After controversial move to pull local vaccines, mass clinic set to start

Feb 24, 2021

As one of the state’s mass vaccination clinics gets set to roll out at the former Circuit City in Dartmouth on Feb. 24, local and state officials are questioning Gov. Charlie Baker’s methods — particularly after first vaccine doses were pulled from hospitals and towns all across the South Coast.

A clinic run by Southcoast Health at the VF Outlet and another run by the Dartmouth Board of Health at Dartmouth High School were already up and running, when the state told them days later it would no longer provide local clinics with the vaccine.

But following an abrupt reversal of that decision, Southcoast Health sites will once again be administering doses in the region after a weeklong hiatus.

Southcoast’s clinic had provided 900 doses in Dartmouth and nearly 3,000 in the wider region, and was prepared to scale operations up to tens of thousands of vaccinations per week, according to the nonprofit healthcare provider. 

Shawn Badgley, Southcoast’s public information officer, confirmed that the clinics in Wareham, Dartmouth and Fall River would be up and running again later this week.

Meanwhile, the town-run clinic had given over 1,300 doses over three days of clinics, according to Public Health Director Chris Michaud.

The commonwealth had ostensibly halted vaccinations at the Southcoast sites and other local clinics to prioritize its own mass vaccination sites. 

Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders wrote local health officials informing them of the changes on Feb. 17, noting that the vaccine “demand vastly exceeds current supply.”

The letter also cited an alleged lack of efficiency in getting enough doses out to the public through local clinics. 

But Michaud estimated that the town-run clinic gave 96% of the doses they received from the state’s Department of Public Health.

“We did it so well,” he said of the town’s clinic. “There really isn’t any good reason to be taking this away from us.”

“To take away 1,000 doses a day out of Southeastern Massachusetts — we’re going over a week without doses,” he added. “This is a tragedy.”

The mass vaccine site will be run by Curative Inc., a Los Angeles-based company launched in January 2020 to develop a new sepsis test, but which pivoted to Covid testing in March last year.

Curative is already running mass vaccine clinics in Springfield and Danvers, both of which ran into organizational issues earlier this month.

In Springfield, senior citizens were left waiting in long lines outdoors in the cold, reportedly resulting in the National Guard being called in to help.

At the Danvers clinic, disorganization around extra doses reportedly left some with appointments unvaccinated while others without appointments reportedly received the vaccine.

“Governor Baker now has decided to take a unique approach in one of the oldest public health models in the nation and privatize it,” said Michaud shortly after the announcement of the local clinic shutdown.

He went on to call the decision “insulting.”

“These companies are popup companies that are doing this,” he noted. “You’ve taken two primary players in public health — hospitals and public health departments — and sidelined them for this untested player.”

The website to book appointments at the commonwealth’s mass clinics had already crashed as millions became eligible for the vaccine in the second part of Phase 2 last week.

It is unclear how Curative was awarded the contract from the state.

As for the former Circuit City site, Michaud said, the health department had already rejected the site for a vaccine clinic due to lack of parking and traffic flow issues. 

“This site’s awful,” he said bluntly. “Our police department has expressed concern about the traffic patterns in there, with an added 2000 vehicle trips per day.”

Michaud called the state’s changes “a big experiment in public health,” adding that he would support a vote of no confidence in the governor.

One reason for the local closures, State Rep. Chris Markey of Dartmouth noted, is that many towns have not had “truly professional health directors” and that they “need assistance running things” from the state.

“If everyone had a Chris Michaud, we’d probably be having the health departments distribute [the vaccines] as a whole,” he said.

According to Markey, the state’s decision was also a “cost-effective one,” noting that with current supplies, it is easier to distribute them amongst the state-run clinics compared to hundreds of local sites. 

“I think there’s a logic to it,” Markey said. “I just wish they didn’t have to have this logic.” 

While he expects “hiccups” to occur as the Curative clinic kicks off, Markey said that success at mass sites such as Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park show that “these companies do know what they’re doing.” 

“If they can follow through with exactly what Dartmouth did at the high school, then I feel very comfortable,” he added. 

Meanwhile state Sen. Mark Montigny signed a letter along with 41 other legislators expressing concern over the governor’s decision to close municipal sites.

“This decision represents, yet another, substantial and abrupt change to our vaccination process,” the letter read.

The legislators claimed that prioritizing mass vaccination is “inequitable to seniors,” as seniors prefer local resources and many are “uncomfortable” going to sites that are often 30 to 45 minutes away from their communities. 

“Our seniors should not be expected to arrange this type of lengthy transportation, away from the safety of their community, in the middle of a deadly pandemic,” the letter read. 

The group of elected officials urged Baker to “prioritize local infrastructure” and to reconsider the decision to limit the capabilities of local operations. 

In an official statement, Montigny called out what he deemed a “significant series of early missteps by the administration.”

Madison Czopek, Christopher Shea, Chloe Shelford, Kate Robinson, and Aidan Pollard contributed to this story.