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How will the county vaccinate the homebound?


Staff Writer
Published: 1/22/2021 6:30:45 PM

Public health officials and medical professionals are working together to find a way to bring the COVID-19 vaccine to most vulnerable populations in Franklin County and the North Quabbin area: the ones who are homebound and can’t get to vaccination sites.

Homebound and disabled people have had a difficult time getting tested for COVID-19 since the pandemic hit in March 2020, and their advocates and local medical and elder-care professionals are concerned they won’t be able to get the vaccine without similar challenges.

“We’re working with LifePath, public health officials, boards of health, medical professionals and more to figure this out,” Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) Director of Community Services Phoebe Walker explained. “Everyone wants to figure out a way to get the vaccine to their homes, but it’s complicated.”

Because the vaccine comes in a vial of 10 doses, and once a vial is punctured it must be used within six hours, Walker said getting the vaccine to homebound residents poses a problem because there is such a wide area to cover.

“We also have to find a way that allows the homebound who don’t have computers to get access to vaccination and testing,” she said. “Some of them don’t have email and that’s the main way people sign up, online or email.”

Walker said logistics are a “real problem” because of the way vaccinations have to be reported to the state, stored and administered within the six-hour period.

“If someone goes into a home to give a vaccine, they have to then wait a half-hour before leaving to make sure the person receiving it doesn’t have a reaction,” she said. “That means you’re in each home for at least 45 minutes. Then, you have to travel to the next home, and that could be miles and many minutes away. It would be difficult to administer 10 vaccines, and they’re too important to waste.”

Walker said local health officials are learning every day about how to store, administer and transport the vaccine. She is hopeful that with everyone working together, they will come up with the answers.

“It’s a very steep learning curve, but we’re doing it,” Walker said.

Currently, the county is in Phase 1 of its vaccine administration, which has focused so far on frontline workers at hospitals and medical centers, corrections officers, nursing home residents and staff members, and first responders. Walker said when it enters Phase 2 and more people are to be vaccinated, the county is looking at opening up different sites, more sites, as well as its mobile capacity.

“We’re also looking at what private practices and others can do to help,” she said. “There are going to be a lot more options than just local health departments involved. People in Franklin County are working together, so I’m confident we’ll get there.”

Walker said as of Thursday, home health care providers are eligible for the vaccine, so that will at least somewhat protect the homebound people who can’t get out to get one.

Greenfield resident and long-time elder advocate Al Norman said people are being discriminated against because of their disabilities, and he would like to see in-home vaccinations happen sooner rather than later. He’s also concerned that after 10 months of the pandemic, people still cannot get tested in their homes in Franklin County.

“The people who aren’t being tested are the ones who should be because they are in the highest-risk populations,” Norman said.

Allison van der Velden, CEO of the Community Health Center of Franklin County, which has offered COVID-19 testing in Greenfield and Orange, said getting testing and vaccines to homebound residents has definitely posed a huge challenge.

“We’re constantly thinking and talking about how we can do this,” she said. “Hopefully, things will get better soon. We have to focus on the barriers keeping the most vulnerable from getting the vaccine.”

Right now, she said, the most efficient way for the Community Health Center to vaccinate is within its facilities because of the same issue Walker mentioned — a vial with 10 doses must be used within a short period of time.

“We cannot waste any,” she said. “I think everyone, including the state, is concerned about the people who can’t leave their homes. We want the vaccine to be accessible to everyone.”

She said another issue is manpower — there is a need for more people to administer the vaccine, as well as people willing to travel throughout the county from one home to another when mobile vaccination becomes available.

Van der Velden said the good news is as more people are vaccinated, the county will head toward herd immunity, which will make more vulnerable people safer.

LifePath Executive Director Barbara Bodzin agreed that the homebound are of “great concern” to the private nonprofit that develops, provides and coordinates a range of services to support the independent living of elders and people with disabilities.

Bodzin said the agency is working with FRCOG and others to “figure it all out” and identify resources so the county can start providing in-home vaccinations.

“It’s easier to administer the vaccine at elder complexes and such, because you can give all 10 doses in a matter of minutes, so you’re not wasting any,” Bodzin explained. “But going from home to home is a problem, especially if one is across the county from the other.”

She said LifePath is helping the elderly and people with disabilities register for vaccines, and those who can leave their homes and be transported are getting to sites.

“We have volunteers who are helping to transport,” she said. “We’re just going to have to keep doing what we’re doing until we find a way to bring the vaccine to the homebound.”

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

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