Vaccine Demand May Initially Outstrip Supply

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

A Barnstable County public health nurse prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.  FILE PHOTO

Appointments May Not Be Available At First

In news that is likely to be welcome in Chatham and Orleans – demographically two of the oldest towns in New England – Gov. Charlie Baker announced this week that 75-and-older residents have been moved to the front of the line in Phase 2 of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, with people 65 and older next in line. But local public health officials warn that, as of now, there aren’t enough doses to go around.

Set to begin on Feb. 1, Phase 2 will involve vaccinations, by appointment only, at regional clinics. Details will be posted at www.Mass.gov/CovidVaccine, where people can check their eligibility to be vaccinated, select a clinic and sign up for an appointment starting Jan. 27. Baker said that, by the end of this week, 103 vaccine sites will have opened around the state, capable of administering 242,000 doses each week. By the middle of February, 165 should be open, ready to give 305,000 vaccines a week. Those numbers represent the capacity of the clinic, not the quantity of vaccine that’s available to the state, the governor cautioned.

“We can only move as fast as the federal government ships vaccines to the Commonwealth,” Baker said. If shipments continue at the current pace, there may be some empty seats and open appointments that can’t be filled, he noted. The extra capacity has been built into the system in hopes that vaccine production and distribution increases, Baker said.

But on Tuesday, Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said he and other public health officials around the Cape are extremely frustrated by the governor’s announcement.

“There is still an extreme difficulty in getting vaccine,” he said. While Phase 1 of the roll-out plan is set to end, there are still first responders and people in congregate living who have yet to receive doses, he said. It is clear that not enough vaccine is making it to the state from the federal government, and there is growing concern that state officials are not distributing the supplies they have quickly enough.

Duncanson predicted public frustration if citizens follow the governor’s instructions to sign up for appointments, only to find that not enough vaccine is available.

“Don’t be surprised if you go onto the state’s vaccine map where they do the appointments, and you don’t see availability,” he said. The town and county planned to issue news releases to warn the public about the problem, and to “help to manage people’s expectations,” Duncanson said.

Barnstable County Health and Environment Director Sean O’Brien said Cape Codders should not expect to be able to book a vaccine appointment starting this Wednesday. The state website will allow people to search for nearby clinics, “but right now we’re just not receiving vaccine to the level that we need to get it out to the public,” he said. The Cape is likely to host four or five regional vaccination sites, with one or two additional locations possible. But the county won’t begin scheduling appointments until the supply chain improves.

“The vaccine, it’s not there for us to use,” he said. “We expect it, and I think we’ll see a little bit in, but it’s going to be, unfortunately, for small clinics right now.”

Because the state’s online appointment system does not allow pre-registration, if appointments are not available, people will need to keep trying.

“Basically, you need to keep checking the website and checking the website,” Duncanson said. He likened the process to calling in repeatedly to get sought-after concert tickets. “Unfortunately, that’s the way the system is currently set up,” he said.

In the longer term, Cape public health officials are optimistic that they may be able to obtain doses of the Pfizer vaccine in addition to the Moderna doses used in Phase 1. Many communities cannot use the Pfizer version because it must be stored at super-cold temperatures, but the Cape has access to a suitable freezer through Cape Cod Healthcare, and Barnstable County is expecting delivery of its own special freezer in about two weeks, O’Brien said.

Barnstable County established a vaccine help line, staffed by Medical Reserve Corps volunteers trained to answer questions about the vaccine program, and in its first day of operation the center received 990 calls. The help line number is 774-330-3001.

President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that the federal government would purchase 200 million more vaccine doses and would increase weekly shipments of the vaccine to states.

Statewide and across the nation, key COVID-19 statistics are beginning to show hopeful trends, with case counts and hospitalization numbers starting to decline. While the trends are positive, “we all know that we are not out of the woods yet, by any means,” Baker said. It’s still critical that people maintain social distancing, wear masks, wash their hands and stay home when feeling ill. Those improving numbers have meant fewer concerns that the health care system will be overwhelmed, and that is allowing state officials to ease some of the previously enacted pandemic restrictions.

As of Monday, the order requiring restaurants and other businesses to close at 9:30 p.m. has been lifted, as has the stay-at-home advisory that encouraged people to be home each night by 10 p.m. Restrictions limiting most businesses to 25 percent capacity are expected to remain in place through at least Feb. 4.

“Continue to support your local businesses” by ordering take-out meals or by purchasing gift cards, Lieut. Gov. Karyn Polito said.

Not all rules are being relaxed. Meeting in special session last Wednesday, the Chatham health board voted to expand its existing COVID-19 response requirements for restaurants to include all businesses open to the public, including retailers, professional offices and post offices. Under the rules, any such business must report to the town if an employee tests positive for COVID-19, and then must close for 24 hours and undergo deep cleaning. Business must also publicly post notice of the positive test, both in signs at their entrances and on their websites and social media accounts.

Though most clusters of the disease are linked to household events like parties and children’s play-dates, long-term care facilities statewide still account for a significant number of cases. With vaccination of nursing home staff members and residents largely complete, public health officials are hopeful those numbers will decline. Locally, The Terraces in Orleans and Rosewood Manor in Harwich report 10 or fewer cases with no deaths; Liberty Commons in Chatham reports 12 deaths and Wingate of Harwich reports 25, with both facilities reporting more than 30 COVID cases since the start of the pandemic.

Duncanson said the numbers from Liberty Commons are particularly unfortunate, since that facility managed to keep the virus contained until fairly recently. The cases there reflect not any lack of preventative measures, but rather the sheer pervasiveness of the virus among asymptomatic people, Duncanson said. Despite careful use of protective equipment, a ban on visitors and frequent testing and other protocols, “the virus still finds ways to get in,” he said.

Last Friday, the Monomoy Regional School System reported two COVID-19 cases at each of the district’s elementary schools, with one positive test at the middle school and none at the high school. As of Sunday, three classrooms at Harwich Elementary were learning from home and expected to return to in-person classes this week. Three middle school classrooms in grade 7 and three more in grade 6 were also learning remotely, with a planned return to in-person classes on Feb. 4.