Watertown Health Director Larry Ramdin said he was “extremely disappointed” with Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to remove local health departments from the COVID-19 vaccination process and handing it to privately run vaccination sites.
Ramdin told the Board of Health that received word of the change on Wednesday, the same day that the Watertown Health Department gave vaccines to 100 residents age 75 or older. He said health departments have better training and can administer more doses than pharmacies and other vaccination sites.
“We have been going through this. Every one of the clinics we host is a drill for an emergency dispensing site. We can do it,” Ramdin said. “For some reason, the governor and his team, in their wisdom, have decided we are not capable. However, they have contracted with groups that have not done this before. In fact, they were not existing two months ago.”
Ramdin said he has stopped following the governor’s weekly updates because the rules change so often. He added that the state seems to be placing the blame on local boards of health for problems with the vaccnation program.
“Why are you moving to vaccinate people in another group when you don’t even have enough vaccines to vaccinate the people in the first group,” Ramdin said, referring to the recent addition of residents age 65+ to those who can get vaccinated. “And why are you dumping it on us and blaming us when you are the ones that are screwing up. You are not giving us vaccines. If I had enough vaccine I could have had weekend clinics and vaccinated a very significant part of our population.”
Over the past two weeks, the Watertown Health Department vaccinated 300 residents age 75+ — 200 last week and 100 this week. On Wednesday, Ramdin received an email from state officials saying the Town would not be able to get vaccines unless they can vaccinate 350 people per day on five consecutive days.
“That is not a reality for us. If you want to continue getting vaccine you have to partner with other communities,” Ramdin said.
The main factor limiting the numbers the Health Department can vaccinate, Ramdin noted, is that people need to wait 15 minutes after receiving the shot to make sure they do not have an adverse reaction (30 minutes if they have had allergic reactions in the past).
Ramdin added that the state’s mass vaccination sites in places like Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, are difficult for some to get access, especially the older population during the winter. Local pharmacies have also received some vaccine, but Ramdin said they do not have the same training as the Health Department staff.
“Local public health (departments) are the only entities in Massachusetts that has done mass vaccinations. The last time we did mass vaccination in any great amount was at our clinics for H1N1,” Ramdin said. “We are tested everyday. The Department of Public Health gets funding for this exact purpose under the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Act so that we can set up area sites, emergency dispensing sites, dispensing either medicine or vaccines.”
John Straus, chair of the Board of Health, said going to a local clinic would be easier for many residents, such as those who do not have a car.
“For some people, getting to Fenway is not easy,” Straus said.
Board of Health member Barbara Beck said some people are left behind in the state’s system of computer registration to get the vaccination appointments.
“It really disadvantages those who do not have access to computers or who are not computer literate,” Beck said.
For the clinics run by the Watertown Health Department, Ramdin said, the Senior Center had a number for people to call if they do not have computer access.
Ramdin said that this is not the first time that local health departments and boards of health have been taken out of the loop.
“I am not going to say that it seems that there is some financial incentive to reward third parties, but what troubles me is that there has always been a move to disenfranchise local public health, or take local public health and take its better parts and put it into the hands of private entities, for one sole reason — money,” Ramdin said.
He also told the Board of Health that local health departments did not get thanked by the Governor at the beginning of the pandemic, while others were being lauded, despite the fact that they were the ones tracking and tracing the vast majority of COVID-19 cases.
Straus said splits his time and lives part of the year in Vermont, and was able to get an appointment to get the vaccine there. He noted that they handle it differently than Massachusetts, including waiting to announce a new group eligible to get the vaccine until they know they will have enough doses.
Richard Arnold, a member of the Board of Health, said he registered to get his second dose at a CVS, but he noted that the registration form was very short.
“There was no screening of my health history. I was able to make an appointment online,” Arnold said. “There was no question regarding allergies or comorbidities. It did ask my age. It didn’t ask why, if I was under 75, I was getting the vaccine.”
When Straus registered in Vermont he said he had to fill out a questionnaire with about a dozen questions before he could book an appointment.
Arnold added that he worried whether the pharmacies could handle people having a reaction to the vaccine. After receiving the shot, he was told he should stay in the store for 15 minutes and then could go home.
Ramdin said he does expect the Watertown Health Department to vaccinate residents of the Watertown Housing Authority, as well as those who are homebound. Those are difficult, he noted, because vaccinators must go to people’s homes and will be there for at least half an hour to give the shot and make sure they are OK.
Board of Health members encouraged Ramdin to join with other local health directors to write a letter or an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe and other media with the hope of communities getting access to vaccines, again.