25 Investigates: Back of the pack, Mass. struggles to keep vaccine pace with other states

BOSTON — 25 Investigates has reported for weeks that many states are outpacing Massachusetts in COVID-19 vaccine distribution. And, we continue to ask why.

Massachusetts health officials have frequently blamed the federal government, under the Trump administration, for the slow and bumpy rollout of the vaccines here in the Commonwealth.

On Monday, Governor Charlie Baker defended the Massachusetts rollout plan, saying the Commonwealth’s plan was designed to protect vulnerable communities, including people in nursing homes and areas disproportionately affected. He says other states did not prioritize those groups, which he says require a lot of outreach.

That said, Massachusetts is near the bottom of the pack when you look at the percentage of doses that made into people’s arms. According to Bloomberg’s COVID-19 tracker, Massachusetts ranks 43rd in the nation in percentage of shots it’s used, having administered just 48.9 percent of the doses it’s received.

“It is great that we have a new administration. But, on the other hand, we shouldn’t just assume that because now we have a new person in the White House, things are going to change. Eventually this is going to be a local effort,” said Tinglong Dai, PhD an associate professor of operations and management at Johns Hopkins University, who specializes in healthcare analytics. He’s studied the national vaccine rollout from day one.

“I think it’s logistics that really matters when talk about real people,” he said.

Dai told anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh that the beginning of the rollout over the 2020 holidays, along with a resource crunch, particularly of those qualified and then eligible to administer the vaccine, hindered the process nationwide.

But, Dai pointed to logistics in West Virginia, which has distributed 84.5 percent of its doses, according to Bloomberg, after opting out of the federal pharmacy program for long-term care facilities.

“So, what West Virginia did differently was that they built their own networks, so that they’re forming the partnerships between local pharmacies and their own nursing homes,” Dai said. “So, they were able to have more pharmacies than those homes for the vaccination effort.”

Massachusetts remained a part of the federal program until Monday, when Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders announced the state is pausing involvement because of how slowly it’s going.

“As of January 19th, 300,000 doses have been allocated to the federal pharmacy program and only 80,000 doses have been administered,” Sudders said during a news conference on Beacon Hill Monday afternoon. “We received permission to pull back doses allotted for their vaccine allocation into the federal program in order for the federal program to use what they have in hand.”

Governor Baker added it was delayed from the beginning because states needed enough doses to cover 50 percent of the state’s long-term care population before the rollout could begin, and that didn’t happen until the second week of the rollout.

Massachusetts is also now peeling back some red tape and making some changes to speed things up. On Monday, Baker announced they’re adding people aged 65 and older and people with at least two co-morbidities to the phase two priority group. That starts February 1st.

And, last week, Massachusetts expanded agreements with pharmacies.

Health officials say by the end of this week, there’ll be 103 publicly available vaccination sites and 165 by mid-February.

While states await better clarity from the feds, Dai says it’s urgent states continue to clarify their own plans on the ground.

“So, it’s a local effort needs a local leadership.”

Using the West Virginia example, Dai said they enlisted logistical help from the national guard immediately.

Baker said Monday that all the comparison data is useful but should be looked at relatively. But, he looks at them too. He said when he saw the lagging nursing home vaccine data in many other states, he called those governors and found they too were having the same problems.

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