“Pissed Off” Baker Promises Vaccination Site Improvements

By Colin A. Young
State House News Service

Following the Thursday morning failure of the state’s vaccine appointment website as 1 million more people became eligible to get themselves protected against the deadly coronavirus, Gov. Charlie Baker took to the airwaves to pledge that the issue would be fixed.

“My hair’s on fire about the whole thing. I can’t even begin to tell you how pissed off I am,” Baker said on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” when asked about the website debacle just after noon. He later added, “This is not satisfactory … it’s awful. It’s going to get fixed and I’m going to work very hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Heavy traffic torpedoed the state’s vaccination scheduling website as more than 70,000 appointments were to be made available at 8 a.m. to the seniors and people with multiple health complications who newly qualified for a vaccine Thursday morning. The state said it had not added those appointments to the system by the time it failed.

People visiting the vaxfinder.mass.gov website after 8 a.m. Thursday were met with the message that “this application crashed.” Visitors were advised to try again later. The website was back up at about 10 a.m., though some people reported persistent troubles with it.

“People are working really hard to get it fixed and we know how important it is for people to have it fixed and to be able to access all those new appointments,” Baker said on GBH. “It’s gonna get fixed as fast as it needs to get fixed and, like I said, people did a lot of work preparing for this but clearly they didn’t do enough. And I know how important it is to people to get their shots.”

Around 11:30 a.m., the state’s COVID-19 Command Center apologized for the website issues and said that some people had been able to book vaccination appointments Thursday morning through secondary websites. Baker said that was about 20,000 appointments and that 50,000 more appointments, mostly at Fenway Park in Boston and Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, would be added once the site was functioning normally again.

“All appointments for mass vax sites in Springfield, Danvers, Natick and Dartmouth have been booked for the next week. More appointments for these sites will be made available next week,” a spokesperson for the state’s COVID-19 Command Center said. “Additional appointments at other locations will be posted throughout the day today.”

When Baker announced Wednesday that people 65 years old or older, the residents and staff of low-income housing for seniors, and people with two or more health conditions that put them at higher risk for hospitalization or death would be able to start booking vaccination appointments at 8 a.m. Thursday, it represented roughly a doubling of the number of people eligible for the limited number of vaccine doses.

“I think the website will be in good shape for this,” Baker said Wednesday when asked if the state’s website would be ready to handle the added traffic Thursday morning.

The governor said Thursday on GBH that his administration had done a lot of “scenario planning” to prepare for the predictable influx of traffic to the website but “obviously the scenario work that was done didn’t adequately prepare the site for what happened when eight o’clock rolled around this morning.”

Thursday’s website snafu was the latest stumble in the Baker administration’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. House Speaker Ronald Mariano said the rollout “has been marked by both logistical and communications shortcomings” and Senate President Karen Spilka called it a “constantly changing and confusing” plan.

Complaints from residents in the earliest phases of the plan prompted changes to the state’s appointment website, which was initially just a map of vaccination sites. The administration established a call center to help people access appointments, but only after seniors 75 or older became eligible and reported difficulties using the website. Last week, Baker announced a system in which anyone who brings a senior 75 or older to a mass vaccination site can get vaccinated themselves, regardless of their age or risk factors. That created what is effectively a black market for senior citizen companions in Massachusetts.

The governor said Thursday that more changes are coming to the state’s vaccine distribution plan. Co-host Jim Braude asked Baker why Massachusetts hasn’t established a centralized system where people could pre-register for vaccine doses that would be distributed based on the phases of the state’s existing plans. States like Florida, New Jersey and West Virginia have reported success with similar systems and Sen. Diana DiZoglio recently filed a bill that would mandate the creation of such a centralized system here.

“We are looking at that and we’ll probably have more to say about it over the course of the next few weeks,” Baker said of the kind of system he has so far resisted in Massachusetts. “I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of the details, but it’s different to do this…we have way more sites, a lot more people, it’s a little more complicated to set this up in Massachusetts the way you would set it up in a smaller state. But I do think it’s a topic of conversation and discussion among our team and we’ll have more to say about it shortly, before we get into some of the really big population groups.”

As of Thursday, about 2.1 million of the state’s roughly 6.9 million residents are eligible to be vaccinated against the coronavirus that has infected more than half-a-million people here and killed more than 15,600. Baker and other officials cautioned that it could take up to a month for everyone who became eligible Thursday to book an appointment as demand exceeds the supply of vaccine doses from the federal government.

As of Wednesday, 893,312 people in Massachusetts had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 316,302 of those people had also received a second dose, making them fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Department of Public Health. Massachusetts had administered about 79.2 percent of the 1,158,050 vaccine doses that have been shipped here, DPH said, and administration officials said roughly half of the previous group to become eligible, people 75 or older, had already scheduled vaccination appointments.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who leads the COVID-19 Command Center, held a call with lawmakers Thursday afternoon organized by Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Denise Garlick, during which legislators were able to air their concerns with the administration.

Sudders holds similar calls twice a month for members of the Legislature to ask questions of the administration’s COVID-19 response and vaccine plan, but this week’s call came at a “shockingly timely” moment, Comerford said.

“What’s clear to me and has always been clear is that Secretary Sudders is deeply committed and has gone a superhuman distance to meet this pandemic,” Comerford said. “I heard a great deal of acknowledgment of this on the call about the secretary’s tireless work, but that was followed by many concerns that we have heard repeatedly, like abrupt decision making, a lack of an understood plan and then of course we were faced with the website delays and the crash and 2-1-1 delays.”

Comerford said legislators were told that the vaccine appointment website was back up and functional as of early afternoon, but she said she had not tested it personally.

“We were told this was really a matter of the system being overloaded and while that’s understandable, it also could have been expected and perhaps prevented,” Comerford said.

Comerford, who next week will help lead an oversight hearing of the administration’s vaccine rollout as co-chair of the new COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness Committee, said she was glad to hear that the governor had brought up the possibility of pre-registration for future phases, but said, “It’s going to necessitate a real considered, hopefully transparent plan for where these future sign-ups will be held.”

Mariano, the top House Democrat, was among those who tried to book a vaccination appointment Thursday morning.

“As one of the 1 million residents that became eligible to book my COVID-19 vaccines appointments today, I was disappointed to experience difficulties with the VaxFinder website. We all have the responsibility to get our shots as soon as we can,” he said. “I look forward to a productive oversight hearing next week, where we’ll address problems that delay the fair and accessible distribution of vaccines.”

[Matt Murphy contributed to this report.]

Fairhaven woman shares frustration with getting COVID vaccine access for her home-bound Vietnam veteran husband

“I have known this was an issue but thought it would be figured out in a reasonable amount of time. I was wrong! So so wrong!

My husband is a disabled combat veteran (Vietnam) with advanced MS due to agent orange exposure. He has been home-bound for over a year and a half. There are NO provisions, NONE, for vaccinating the home-bound.

Our town COA was getting permission to be a local vaccination site and planned to have our EMS do home visits but that option was removed when the state/governor pulled all local vaccination options back to the state level. I’ve been told a 20-year old that smokes and is obese can be vaccinated. But that my husband cannot. (Not because he’s not eligible but because he cannot access the vaccine)!!!

I get that a large amount of this is logistics but seriously?? REALLY REALLY are you serious? WHO ARE WE?

Did I mention he’s homebound because he’s a combat veteran? Did I mention, (and I know it’s not part of this), but he’s also a Gold Star dad? Did I mention I had home health aides to help me with his care that we paid, (private pay), but I let them go because of COVID??

We have been on our own and he’s been home-bound for a long-time, over a year? Where is our assistance? We have always been self-sufficient and our family did more than our part to defend and support our country. Why are the home-bound forgotten?!! I know it’s not just us!

I hate to add but at least my husband has me as an advocate. There are probably so many that do not have that! What about others out there that cannot leave their homes and possibly the meals on wheels lady is their only contact/voice!? I have always been a moderate voice and a pull up by your own bootstraps person, (I’m a swamp Yankee!) “, but seriously…

WHO ARE WE??!!”-Lisa J Rodriguez.

Message from Acushnet Fire Chief Gallagher after tour of City of New Bedford’s COVID Vaccine clinic

“Yesterday morning, the Council on Aging Directors, Health Agents and Fire Chiefs from Acushnet and Fairhaven toured the city of New Bedford’s Covid Vaccine clinic on Hillman Street. This tour followed several Zoom meetings where officials from both communities came together to plan for the local distribution of vaccines by sharing the resources of both towns. We agreed that a joint effort would be more effective and more efficient for both populations.

“Unfortunately, before we got back to our respective towns, the state pulled the rug out from under us.

“Instead of going to an Acushnet or Fairhaven building and receiving vaccine shots from local Paramedics and having the administrative work done by local Health Departments, residents from the two towns must now work against thousands of others to secure a spot at Gillette, Fenway, Circuit City, or some other state run mass vaccination site.

Acushnet Fire & EMS photo.

“We were ready to do it locally. Both towns filed for and received approval from the state to order, receive and store vaccine. Both towns worked on plans, stepped-up training, and even started to make lists of eligible residents. We were ready, very ready, to pull the trigger.

“Unfortunately, in a decision very much like that to limit state-run Covid testing to the big cities, smaller municipalities have been shut out. With testing, we could go it alone. With vaccination, we can’t.

“And that is regrettable.

“Please know that both communities wanted to do this. We planned. We toured. We met. We discussed. We fine-tuned. Simply put, we were ready.

“Please also know that when the state admits that their new policy failed, we will, once again, be ready.”-Kevin A. Gallagher.

Public Health Officials Announce First Identification of South Africa COVID Variant in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) today announced the first case of the B.1.351 COVID-19 variant identified in the Commonwealth. Genetic sequencing completed at the Broad Institute on behalf of DPH has confirmed the variant, which was originally identified in South Africa.

The case is a female in her 20s who resides in Middlesex County; she has had no reported travel.

The B.1.351 variant is known to spread easily. The Massachusetts State Public Health Laboratory is working in collaboration with many healthcare and academic partners to quickly identify variants of concern by sequencing a subset of positive samples.

Two other variants of concern are the B.1.1.7 originally found in the United Kingdom, and the P.1 variant, which was originally detected in Brazil. Currently, there are 34 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in Massachusetts; there are no confirmed cases of the P.1.

The best defense against a rapid rise in cases from variants of concern is to prevent the spread of COVID.

New information from CDC shows that improving the fit and filtration of masks helps reduce the spread of the virus. Mask fit can be improved by using a mask with a nose wire and by using a mask fitter or by knotting the ear loops and tucking the sides. Mask filtration is improved by using multiple layers. Learn more about how to use masks to protect yourself and others at Improve the Fit and Filtration of Your Mask to Reduce the Spread of COVID-19 | CDC.

Other critical public health measures to help prevent the spread of COVID include social distancing (staying 6 feet away from others), avoiding groups, staying home when you are sick, getting tested if you have symptoms or are identified as a close contact of someone with COVID, and getting vaccinated when it is your turn.

Learn more about variants of concern at New Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19 | CDC and track their presence in both Massachusetts and the US at US COVID-19 Cases Caused by Variants | CDC.

SouthCoast Health mobilizes three public vaccination clinics in the New Bedford, Fall River, and Wareham area

During the past several days, Southcoast Health has proudly provided the first dose of the COVID vaccine to nearly 3,000 residents of our region. In a matter of days, an amazing team at Southcoast quickly mobilized three public vaccination clinics in the greater Fall River, New Bedford and Wareham regions. A scheduling process was developed that focused on simplicity and convenience for you, as you sought to make an appointment that fit your schedule and geographic location.

Patients have overwhelmingly reported positive experiences with our vaccine clinics, expressing gratitude to Southcoast clinical staff and leaving the vaccination clinics – second-dose appointment in hand – with a sense of lifesaving relief. What an amazing feeling for all of us.

Helping inspire this sense of hope is what Southcoast set out to do when we established these regional vaccination centers. We know that the community looks to our hospital and health care system during times of crisis, and we stepped up to get shots in the arms of as many people as possible, as quickly and fairly as possible.

Unfortunately, our efforts to vaccinate patients and other residents depend entirely on supply allocation from the state.

And though we communicated – and demonstrated – that our three successful Southcoast Health vaccine clinics combined are prepared to scale up to tens of thousands of vaccinations per week to serve our region, regrettably we learned yesterday that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) will not be sending additional first-dose vaccines to hospitals and health systems for the foreseeable future.

The state is prioritizing distributing their vaccine supply to their state-controlled mass vaccination sites and other entities administering the vaccine.

To say we are disappointed would be a significant understatement. Without vaccine supply from the state for at least the next few weeks, and with no commitment of future allocations, we are unfortunately unable to schedule any further first-dose appointments at this time.

As you can imagine we are devastated to have to inform you of this recent development. And, we anticipate that many of you will be just as disappointed. As your local healthcare provider, we maintain a responsibility to proudly serve our community as a leader and advocate for your health and wellness. We will continue to strongly advocate for the sufficient vaccine supply our region deserves, with a scheduling process that is convenient and simple, and from locations that are local and accessible to you.

In the meantime, we fully expect the state to honor its commitment to provide us with enough doses for individuals with existing appointments for both first and second doses. We will stay in close contact with those patients directly.

Regardless of the current circumstances, we strongly encourage everyone, when eligible, to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. While we hope and advocate for additional first-dose supply, we will continue to serve you as a trusted resource for COVID health, wellness and vaccine information. Please stay connected with us for additional information and updates at www.southcoast.org, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and through text updates (https://www.southcoast.org/opt-in-for-text-updates/).

For more information from the Commonwealth and to find other locations administering vaccine, please call 2-1-1 or visit https://www.mass.gov/covid-19-vaccine. For answers to questions about the state’s vaccination program, you can contact MDPH via https://www.mass.gov/forms/contact-dph-by-web-form.

We will continue to work with the Commonwealth, municipalities, and community partners to ensure everyone has access to this safe and effective vaccine.

Governor Baker: People Who Have Had COVID-19 Should Get Vaccinated

By Chris Lisinski
State House News Service

With the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout still early in its second phase, Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday urged residents to seek the immunization when it is their turn even if they previously contracted the virus.

Baker, who faced sharp criticism Thursday from Cape Cod officials frustrated by vaccine distribution, touted the vaccine’s protection against new strains of the virus that have been spreading in the United States in recent weeks.

Many health care providers, including those in communities of color that have been hardest hit, have recounted conversations with patients who believe that they are immune after recovering from COVID-19, Baker said.

“This is just not true,” Baker told reporters after touring the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. “You really should get vaccinated because, as COVID morphs into different variants, all those variants so far, based on the testing that’s been done on the vaccines indicates, are effective. That’s not necessarily going to be true if you just had COVID yourself.”

His recommendation aligns with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s outlook. Although the federal health agency notes that reinfection appears uncommon in the first 90 days after contracting COVID-19, it emphasizes that experts do not yet have a consensus on how long that protection lasts.

Immunity developed from an infection can vary person-to-person, the CDC says on its vaccine FAQ website, and “some early evidence suggests natural immunity may not last very long.”

Baker’s advice could apply to a massive chunk of the state’s population. Through Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Public Health tallied 521,045 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the first infection was identified in Massachusetts more than a year ago, plus another 27,901 probable cases.

There are likely many others who contracted the virus but were never tested to confirm it.

Massachusetts remains in the opening step of its second vaccine rollout phase, which means many of those who have recovered from COVID-19 are likely still not eligible to receive vaccines.

While touring the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, Baker praised community health centers for the “crucial role” they have played in caring for vulnerable populations. Those centers have received more than 75,000 vaccine doses so far.

Appointments Needed

The governor also urged providers to stick to an appointment system for administering doses as much as possible, cautioning that opening up availability to patients who did not book slots creates confusion.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people waited at the state-run mass vaccination site in Danvers, with multiple news reports indicating that some were told there were extra doses available without an appointment required.

The confusion in Danvers underscored the at-times common uncertainty about vaccine availability, particularly amid a rollout that is taking place in the winter when snowstorms can cancel appointments.

Residents should do everything they can to make it to their vaccine appointments or cancel if they are unable to keep an appointment, Baker said, while providers should be “judicious” about how much supply they should prepare over the course of the day, Baker said.

“In the end, you should be vaccinating the people who have appointments, so that the people who have appointments don’t end up seeing something on their phone or in their email or a text message or something else that says, ‘Oh my, I might not get my vaccine even though I have an appointment,’ ” Baker said. “The game here is: you have an appointment, you’re going to get a vaccine.”

Massachusetts has been “lucky” so far that only about 0.13 percent of the vaccine doses it has received — likely less than 2,000 total doses — have spoiled without being used, Baker said.

“In my view, any dose you lose is a problem, but that’s a pretty small number in the grand scheme of things,” Baker said.

A day after launching a new policy allowing companions of adults 75 and older to receive doses if they accompany seniors to a mass vaccination site, Baker urged older adults not to give out personal information.

Anyone who is solicited by a stranger with an offer of transportation to an appointment should report it to the authorities, Baker said.

“We have heard some pretty disturbing reports of some people trying to take advantage of this program already, with some people posting online to try to get a senior to bring them to a vaccination site, or in some cases, asking to be paid to drive someone to one,” he said. “If you’re 75 years or older and you need assistance going through the vaccination process, you should only reach out to somebody who you know or trust to bring you as your companion, whether that’s a child, a companion, a spouse, a neighbor or a caregiver.”

“Pretty Enraged”

Baker, who faced criticism earlier this month amid a rocky vaccine access expansion to senior citizens, described significant progress Thursday in the state’s vaccination efforts.

The state has administered 987,000 vaccine doses and is “on track” to exceed 1 million by the end of the day, he said, adding that his administration “surpassed the goal we set for ourselves at the beginning of Phase 2 to be able to administer 242,000 doses per week.”

Hours earlier, though, a Democratic state senator representing the Cape and Islands lambasted the administration, arguing that the rollout has not come close to meeting its goals for an equitable distribution.

Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro said he is “frustrated, disappointed and, quite frankly, pretty enraged” by Baker’s approach and the impacts on the Cape. During a weekly Cape Cod COVID-19 Response Task Force, Cyr said that pleas from the region’s delegation for a mass vaccination site or additional doses have gone unanswered.

“Cape Codders are being left out of this vaccination,” Cyr said. “I don’t know why, and I don’t know what else to do other than air these frustrations because our pleas for help are not being answered.”

As a percent of population, Barnstable County has a significantly older population than the rest of the state. About 12.7 percent of the county’s residents are 75 or older, compared to 7.1 percent in Massachusetts as a whole, according to figures presented by Cyr, who called Barnstable the third-oldest county in the country.

In raw population, though, the numbers are smaller. Cyr said Barnstable County has more than 27,000 residents over the age of 75, and by comparison, Census data show that Middlesex County has more than 65,000 residents over the even-higher age threshold of 80.

Baker on Wednesday announced the state would stand up additional mass vaccination sites in Natick, and one in Dartmouth, which is just over an hour’s drive from Hyannis. He has hinted that there could be more to come, but it remains unclear if anything closer to Barnstable County will emerge than Gillette Stadium, which is more than an hour’s drive away from most towns on the Cape.

This week, there were 1,300 appointments available for vaccines on the Cape that filled up in 29 minutes, Cyr said. He contrasted that with the tens of thousands of appointments available at the state’s mass vaccination sites, some of which are still available days after they open.

“To me, that indicates that where the vaccines are being made available is actually not accessible to the people who need them,” Cyr said.

The senator also criticized other steps the administration has taken as “exacerbating the problem,” pointing in particular to the 211 call center Baker launched last week to help seniors who struggle to book appointments online.

While the phone line is a “step in the right direction,” Cyr said, he argued that the administration needs to implement additional training.

“I have reams of emails from constituents of mine who have called this number, and it is very clear that people answering the line do not know that Sandwich is not near Springfield, and that Dennis is not up the street from Danvers,” Cyr said.

CDC: Double-Masking, Tighter Fit More Effective

Chris Lisinski
State House News Service

Wearing a second cloth mask on top of a medical face mask or knotting a medical mask’s ear loops can offer significant additional protection against COVID-19, according to research the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published Wednesday.

Wearing a medical mask without knotting the loops blocked 42 percent of the particles from a simulated cough, the CDC found, while a cloth mask alone blocked 44.3 percent. But combining the two with a medical mask on the bottom and a cloth mask on top — often referred to as “double-masking” — blocked 92.5 percent of cough particles because it provided a more snug fit on an individual’s head.

“The data in this report underscore the finding that good fit can increase overall mask efficiency,” researchers wrote. “Multiple simple ways to improve fit have been demonstrated to be effective. Continued innovative efforts to improve the fit of cloth and medical procedure masks to enhance their performance merit attention.”

Trusted companions to seniors will gain vaccine access in Massachusetts

By Matt Murphy
State House News Service

In an effort to make the COVID-19 vaccine more accessible to residents 75 and older, the Baker administration plans to begin this week allowing anyone who accompanies an eligible senior to one of the state’s mass vaccination sites to receive a shot themselves.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the new accommodation for trusted family, friends, neighbors or caregivers to get vaccinated along with vulnerable seniors came after consultation with councils on aging and other advocated for older adults.

While all the mass vaccination sites are handicap accessible, sites like Gillette Stadium or Fenway Park can be unfamiliar and intimidating to some, and allowing trusted companions to also get vaccinated is an effort to encourage more seniors to seek the inoculation.

Massachusetts currently has four mass vaccination sites open at Gillette Stadium, Fenway Park, the Eastfield Mall in Springfield and the DoubleTree Hotel in Danvers. The Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury is open to Boston residents and being operated by the city, but will soon transition to a mass vaccination site run by the state.

Sudders said that Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday will also announce new mass vaccination sites planned for the Natick Mall and the former Circuit City in Dartmouth.

The Natick site will partner with LabCorp to begin administering 500 shots a day on Feb. 22, ramping up to as many as 3,000 doses a day. The Dartmouth location will open two days later on Feb. 24 in partnership with Curtative. The site will also have the capacity to handle 500 patients a day to start, and eventually will be able to administer 2,000 shots a day, depending on supply.

Appointments for the new sites will go online beginning Feb. 18.

With Massachusetts now receiving about 108,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine a week from the federal government, Sudders said the state will post 100,000 appointments this week, including 74,000 new appointments that will be added online on Thursday.

Thirty new new retail pharmacy sites are opening at CVS and Walgreens locations around the state, and Sudders said 30,000 of the new appointments will be at pharmacies.

Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Sudders planned to tour the mass vaccination site at the DoubleTree Hotel in Danvers on Wednesday morning at 11 a.m.

Earlier in the week, Baker said the mass vaccination sites were “batting about 100 percent in terms of vaccine allocated and vaccine administered, and they’ll continue to operate at that level.”

There are roughly 496,000 resident over the age of 75 in Massachusetts, including those living in long-term care facilities. Baker said Monday that roughly 200,000 in that age bracket had been vaccinated so far.

The Department of Public Health reported Tuesday that of the 1,283,700 vaccine doses shipped to Massachusetts so far, 910,412 doses had been administered, or about 70.9 percent.

Massachusetts vaccine call center goes live for 75 and older

By Chris Lisinski
State House News Service

More than a week after Gov. Charlie Baker first directed adults 75 and older to start booking COVID-19 vaccine appointments through an online-only platform, a state-run call center aimed at helping seniors who struggle to access or navigate the website is now live.

Massachusetts residents in the 75-and-older group can call 211 to get live, phone-based assistance securing slots for the vaccine. The call center will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. only on weekdays, staffed with more than 500 representatives including those who speak Spanish and translators for more than 100 other languages.

Baker, who also debuted a new public awareness campaign about the vaccination effort Friday, stressed that those who use the call center may “have to wait a bit in the line” for help, particularly in its first days online.

“We believe this resource will be a huge help to individuals over 75 who may not have access to the internet or may have trouble using the website,” he said. “However, we still recommend using the website if it’s possible to do so, because you may experience, especially as this thing gets going, significant wait times using the call center.”

For now, the phone line is intended only for adults 75 and older who experience difficulty with the site. Baker said it will open up to those 65 and above once they gain eligibility later in the vaccine rollout, though he indicated it may not stay running “all the way through the campaign.”

Dozens of legislators have cosponsored a bill (SD 300) that would require the administration to offer a multi-lingual hotline open 24/7, which contrasts from the new call center that will only be open during business hours Mondays through Fridays.

Baker said that the administration opted not to run its call center on the weekends “to make sure that it’s staffed appropriately and has the number of people we need to have on it to answer calls as they come in.”

“Most folks are making calls for this type of thing during the day, and I think our view is it’s better to have a ton of people on during the day, when the vast majority of people are reaching out, than to spread that community into the evening, when call volume would be significantly less,” he said.

The call center’s launch comes after sustained criticism from lawmakers, health experts and residents that the Baker administration’s vaccine rollout left appointments out of reach of many who now qualify.

Baker started directing older adults to book appointments for vaccines when they became available on Wednesday, Jan. 27, prompting widespread reports of many who could not navigate the website and others who simply did not have the internet access required.

In the face of frustration, Baker said last week that his administration has been standing up call centers since COVID-19 hit and is “pretty good at it.”

Asked Friday why it took until this point to launch the phone option, Baker replied that the administration needed to find individuals to staff the call center.

“You need people who have a particular set of skills and capabilities to be able to serve and support people on this, and secondly, you need to train them and make sure that they’re going to be able to do what you need to do, not just in English, but in multiple languages as well,” Baker said, adding, “It took a week.”

Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who was one of the lead sponsors on the legislation requiring a 24/7 phone hotline, said the administration’s call center is a step in the right direction, but flagged several remaining concerns.

“While I am encouraged to see the Governor taking some limited steps to achieve the goals outlined in our legislation, the state’s online scheduling system remains far too complex, and the jury is still out on the quality and accessibility of the phone system announced today,” Lesser said in a statement. “The Governor has his work cut out for him, Massachusetts vaccination rates remain far below our neighboring states, so there is much more work to do, especially regarding racial and geographic disparities in vaccine access.”

The Baker administration also launched a new $2.5 million campaign Friday, titled “Trust the Facts. Get the Vax.” The effort is aimed at reassuring the public that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, focusing in particular on building trust with communities of color.

The state will run a televised advertisement on Sunday ahead of the Super Bowl, then extend the campaign to other platforms in 10 different languages.

Baker said the campaign was developed in part from a survey of more than 1,000 Massachusetts residents — which “oversampled” people of color and communities hardest hit by the virus — to determine what kind of messaging would be most effective.

“We recognize that ensuring access isn’t enough,” Baker said. “We need to reach out to people in these communities who may be hesitant about the vaccination, and we understand that some may be distrustful of the medical system or have questions and concerns about the vaccine. This campaign aims to reach people where they are and leverage trusted voices to help explain why the vaccine is safe and effective.”

While Baker has acknowledged and shared some frustrations about the vaccine rollout, he has often defended his administration’s approach and pointed to limited vaccine distribution and narrow forecasts about supply from the federal government as constraining factors.

Before COVID-19 vaccines became available, Baker on several occasions noted that Massachusetts already distributes hundreds of thousands of flu vaccines every year.

“It is my assumption that whatever were to happen with a COVID vaccine would probably run through a fairly traditional distribution model because it’s already there,” he said on Sept. 17.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders told reporters that, through Thursday, the state received 1.2 million vaccine doses and had administered about 713,000.

Data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may show a lower rate of vaccine administration in Massachusetts, she said, describing that information as “not yet all aggregated” and missing updates from some sites.

The potential addition of a third vaccine option could make a notable difference if Johnson & Johnson receives emergency use authorization for its vaccine candidate, which the company requested on Thursday.

The Johnson & Johnson option uses a single dose, rather than the two doses required with both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and does not need as substantial refrigeration infrastructure as the other two. Those factors, he said, could make it far easier to distribute.

“If the J&J vaccine gets approved, it changes a lot of things about how fast people can get vaccinated,” Baker said.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts alerts members about COVID-19 vaccine fraud schemes

(“Blue Cross”) is reminding members to be vigilant as scammers seek to take advantage of the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

“There is such a pent-up demand for the vaccine and the roll-out is going to be limited for a while because of manufacturing capability – this provides an environment ripe for fraud,” said Jennifer Stewart, senior director for fraud investigation and prevention at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

Stewart cautions that scammers have already created websites similar to Massachusetts’ official vaccine appointment website in an attempt to collect health insurance and financial information.

“What they’ve done is change one letter of the website name so that it looks almost identical to the legitimate state website,” said Stewart. “This is a good reminder to not click on email links but instead visit www.mass.gov or your health care provider’s website and navigate from there to be safe.”

Offers of early vaccine access

Email phishing scams are also rampant, offering recipients the chance to “preregister” with a public health department to receive a vaccine.

“Right now there is no preregistration in Massachusetts and any site offering that is a scam,” Stewart said. “What they are looking to do is collect health insurance and financial information, which they then use for their schemes or to sell on the dark web.”

While health care providers may reach out when an individual is eligible to be vaccinated, they are not going to reach out unsolicited offering early access to the vaccine while making requests for payments or soliciting personal health insurance and financial information, Stewart stressed.

“As the distribution starts ramping up, people are going to get solicited to pay to get ahead in the line. Consumers should know that’s not possible,” she said. “The federal government has bought the vaccine, insurers are paying for administration for their members, you can’t pay to cut the line and get early access in Massachusetts. If that’s what you’re being told, that’s a scam.”

Federal agencies also have warned of vaccine-related scams, including fake ads for vaccines on social media platforms.

Consumers should always double check that sources of information are verified and legitimate and never share personal health or financial information with anyone other than known and trusted medical professionals, the agencies said.

Avoiding potential fraud

Stewart’s best advice to consumers is to sit tight, wait, and make sure they get a legitimate vaccine. She also reminds Blue Cross members that their health insurance will cover the cost of vaccination with no out-of-pocket costs. Medicare will cover vaccine administration for Medicare Advantage and Medex members when administered by any clinician who accepts Medicare.

Members with questions can call the Blue Cross COVID-19 helpline at 1-888-372-1970.

Reporting suspected fraud

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office encourages anyone with questions or concerns to call their consumer hotline at 617-727-8400 or file a complaint online.

If you believe you have been the victim of a COVID-19 fraud, you can report it to the FBI (ic3.gov, tips.fbi.gov, or 1-800-CALL-FBI) or HHS OIG (tips.hhs.gov or 1-800-HHS-TIPS).

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