and other congregate care facilities vaccinate their staff and residents.
The CDC’s playbook does not say exactly how long they expect the first (or second or third) phase to last. But with more than a dozen companies around the world, including a several in Massachusetts, working on a vaccine, federal officials say they expect the supply of doses to “increase quickly over the proceeding months, allowing vaccination efforts to be expanded to additional critical populations and the general public.”
Once a large supply is available, Massachusetts’s plan says they will work with a broad network — including local health departments, hospitals, community health centers, pediatric and family care providers, and other medical specialists — during the second phase to make the vaccine available to the general public, with a focus on “critical populations.”
During a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Baker said the state will “make it a priority to reach out specifically to groups that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 including people and communities of color.”
Once there is a sufficient supply of vaccine doses, the state’s plan says officials will “focus on ensuring equitable vaccination across the entire population,” as well as monitor and address areas where the vaccination rate appears low.
The state is also planning a public awareness campaign once the vaccine is available to make sure people know it “has been approved by the federal government and is safe and effective,” Baker said Tuesday. According to the distribution plan, efforts will focus on racial and linguistic minorities, who may be skeptical or unaware about the vaccine.
“MDPH will refer to emerging evidence of historic and COVID-19-specific vaccine hesitancy and under-immunization risk,” the document says. “Particular concerns surround the African American and other Black communities who have expressed concerns about vaccine safety and efficacy, linguistic minorities who may have lesser access to current and reliable information about the vaccine, and some non-U.S. born residents who may have concerns related to governmental engagement related to immigration status.”
Baker also noted that the plan is not yet finalized and “will probably change as more information becomes available.” The draft plan comes as Massachusetts and other states experience an “expected” increase in reported COVID-19 cases this fall, Baker said. Still, the governor reiterated that Massachusetts is in a “a strong position to keep fighting this virus,” due to increased testing capacity and a more prepared heath care system, as long as residents continue to adhere to the state’s face covering and gathering rules.
“While we continue to plan for distribution of a vaccine, we can’t take our eyes off the measures that we’ve been talking about for the last several months to keep people safe,” Baker said.