Everyone older than 15 is now eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in Massachusetts, but in the race to vaccinate as many people as possible ahead of the summer season, island officials are concerned Nantucket may not be receiving enough doses.
Nantucket Cottage Hospital President and CEO Gary Shaw announced last week that he had been informed the state would release no more than 1,170 vaccine doses to Nantucket per week. Despite Shaw’s lobbying of Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, along with similar efforts by town officials and the island’s state representatives to increase Nantucket’s vaccine allocation, it appears the number of doses will be limited and below the island’s capacity to administer them.
“We’ve made it abundantly known through our representatives and through the (Mass General Brigham) hospital system that we are not getting to where we need to be quickly enough with an influx of people coming here and there was great sympathy but we were simply told there is not more vaccine to give right now,” Shaw told the Select Board at its most recent meeting. “My role is to advocate, obviously. I think I’ve made everyone that I can think of aware that we would like to move into doing 4,000 or 5,000 doses (per week), but it’s just simply not available.”
The supply issue is the result of numerous factors, Shaw said, some that are nationwide, but others that are specific to Nantucket. He cited President Joe Biden’s direction to shift vaccine prioritization to FEMA sites and national pharmacy chains such as CVS. Nantucket has neither, so it is at an inherent disadvantage compared to other communities. Martha’s Vineyard, for example, has a federally qualified community health center known as Island Health Care, which recently qualified to receive a shipment of 4,040 vaccine doses through a federal program. The extra doses are over and above what the Vineyard was already receiving through its hospital, which is also part of Mass General Brigham.
There was also the federal government’s recent decision to pause the distribution of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine out of an abundance of caution over extremely rare blood clot issues in a small number of vaccine recipients. While no Johnson & Johnson shots have been administered on Nantucket to date, the additional supply and distribution from a third manufacturer had been expected to boost allocations across Massachusetts. But that’s off the table for now.
State data shows that Nantucket ranks among the best counties in Massachusetts in terms of the percentage of its population that has received at least one vaccine dose. But that percentage is likely skewed because it is based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s year-round population estimate of 11,399, which is far below the recent estimate calculated by the Nantucket Data Platform of 17,200. So when state officials prioritize vaccine allocation for communities across Massachusetts, the island may appear to them to be in better standing than it truly is.
The island’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the VFW facility on New South Road, a joint operation orchestrated by NCH and the town, has been operating since Feb. 3 and island health officials have provided more than 12,000 first and second dose vaccinations to date. Dan’s Pharmacy on Pleasant Street is also now offering COVID-19 vaccine shots.
But with the island’s population increasing by the day with the arrival of seasonal residents, visitors and workers, there is concern that the pace of vaccinations may fall behind what is necessary to protect the population ahead of the summer.
“It’s so disappointing to hear this.” Select Board member Matt Fee said. “To think we’ve got an at risk population and we’re ramping up, all the things we’ve talked about, and there’s no response? Just because we don’t have a CVS or a Walgreens we’re not going to be able to vaccinate enough people quickly enough? I’m really just disappointed in the legislature, the state, and disappointed we’re left in this situation.”
He added a plea to island employers: “If you’re hiring, make sure your staff gets vaccinated before they get here.”
State Senator Julian Cyr and State Representative Dylan Fernandes have joined the effort to secure additional vaccine doses for the islands, penning a letter to Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. They acknowledged the early success on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard through the first phases of the state’s vaccine rollout, but echoed the concerns of Shaw and the Select Board.
“Regrettably, that progress is now stalling, as more island residents become eligible but do not have ready access to the state mass vaccination sites nor to the federal pharmacy program,” Cyr and Fernandes wrote. “With such programmatic and geographic limitations, it’s vital that vaccine supply from the Commonwealth to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard increase and be sustained.”
Nantucket Cottage Hospital’s Chief Nursing Officer Michelle Epps told the Current on Thursday that Mass General Brigham was supplementing the island’s vaccine supply by 200 doses this week and another 200 doses next week. The additional vaccines will help, she said, but the clinic is still operating below its capacity for putting shots in arms.
The hospital and the town are particularly concerned about reaching Nantucket’s immigrant community and those on the island with limited English proficiency now that the general adult population is eligible.
“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.”
A potential solution may come when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is reauthorized for use. Epps shared that she is hopeful the state will prioritize an allocation of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine for the island that would allow hospital and town officials to expand vaccinations outside the VFW clinic. The potential program has not yet been defined, she said, but could potentially allow health care workers to go to a church or a home in an effort to bring the vaccine to locations where people might feel more comfortable receiving it.
“It is in our plans and once it is released, we’re on the state’s radar to receive J&J,” Epps said.