25 Investigates: How will the COVID-19 vaccine be distributed in Mass.?

BOSTON — As progress continues on the COVID-19 vaccines, there are questions about how and when doses will arrive here in Massachusetts and, how they will be given out.

25 Investigates took those questions straight to the group of local doctors and scientists working through those very issues.

Governor Charlie Baker appointed his COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group in mid-October and the members have been meeting ever since. Their work is ramping up now that three vaccine developers have reported positive results.

“We want to vaccinate everyone who’s medically eligible as soon as we possibly have a vaccine for them,” said Doctor Paul Biddinger, Medical Director for Emergency Preparedness at Mass General Hospital and chair of the advisory group.

Mapping out how that happens is no easy task. But, Biddinger says the commonwealth is well-positioned for a successful rollout.

“I think the Commonwealth is in really about the best position one can be in for probably the most complicated vaccination endeavor, certainly, in my lifetime in the U.S.,” Biddinger told anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh.

Biddinger points to an already robust vaccine system and strong track rates of vaccination. But when it comes to a new COVID-19 vaccine, there are variables.

“We now are about to have multiple products, but we still don’t know which one,” Biddinger said.

The group also doesn’t exactly know just how many doses the state will get.

Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca are working toward obtaining federal approval for their vaccines. Pfizer filed for emergency use authorization with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.

Biddinger says, if granted, it’s possible 400,000 doses will arrive in Massachusetts in December.

“But what we have to do is figure out how we can get it to where it needs to be, the priority populations,” said Biddinger.

Priority populations include the following:

  • Frontline health care workers
  • People in long term care facilities
  • Those considered medically at the highest risk
  • Those in hardest hit communities

Hospitals will likely vaccinate their own employees. A federal program will use CVS and Walgreens pharmacy workers to vaccinate those in long-term care facilities.

But what should everyone else expect?

“There’s another federal program with those two companies and others, to use pharmacies as a major distribution source for a lot of the general public and prioritization populations,” Biddinger said.

Massachusetts-based Stop & Shop and Star Market announced their pharmacies will also be a part of distribution.

“I think the biggest obstacle ultimately will bank will be getting people to take it,” said Doctor Robert Finberg, Chair of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and UMass Memorial Health, who also serves on the advisory group.

“Vaccines don’t prevent diseases, people taking vaccine prevent diseases,” said Finberg.

“What role do you play in getting that to happen?” Kavanaugh asked.

“I think we need to be clear on the safety and efficacy,” said Finberg.

Both experts say getting that buy-in is the key to getting Massachusetts back to normal. But, they caution it’s a long-term effort.

“With 400,000 maybe doses available for Massachusetts, which may be an optimistic assumption, but 6.9 million citizens, that certainly means that we’re not going to get very far down the priority list,” Biddinger said. “We want to vaccinate everyone as quickly as possible. But, it will take a while.”

The doctors say this isn’t over once you get the shot.

First, both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two doses. And then, while you develop immunity, you can still shed the virus. Masks and social distancing will be with us for a while in 2021 and possibly even after.

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