Springfield Set to Go Vax to the Future, at Long Last…
UPDATED 3/13/21 12:09PM: To include demographic data of Springfield vaccinations.
SPRINGFIELD—After weeks of pleading, the city Health & Human Services Department here will soon have its own clutch of COVID-19 vaccine to distribute to neighborhood residents. Over the course of four days between now and April 1, Springfield health officials will set up temporary distribution centers in areas of the city with some of the shallowest vaccine penetration rates.
The news comes as new data released by the city show staggeringly low vaccination rates for Latino residents relative to whites. Blacks and Asians fared better, but Springfield’s largest minority group is Hispanics. Springfield HHS Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris indicated at a press conference Friday that these pop-up site will presage more permanent ones when vaccine is more plentiful. Still, the allocation Springfield will receive this month falls short of city requests.
In a February 25 letter to state officials, Mayor Domenic Sarno had requested a tranche of 2500 doses, split between first and second doses, to open five sites. The city will receive about 800 first doses for four sites. Second doses will follow.
There is a mass vaccination site at the Eastfield Mall in the city. Any Massachusetts resident can access it via state appointment portals, though. Indeed, distribution data and vaccination rates suggest Springfield residents, especially those in the inner city, are not benefiting.
“At this point, our vaccination rate is lower than the eastern part of the state,” Caulton-Harris said Friday. “If you look at those cities and towns around us Springfield’s vaccination rate at this point appears to be lower than the Wilbraham, the Longmeadow the East Longmeadow.
The vaccination data released by the state confirms this. It is true that city Latinos are younger on average compared to city whites and age limits vaccine eligibility. Still, twice as many white residents in Springfield have received as least one dose as Hispanic residents. In Springfield, 5% of Hispanics, 10% of Asians and 8% of blacks have at least one dose. Yet, 1/5 of white Springfield residents have one dose.
Caulton-Harris appeared at the Ray Jordan Senior Center here alongside Sarno. State Representatives Carlos Gonzalez and Bud Williams and Jose Delgado, the Western Mass Director for Governor Charlie Baker, also attended.
The gleaming new facility is mostly quiet now, but for a few Elder Affairs staff. Where once all the haute senior activities took place, officials plan to jab arms. One of the places the city will hold a pop-up vaccination site is the Jordan Center.
Baker and the state HHS secretary, Marylou Sudders, control the distribution of vaccines. Even as other states have found ways to stretch their limited, but growing vaccine stocks to target vulnerable populations, His Excellency has largely stumbled, at least in Western Massachusetts. Baker has consistently laid blame on inadequate—yet, consistently growing—amount of vaccine the feds have delivered.
Statistics show that black and brown populations are more susceptible to COVID-19 and its most debilitating effects. Baker, Sudders and state Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel have articulated plans to allocate vaccines to socially vulnerable populations, as defined by the US Centers for Disease Control. However, until Friday that has not yet translated into action.
City officials have been begging for vaccine allocations directly to the city. Caulton-Harris and Sarno have said for weeks the city had plans to open neighborhood vaccination sites to target vulnerable populations. Sarno said Friday they had been in contact with state officials to press for the shots.
“We’ve spoken a number of times, Helen and, more than number of times with Commissioner Bharel,” the mayor said.
At-large Councilor Jesse Lederman, the chair of the City Council’s COVID-19 oversight committee, and Council President Marcus Williams led on a letter councilors sent a letter to His Excellency last month asking for details about local vaccine allocation.
Lederman welcomed the city’s pending receipt of vaccine and the clinics. “This concentrated effort is essential to ensure that communities that have been hardest hit by this pandemic are able to actually access the vaccine,” he said. However, Lederman hoped that this endeavor would quickly expand and assured the Council would continue to advocate for improvements to the vaccination process.
“We will continue to advocate for transparency, accessibility, and equity in the vaccination process,” he said.
Sarno read out the four dates and sites. On March 23 shots would be available at St. John’s Congressional Church on Hancock Street. On March 25 residents could receive vaccinations at the South End Community Center. On March 26, a vaccination clinic would operate the Gerena School in the North End. The last scheduled clinic, on April 1, would be at the Jordan Center. All clinics would run from 9am to 12:30pm.
Each clinic should have about 200 doses. As the vaccine the state will allocate to the city is Moderna, a second round of clinics would be necessary. Presumably, those dates will come later.
Springfield’s health department has received about 3100 doses since vaccines began receiving approval. Earlier this year, it opened a clinic at the Boland School. However, 2800 of those doses—1400 first doses and 1400 second doses—were only available to public safety workers, though a few leftover doses got into other arms. More recently, the city received 300 doses for a vaccination drive the city and the Springfield Housing Authority conducted.
Despite gripes about federal allocations, the state’s distribution efforts have not always been clear either. Just on Thursday, Secretary Sudders seemed to suggest that vaccine was already coming to communities like Springfield.
In response to a question about a vaccination plan Springfield had proposed, Sudders said, “All the disproportionately impacted communities get an allocation separate from all other allocations of vaccine—from 400 up to 1,000.”
“The city wants, I think, double what they’re currently getting,” Sudders continued. However, it was not clear whether “already getting” was in the present or future tense. A spokesperson for the state’s COVID-19 response center did not respond to a request for clarification.
As for the upcoming Springfield clinics, city officials said they would use existing platforms to schedule vaccine appointments. However, Caulton-Harris said that the city will control online links to schedule appointments. Jab-seekers would need to otherwise meet state vaccination eligibility guidelines to participate.
“There will be a dedicated link for each one of our clinics for individuals to sign up and that link will have time slots on it, that individuals can register for,” Caulton-Harris explained.
That setup would also mean that appointments could be scheduled via phone. Indeed, Caulton-Harris said the offices of the two states reps with her Friday would be assisting.
“State Representative Williams and Gonzalez have both reached out and said we would like to have access to the links so we can help you register our individuals and so we will be doing that,” she said.
Gonzalez and Williams represent the largest chunks of the city’s black and brown populations and its poor. Their districts largely overlap with Senator Adam Gomez’s senate district. However, he does not appear to be a part of this effort.
A spokesperson for Gomez told WMP&I that “[h]is District Office is happy to assist anyone looking for vaccine information, and he is very much open to being included in future conversations about vaccination site additions, specifically when it involves his district.”
While officials appreciate the impending vaccination blitz, they are looking ahead to operations that will needle arms more regularly.
“We will be standing up permanent sites,” after these doses, Caulton-Harris assured.