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Area legislators push governor for equitable access to vaccine: ‘Our region is forgotten’

  • WHIPPS

  • MARK

  • HINDS

  • COMERFORD

  • BLAIS

  • CVS Pharmacist Sandra Balbino administers a COVID-19 vaccine at Overlook Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice in Sunderland. Local legislators have sent an “urgent” request to Gov. Charlie Baker that he ensure everyone in Western Massachusetts has equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 2/2/2021 5:22:47 PM

Local legislators have sent an “urgent” request to Gov. Charlie Baker that he ensure everyone in Western Massachusetts has equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

The 11 legislators — senators and representatives — said they “strongly support the timely efforts” of the governor to create a single, standardized, user-friendly web portal; launch a phone option for reservations; deploy mobile vaccine units, especially for individuals without access to public transportation or those unable to travel; and support senior centers to provide their constituents with help scheduling and keeping appointments.

They also want Baker to invest in “robust, multilingual outreach and education campaigns and commit to unwavering transparency around the detailed metrics that undergird his decision making.”

Franklin County’s legislative delegation — Sen. Jo Comerford, Sen. Adam Hinds, Rep. Paul Mark, Rep. Natalie Blais and Rep. Susannah Whipps — signed the letter sent on behalf of the roughly 231,000 constituents in Franklin and Hampshire counties, along with Hampshire County’s legislative delegation — Sen. Eric Lesser, Sen. John Velis, Sen. Anne Gobi, Rep. Mindy Domb, Rep. Dan Carey and Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa.

‘Our region is forgotten’

“It’s imperative the constituents in Franklin and Hampshire counties have equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine and sufficient resources to launch distribution outlets that meet the unique needs of our region,” said Comerford, D-Northampton.

She said she is “delighted to lock arms” with delegation colleagues and local officials in service of this “critical” work.

“I signed on to the letter because once again, I see that our region is forgotten by state leaders,” said Whipps, I-Athol. “To create a sign-up for vaccines that was only accessible via the internet shortchanges the people in the region who have no connectivity, on top of the seniors who are not tech-savvy. It’s a recipe for frustration and anxiety.”

Whipps said she is glad to join with her colleagues to bring attention to the needs of the region, and they will continue to advocate for testing and vaccination sites, as well as work to create solutions to assist those who are homebound or don’t have access to transportation to get to a testing or vaccination site.

“We’ve been dealing with COVID-19 for nearly a year and although vaccines are becoming available, I remind people that this is a marathon and the finish line is not yet in sight,” she said.

Blais, D-Sunderland, said she’s curious to see how the Baker-Polito administration will respond to the letter.

“This is a public health crisis,” she said. “This administration appears to be relying on private pharmacies like Big Y and CVS to substitute for what necessitates a government response. To be sure, they should be partners in vaccinating as many people as possible, but we need a public mass vaccination site in Franklin and/or Hampshire counties.

“Hopefully, this letter will lead to the recognition that the vaccine rollout in Franklin and Hampshire counties has been wholly inadequate,” Blais continued. “Getting a registration phone line up and running for constituents who do not have access to the internet or are not tech-savvy is welcome news, but if there are no vaccines available, it’s of little use.”

Similarly, Hinds said Franklin and Hampshire counties have not been prioritized in the vaccine distribution process, which is why they have among the lowest vaccination rates in the state.

“This needs to change,” Hinds said. “We laid out specific ways to remedy that immediately.”

“The vaccine rollout around the state, and especially in Franklin and Hampshire counties, has not been done well,” Mark agreed. “I have been pushing for a better response from the governor, and I know my colleagues in the delegation and the mayors have as well, so it made sense to combine efforts in a very public way to hopefully get the attention our region deserves. This seems to be the only way to move things along, by making public declarations that we’ve been forgotten and we’re sick of it.”

Vaccine rollout

Phase 2 of the state’s three-phase rollout of the vaccine began Monday. Sign-ups for the vaccine began late last week in Franklin County, for instance, and people complained into the weekend that they couldn’t register and were being told the places that were supposed to have the vaccine had not received it as of Friday. Phase 2 includes people ages 75 and older, followed by ages 65 and older, those with two comorbidities and those with one comorbidity.

“We ask for your attention to locating and supplying vaccine distribution centers in ways that address the distinct challenges of largely rural Western Massachusetts,” legislators wrote in the letter.

As of Thursday, Jan. 28, state Department of Public Health statistics show Hampshire County is second to the bottom in the state, behind only Nantucket, for the percentage of the vaccine shipped to providers, calculated as a percent of that county’s population. Hampshire County saw 5.5 percent compared to Nantucket’s 5.3. While on par with some counties throughout the state, Franklin County, at 6.7 percent, trails Worcester (10.2 percent), Hampden (8.6 percent) and Berkshire counties (12.1 percent), as well as several eastern counties.

“As you attend to the fair distribution of vaccine in our region, we also ask that you equitably supply diverse outlets that meet the unique needs of our region,” the letter continues. Those outlets include the University of Massachusetts Amherst, community health centers across the counties, and numerous municipal and regional sites run by public health officials.

The legislators would also like to see the state establish a mass vaccination site within at least one of the two counties. They said they are grateful to local public health officials, municipal officials, health care leaders and everyone else on the front lines marshaling the workforce and volunteers needed to combat the crisis.

“Their success is predicated on the state’s commitment to supporting their efforts,” the letter reads. “We understand and appreciate that the supply of the vaccine is dependent upon the federal government, but ensuring equitable access is the state’s responsibility.”

As a delegation, legislators wrote that they are committed to ensuring regional equity related to vaccination scheduling, distribution and administration now and going forward, and thanked the governor in advance for his willingness to address their requests.

For a guide to COVID-19 with information on everything from unemployment, hunger, housing, vaccines and more, visit bit.ly/2YFRxqB.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.

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