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Residents, health officials frustrated over vaccine rollout in Western Mass.

  • Registered nurse Sam Stafford of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office gives a COVID-19 vaccine to 88-year-old Rosie Sheppard in her Highland Village apartment in Shelburne Falls last week. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Dona Blanchard of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office gives a COVID-19 vaccine to Highland Village resident Ben Collins in Shelburne Falls last week. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 3/15/2021 4:53:00 PM

Editor’s Note: This story is the second in a week-long series honoring the one-year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While progress has been made getting the COVID-19 vaccine into the arms of Franklin County’s eligible residents, there hasn’t been enough, according to public health officials.

As the first phase of the state’s vaccination plan rolled out locally, it seemed to run smoothly, with first responders, health care workers, residents of congregate housing (including inmates) and nursing home residents getting vaccinated with their second shots by mid-February.

Since then, however, operations haven’t run quite as smoothly, especially since there still hasn’t been sufficient supply of the vaccine to get even the eligible vaccinated, nevermind move on to Phase 3 where everyone becomes eligible.

Franklin County residents 65 years old and older still wait each week to register for their turn with little luck. Elder advocate Al Norman and public health officials across the county complain that the “system,” if it can be called that, is chaotic and broken.

“The vaccine has been more of a shot in the dark than a shot in the arm for most people,” Norman said.

He recounted how he recently logged on to the state’s website to schedule vaccine appointments for a few elderly friends who had been unable to secure one.

“I was greeted with this message: ‘Your estimated wait time is 7,565 minutes.’ I was unwilling to endure a 126-hour marathon (5.25 days non-stop) stuck in the state’s ‘waiting room.’ I was curious who could have created this bizarre wait list website.

“A combination of a lumpy and bumpy vaccine appointment system, constrained vaccine supply that shorted ‘last mile’ delivery to our rural area, plus high demand, has left Western Mass. a frustrating place to be waiting for that elusive shot in the arm,” Norman continued.

25 percent for local clinics

Mayor Roxann Wedegartner recently penned a letter to the state with Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) Executive Director Linda Dunlavy, expressing their dismay over the vaccine rollout. The county’s legislative delegation — Sen. Jo Comerford, Sen. Adam Hinds and representatives Paul Mark, Natalie Blais and Susannah Whipps — all signed the letter.

The state currently requires that the collaboration between FRCOG, Greenfield and some surrounding smaller towns reserve 25 percent of its weekly allocation of vaccines for local clinics while 75 percent must be open to anyone who is eligible, even if they live across the state.

“As you must expect, we find this percentage inadequate, frustratingly low and insensitive to the time, expense and effort regional collaborations are spending on regional clinics,” they wrote.

Franklin County still has no mass vaccination site, just as it had no mass testing site until the state opened its Stop the Spread site at Greenfield Community College in early January, 10 months after the pandemic struck the county. Until that site opened, people had trouble getting a test, just as they are having trouble getting vaccinated now.

The closest mass vaccination site is at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, 40 miles from the southern border of Franklin County and more than 70 miles from other parts of the county.

“Franklin County has very limited transit service,” Wedegartner and Dunlavy wrote. “While many of our residents have reliable vehicles, they also are working, while others are elderly without vehicles, or the ability to drive long distances themselves or have drivers.”

The Franklin Regional Transit Authority (FRTA) is the only transit authority, but it does not have reliable evening and weekend service. They went on to say that taking a bus to Springfield is expensive, and with the necessary connections takes no less than four hours, not counting the return trip.

500 calls a day

One of the biggest complaints, especially from Franklin County’s older population, is that the county has limited internet and cellphone coverage, and many who are currently eligible don’t have access to a computer anyway, which makes it almost impossible to schedule an appointment.

“As a result, we are resorting to a hotline phone number in Greenfield where residents leave a message and receive a call back,” the letter reads. “Although highly inefficient, it is used regularly, resulting in as many as 500 calls a day. We are a regional collaboration because we recognize that other state options are not accessible to many of our residents. If a goal of vaccine distribution is ‘equity,’ this is not it.”

Wedegartner and Dunlavy assume most regional collaborations, like theirs, operate through a combinations of significant financial expense to partner organizations and an “enormous” reliance on willing volunteers.

“This is definitely true for the FRCOG/Greenfield regional collaboration,” they wrote. “Our willingness to take this financial risk, and the willingness of our volunteers to serve, is made because we recognize the constraints of our citizens. We do so mindful that at a 25 percent allocation, we are subsidizing a 75 percent allocation for people who do not live or pay taxes here.”

While the mayor and Dunlavy have both said frequently that they understand there is currently a vaccine shortage, they also recognize that the state believes mass vaccinations sites are efficient ways to vaccinate large numbers of people.

“We are extremely disappointed that the needs of our regional collaborative are being marginalized and the needs of our rural residents minimized,” they wrote.

The collaboration is urging the governor to consider raising the allocation of the vaccine for Franklin County residents to a minimum of 60 percent, even if only through mid-April, when significantly increased supply of the vaccine is anticipated.

Additionally, the collaboration started vaccinating educators and school staff members last week. About 3,000 school employees are expected be seeking their first vaccine over the next few weeks, which means another 3,000 doses will be needed to administer second shots in a month or six weeks.

FRCOG Director of Community Services Phoebe Walker and FRCOG Emergency Preparedness Program Manager Tracy Rogers have both said the vaccine rollout has been “very unpredictable” with information, allotments and more changing almost minute to minute.

“People just need to be patient,” Walker said. “We’re hoping with more vaccines expected, we can have people in the county vaccinated by summer.”

Rogers said the county collaboration is doing everything it can to make sure everyone who wants a vaccine gets one.

Last week, FRCOG launched a new vaccine clinic webpage, franklincountymavaccine.org. Links go live on Mondays, and people have to be ready to sign up quickly because slots have been filling within 15 to 25 minutes.

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

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