NANTUCKET CURRENT: NANTUCKET SEEKS EQUITY IN ISLAND VACCINE DISTRIBUTION

Written By: Jason Graziadei

A demographic breakdown of Nantucket residents who have received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine shows the island is making progress, but still has a long way to go in bringing equity to the ongoing vaccination effort.

While Nantucket ranks among the best counties in Massachusetts in terms of the percentage of residents who have been vaccinated, state data suggests the number of Black and Hispanic islanders who have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine – roughly 17 percent of the total – is well below what is believed to be their share of Nantucket’s year-round population.

“It tells me we have a lot of work to do,” Health Department Director Roberto Santamaria said of the demographic data on vaccinated islanders. “It should be at least twice that,” he said of the percentage of Hispanic individuals who have received at least a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Part of the challenge in assessing the equity of the island’s vaccine distribution is the uncertainty of Nantucket’s true year-round population number and demographic breakdown. Using the outdated 2010 Census numbers, Santamaria said, is of little value. But given what island officials have gleaned about Nantucket’s population from other sources, such as demographic data from the public schools (where Hispanic students make up 36 percent of the student body) and the Nantucket Data Platform, the vaccine numbers indicate the island is behind where it should be in vaccinating people of color.

Both town and hospital officials are keenly aware of the situation, and with vaccine supply starting to outpace demand, are rolling out new initiatives to reach these populations and break down barriers to access.

“We have a population we know we’re not reaching: our vulnerable, non-English speaking population where there may be some vaccine hesitancy,” Epps said. “So we want to do outreach outside the clinic and think about how we can get to them. Part of the difficulty is the ability to get them the second vaccine.”

Nantucket Cottage Hospital announced yesterday that island employers that are interested in getting their employees vaccinated as a group, potentially at their place of business, could e-mail NCHVax@partners.org to get more information on this new program. It is one way the hospital and town believe they can reach more people who may be hesitant to get vaccinated, or have limited access due to language or technological barriers, and those that simply cannot leave work to sign-up and travel to the VFW clinic site.

“We’re going to watch this weekend to see how the demand goes, and if it’s low like it was last weekend, we’ll start the individualized workplace outreach,” Santamaria said.

The town’s so-called COVID-19 Resource Response Team, led by members of the Council for Human Services, the Immigration Resource Center, the schools, and other health and human services agencies, has already been out at the mid-island Stop and Shop on Saturday mornings when new appointments go live to assist individuals with signing up. It has been providing social media updates in multiple languages, and piloted the a new program with an island landscaping company to get its entire workforce vaccinated.

“They provided details of their employees’ information, our volunteers scheduled the entire list of employees from this one company,” said Brooke Mohr, chair of the Council for Human Services. “The tradeoff was that the landscaping company agreed to allow their employees to leave the job site for whatever appointment we were able to get them. That worked really well.”

Beyond the equity issues the town is addressing, vaccine hesitancy is another challenge. Select Board member Melissa Murphy said Wednesday night that education and outreach are key in reaching individuals who may be reluctant for a variety of reasons.

“I noticed some vaccine hesitancy from some members of the community,” Murphy said of her volunteer experience attempting to register islanders for vaccine appointments at the Stop & Shop. “I even had to show one gentleman my own inhaler to show that I was fully vaccinated with asthma, and that I’m OK. There’s a lot of misconceptions we’re up against with a lot of folks.”

Select Board member Matt Fee said the Board of Health should consider ways to incentivize young people to get vaccinated this summer, and that working with island establishments like bars and restaurants could be one way to do it.

“If going into a bar required a vaccination, I think you’d see the young people do it,” Fee said. “If you had to be vaccinated to go drink beer, they’d all be vaccinated in four or five weeks. They’d be done.”

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