Local leaders call for local vaccination sites

JIM SULLIVAN/Staff photo Emergency medical technician Garrett Hileman receives his second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine Thursday at a clinic for first responders and people 75 and over in West Newbury.

WEST NEWBURY — About 200 first responders and senior citizens headed to Dr. John C. Page School for the second round of their COVID-19 vaccinations Thursday while local officials made a plea to keep such clinics going.

The communities of Amesbury, Georgetown, Groveland, Merrimac, Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, Salisbury and West Newbury joined together to regionalize vaccine distribution in the Merrimack Valley.

The state gave the regional community group 1,600 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to inoculate 800 residents and first responders. A pair of health clinics have been conducted at Page School over the past two weekends and about 200 of those vaccinated received their second shots at the same location Thursday afternoon.

But the state has dictated that vaccines will soon only be available to regional clinics that can administer at least 750 doses per day, five days a week.

Local health directors and state legislators, including Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-Georgetown, and Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, held a press conference at the clinic Thursday to implore Gov. Charlie Baker and health officials to let communities continue their own vaccination measures.

"The state has done a terrible job in the rollout of this vaccine," Mirra said. "There is no spinning of that. We just quite simply have to do a better job. The idea of shutting down a vaccination spot like this one is an absolutely rotten idea."

Tarr pointed out that local communities have set up an infrastructure for vaccinations.

"It is important that we continue to support efforts like this one and make sure that they remain sustainable and viable as we move forward," Tarr said.

Amesbury Fire Chief Ken Berkenbush, the interim health director in that city, said thousands of man-hours as well as plenty of money have already been spent to get the vaccination clinics up and running.

"To date, we haven't been reimbursed for these things," he said. "But everybody felt that it was a worthwhile goal to have these clinics within our communities to help out our friends, families, senior citizens and neighbors during this time of pandemic."

Mass vaccination clinics work very well for people who can travel easily, according to Berkenbush.

"The demographic we are trying to reach is the elderly, those who have no transportation and those who are perhaps homebound," he said. "To reach those folks, which is an underserved group of individuals, we need to have the vaccine with local control to reach our Council on Aging directors to reach out to these folks and make sure that they get vaccinated properly."

Amesbury Mayor Kassandra Gove sent a letter to Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders this week urging them to redirect more doses to local efforts, such as the one in West Newbury.

"I know you believe that the strategy you have chosen – to funnel available vaccine to the mass vaccination sites and private providers – is the best one, but listen to your constituents," Gove wrote. "Listen to us when we tell you that you have made the wrong decision. We can run clinics efficiently and safely, and in a community that our residents know and with people they trust." 

Clinic spokesman John Guilfoil praised Baker for the work he has done so far but said a regional vaccination clinic like the one in West Newbury on Thursday is simply an example of "neighbors helping neighbors."

"I wish the governor could see something like this because there's a marvel of municipal efficiency in action," Guilfoil said.

West Newbury Town Manager Angus Jennings said each municipality typically receives very little lead time from the state before the vaccines are made available.

"We do a lot of advance work, weeks ahead and we only have so many days on the calendar," Jennings said. "We don't know until a couple of days ahead of time if we're actually going to get a vaccine. That is where that local level of service can't be replicated. We already have the relationships with people and we have been making daily calls to seniors since last March when COVID first broke to see if they needed anything like grocery shopping."

Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at jsullivan@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.

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