Except For Vaccine Registration Frustrations, COVID-19 News Is Good

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

Harwich resident Anna Bodo, 80, receives her COVID-19 vaccination. TERRI ADAMSONS PHOTO

With COVID-19 case numbers continuing to decline, the new single-dose vaccine helping to improve availability, and new CDC guidelines allowing vaccinated people more freedom to meet with friends in person, one would think all the pandemic-related headlines were all positive this week.

But the state’s beleaguered online registration system continues to frustrate those seeking to sign up for a vaccine appointment.

The state’s vaccine roll-out remains in Phase 2, with people ages 65 and older eligible to be inoculated. But people using the state’s PrepMod registration system at www.maimmunizations.org report continued difficulty signing up for the scarce vaccine appointments in this part of the state. So challenging is the system that Barnstable County has posted an instructional video that can be seen by clicking the “COVID-19 Important News and Updates” banner at www.BarnstableCountyHealth.org.

“As many of you already know, the site can be confusing, tricky to navigate and downright frustrating,” Narrator Bethany Travers says at the start of the video. The tutorial provides helpful tricks for entering the right information to see nearby clinics and primes visitors for some of PrepMod’s quirks, like an online waiting room that can show a wait time of a few minutes, followed by a few hours or days. The site is the only way to register for appointments at the state’s mass vaccination sites and the clinics held by Barnstable County. Those seeking vaccine appointments through Walgreen’s, CVS or Stop & Shop pharmacies must do so directly through those companies’ sites.

While the registration process remains challenging, the actual vaccine distribution appears to be improving. The Cape Cod Vaccine Consortium is operating its regional vaccination site in the gymnasium of Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, and it’s “off to a fast and successful start,” said State Senator Julian Cyr, D–Truro, speaking on behalf of the Cape Cod COVID Response Task Force last week. Operated by Cape Cod Healthcare with support form the county and other agencies, the site is focused on vaccinating seniors. At the same time, Outer Cape Health Services and other community health centers on the Cape are working with local councils on aging to reach home-bound elders or those who lack transportation to vaccine sites.

“We believe that we are reaching the at-risk population we need to reach,” Cyr said. Meanwhile, teachers and early childhood education staff – recently added to the list of people eligible for vaccinations – are signing up for appointments and will begin getting shots today, March 11.

The vaccine site at the college is functioning very well, Barnstable County Health and Environment Director Sean O’Brien said. The facility and its staff are designed to administer more than 750 doses daily, five days a week, “but we will be experimenting just to see how many folks we can run through the site,” he said. The county has been receiving 1,170 doses of the Pfizer vaccine each week, though most recently have been used to complete second doses, he said. Barnstable County initially received 1,200 doses of the new single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which could prove to be a game-changer, O’Brien said.

“It helps us incredibly with our logistics,” he said. Eliminating the need for a second dose “is huge for us,” O’Brien said. The J&J vaccine will help the county reach more eligible people more quickly, he said.

Dr. Andrew Jorgensen, chief medical officer for Outer Cape Health Services, said the J&J vaccine was tested “in a very diverse population”of 44,000 people across the U.S., South America and in South Africa, including places where troubling new COVID-19 variants were present, and the results were excellent. The vaccine is effective at preventing serious illness from the virus, and “side effects are very similar” to those reported by recipients of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Jorgensen said.

“I would feel very confident giving the J&J vaccine to my own mother,” he said.

Public health officials continue to stress the importance of getting vaccinated with any of the three approved vaccines, as soon as possible.

Chatham recorded 14 new cases of COVID-19 since last week, Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told the select board Tuesday. Several of those cases were school-age children, and one class in the Monomoy schools is now quarantining, he said.

Five town employees are also either isolating or quarantining after one of the workers tested positive for the virus. While the employee was initially exposed outside work, the person exposed a number of peers. “Being a small town, we don’t have a lot of depth in some of our departments,” Duncanson said. Having five staffers absent “can be really impactful,” he added. The town sent out a message Tuesday reminding employees to complete their daily health assessment before reporting to work, and to stay home if they experience symptoms. Duncanson did not specify which town department was affected.

Orleans Health Agent Bob Canning said the town has hosted 14 clinics, with one at the council on aging and the rest at the DPW building. County officials like using the DPW site, which can host a drive-through clinic even in bad weather, Canning said.

Canning said his office is practically overwhelmed by inquiries about COVID-19 vaccinations. He and his staff have been working nights and weekends to catch up on routine health department business like permit requests, he said.

The Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce have conducted a third round of surveys of local businesses and nonprofits, seeking to judge the continued impacts of the pandemic. More than 85 percent of respondents reported year-over-year losses in the second quarter of 2020. Businesses rebounded somewhat last summer, but almost 30 percent of respondents reported third- and fourth-quarter losses of 50 percent or more.

The survey found that Cape Cod faced unprecedented levels of unemployment due to COVID-19, with some employees laid off or furloughed through the end of the year and many more still working on reduced schedules. Some businesses struggled with employees being unable or unwilling to return, citing concerns about health and safety, income, and childcare, the survey found.

This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued new guidance for people who have been fully vaccinated, which now represents about 10 percent of Massachusetts residents. Starting two weeks after their final dose of vaccine, people are being advised that they may gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask. They can also gather indoors without masks with unvaccinated people from one other household, unless any of those people or anyone they live with has an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Until the vaccines’ effectiveness is better understood, the CDC is still advising fully vaccinated people to continue wearing masks in public places and to maintain six feet of social distancing, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.