Tempers Flare Over Cape’s Vaccine Scarcity

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

COVID-19

State Opens Registration To People 65+, But Supply Still Lags

The state’s COVID-19 vaccination roll-out is now focused on senior citizens, but local and regional leaders are crying foul, saying the effort isn’t bringing needed doses quickly enough to serve the aging population of Barnstable County.

“Cape Cod clearly is being left behind here in the Commonwealth’s vaccine roll-out,” said State Sen. Julian Cyr, D–Truro, speaking on behalf of the Cape Cod COVID Response Task Force last week. Cyr said he is frustrated, disappointed “and quite frankly pretty enraged by the latest developments in vaccine distribution in Massachusetts.” Cyr spoke a day after Gov. Charlie Baker announced two new mass vaccination clinics off-Cape.

“We need a mass vaccination site on Cape Cod and we need it now,” he said. While other counties in Massachusetts have greater numbers of senior citizens, Barnstable County has the highest population percentage of seniors in the state – with Orleans and Chatham holding title to the demographically oldest towns in the commonwealth. But for seniors who can’t book appointments online or by telephone, or who lack transportation to off-Cape sites, getting vaccinated is a significant challenge, he said.

On Wednesday, Baker announced that people aged 65 and older would now be able to join older seniors in registering for vaccine appointments.  The registration began Thursday morning and huge demand almost immediately crashed the state registration website.  Baker's announcement caught lawmakers and local officials by surprise; on Thursday they complained that relatively few 75-and-older residents have been able to get vaccinated yet, thanks to a lack of available doses on Cape Cod.  

The opening of eligibility to younger seniors "is just going to put a lot more competition on the limited amount of vaccine that we get," Cyr said this week.  The fact that the registration website crashed Thursday morning "just shows how big that competition is going to be," he said.  The site appeared to be operational again by mid-morning Thursday, but all available appointments on Cape Cod had been claimed.

By not providing sufficient doses for local seniors, the state is showing “a complete misunderstanding of the Cape’s demographics,” the senator said last week.  “Right now in this phase of the vaccine, this is when we have the height of our need,” he said. While a mass vaccination site would be welcome, there is adequate infrastructure at the town and county level to hold local vaccine clinics, were enough vaccine doses to be made available to the Cape, Cyr noted.

“Cape Cod is ready. Logistically, we are ready to vaccinate people. We just need more vaccine,” Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Wendy Northcross said. While she acknowledged the nationwide shortage of doses, “there’s no reason not to send more vaccine to the third oldest county in the nation,” she said.

There is a growing chorus of local officials hoping to be heard by policymakers on Beacon Hill, from health boards and town managers to elected officials. This week, Cyr and 86 other local officials wrote a letter to Baker urging him to open a mass vaccination site on Cape Cod, to boost the local allocation of vaccine, and to work with town boards of health on a plan to reach home-bound and vulnerable seniors. The letter was signed by officials from all Cape towns, Barnstable County, and members of the Cape and Islands legislative delegation.

“We’re all out there and we’re advocating for our community,” said Chatham Select Board Chair Shareen Davis, one of the signatories. Gov. Charlie Baker praised Cape Cod communities for their response to the pandemic, but his praise rings hollow when it is not backed up by vaccine support, she said. At last week’s board meeting, Davis encouraged citizens to call Baker’s office at 617-725-4005 “and advocate for more vaccines on our behalf as well.”

With the estimated 975 doses it receives each week, Barnstable County has been scheduling regional vaccine clinics for people 75 and older, providing citizens with advance warning of sign-ups through an email system at www.BarnstableCountyHealth.org. A clinic held at the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis last week experienced capacity problems after some people came without appointments and others showed up 90 minutes early, Deputy County Health Director Erika Woods said. The clinic had to remain in operation two hours later than planned to accommodate the appointments, and many experienced long wait times.

Chatham resident Gloria Freeman said she felt lucky to get an appointment at the clinic, but also felt guilty because so many other people were unable to secure a spot. She likened the system to the Hunger Games, “where young people are pitted against one another in a death match,” only with seniors pitted against one another. “It isn’t right,” Freeman said.

Some have complained that the Cape Cod Melody Tent site is too small for a large vaccine clinic; county officials had proposed using Cape Cod Community College for that purpose, but held off on using it in the hope that state officials would use it for a mass vaccination clinic.

In an effort to help seniors reach drive-through clinics, the state announced last week that caregivers of any age providing transportation to qualifying seniors would also be eligible to be vaccinated at the same time. Cyr said the strategy might help some seniors, “but it will also allow younger people to get the vaccine, further dipping into an already inadequate supply.” Almost immediately after the policy was adopted, there were reports that some young people had posted online advertisements offering free rides to seniors in exchange for the chance to be vaccinated as a companion.

“I think this speaks to the flaw in the approach that prioritizes mass vaccination sites that are miles and miles...away” from seniors, Cyr said.

Though public health officials worry about gatherings during school vacations this week, COVID-19 case numbers are continuing to decline, with the number of new cases down about 35 percent in the last two weeks, and hospitalizations down 32 percent.

“We are clearly on the back end of the holiday surge,” Barnstable County Human Services Deputy Director Vaira Harik said last week. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care at Cape Cod Hospital is also lower. “The trends are in our favor at this time,” she said.

In Chatham, where all COVID-19 patients at Liberty Commons nursing home have now recovered, new cases are trending down. But the new cases are now predominantly young people and children under 10, Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said.

“It’s clear that household spread is what’s driving what’s going on,” he said. Any family members who test positive for the virus should use a separate bedroom and bathroom and should not spend time with others in the household, Duncanson said.

This article was updated on 2/18 at 11:15 a.m.