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4 proposals to improve the Massachusetts vaccine rollout

By Nik DeCosta-Klipa | Feb 09, 2021

After taking heat from local lawmakers and residents over the state’s slow and fragmented COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration launched a daytime vaccination hotline and made some tweaks to the state’s appointment website last week.

State lawmakers on Beacon Hill don’t want him to stop there.

The scrutinized rollout has prompted several legislative proposals aimed at further increasing the ease and accessibility of the state’s vaccination appointments, as the rollout continues to ramp up.

Here’s a look:

1. A more ‘one-stop’ appointment portal and 24/7 hotline

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Eric Lesser and more than 60 other legislators would require the Department of Public Health to set up a one-stop signup website for COVID-19 vaccinations available on both desktop computers and mobile devices, as well as a phone hotline staffed 24 hours a day.

The administration’s current signup website directs users to third-party providers’ websites to book specific appointments. As the state expanded vaccine eligibility to residents over the age of 75, the multi-step process — combined with the initial scarcity of appointments — made it difficult for many seniors to find and book an appointment.

“The system is cumbersome, contradictory, and asks residents over 75 to navigate a haze of web links, locations, and instructions, each with different criteria and scheduling systems,” Lesser said. “And for those with limited ability to navigate the internet, there is no access to appointment booking at all.”

Some states have set up — or are setting up — centralized websites where users can browse open appointments across vaccination sites and pick a time. However, Baker has said it’s been challenging for the administration to merge its website with the differing websites of pharmacies, grocery chains, and other third-party providers where residents can get the vaccine.

The administration also set up a call center last week week to help residents book vaccine appointments, though it is only open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. According to Baker, the state wanted to make sure the hotline had enough staff to avoid long wait times and thought it would be “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.”

Lesser’s bill would require the hotline be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and have “sufficient staffing to prevent significant wait times for callers.”

“The jury is still out on the quality and accessibility of the phone system announced today,” he said Friday in response to Baker’s call center.

2. Registration ahead of time

Ten lawmakers, led be state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, filed a bill this week to make DPH set up an online preregistration system, where residents could provide information and get an alert when they’re eligible for the vaccine.

The system would allow individuals to provide information like age, occupation, and underlying medical conditions that may give them prioritization under the state’s three-phase vaccine rollout. They could also provide a ranked number of preferred vaccination sites.

When eligible, DPH would work with vaccination sites to notify residents when appointments are open through an automated alert. According to DiZoglio’s bill, the system would be required to be available online and through a 24/7 hotline.

The bill comes as one Massachusetts company is helping other states set up their own registration systems.

“Our best & brightest [are] being drafted by other states to help w/ pre-registration for their vaccine rollouts while MA leadership has yet to tap them to assist,” DiZoglio tweeted Saturday. “We’re losing as a result.”

3. Vaccines on wheels

Amid evidence of an emerging racial vaccination gap in Massachusetts and across the country, as well as longer average travel times to vaccination sites for communities of color, some lawmakers want to flip the script and bring the vaccines to the people.

A bill filed last week by state Sen. Becca Rausch and more than 20 other lawmakers would create a mobile vaccination program consisting of at least 30 buses or vans deployed across Massachusetts to reach communities with the highest rates of COVID-19 test positivity. Residents of those communities would also be eligible to get a vaccine regardless of phase designations in the state’s vaccine distribution plan.

The vehicles would be staffed be several medial professionals, as well as at least one local community health worker. The program, which would work to schedule first and second doses, if required, would continue until a “sufficient” percentage of the state is vaccinated to protect against COVID-19.

“Even those who are eligible for a COVID vaccine cannot get an appointment unless they have internet and car access, ample time to spare, literacy in specific languages, and technological proficiency,” Rausch said. “This bill significantly strengthens immunization implementation and infrastructure statewide by advancing racial, economic, and regional equity in vaccination access and outreach.”

The bill would also require the Baker administration to appoint a vaccine equity director “whose sole focus is addressing disparities in vaccination rates rooted in racism, mistrust of government, and disparate access to information and resources,” as well as an expert of vaccine information to the state’s vaccine advisory group. It would also include a public outreach campaign and free, drive-through testing sites in all gateway cities.

Under the current rollout, Massachusetts is setting aside 20 percent of all vaccines doses for the hardest-hit communities, and the Baker administration launched a public outreach campaign aimed at Black, Latino, and other minority communities in an effort to overcome elevated levels of distrust of the medical community among people of color due to the legacy of racist treatment.

However, proponents of Rausch’s bill want an even more deliberate approach, given how the history of racially discriminatory practices by both government and health care institutions helped fuel the current distrust.

“The loss of trust between Black and Latinx communities and the government and medical establishment didn’t happen by accident, and neither will equity,” state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said in statement.

4. More oversight?

Finally, the State House’s top leaders think it’s time the Legislature take a more active role in the state’s COVID-19 response, most of which has been carried out through Baker’s sweeping emergency executive powers.

In a statement last week, Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ron Mariano announced the creation of a new joint committee tasked with overseeing and investigating issues with the response.

The joint committee on Covid-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management “would have the ability to conduct oversight hearings to investigate and gather information, as well as participate in hearings with other standing committees with the agreement of the chairs,” the two leaders said. It would also be tasked with “pandemic and disaster preparedness and emergency management and communication.”

Mariano added that the Legislature needed to make corrections to the state’s vaccine rollout, which he said had been “marked by communications and operational shortcomings,” according to the State House News Service.

“Government must be responsive to the issues of our time, and the state legislature is uniquely equipped to do so,” he and Spilka said in their statement.

Photo by John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

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