City, Coronavirus, News

Massachusetts sees issues with ‘companion vaccination system,’ overall distribution

Bostonians looking for a quicker COVID-19 vaccine have taken to offering the elderly rides to vaccination sites on Craigslist, following a Wednesday announcement by the state that caregivers accompanying those over 75 are eligible for a same-day appointment.

Fenway Park vaccination site. Boston residents who drive seniors to vaccine distribution centers became eligible for same-day appointments Wednesday, leading some to offer rides to elderly vaccine recipients to receive the vaccine sooner. LILY KEPNER/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

While state lawmakers have criticized the “companion system” for possibly allowing healthy adults to be vaccinated before more vulnerable individuals, advocates say barriers to vaccination for the elderly are a larger issue.

Since the Wednesday announcement, many residents have created posts on Craigslist offering free rides to seniors in exchange for the ability to book a vaccine appointment.

Trying to distinguish between those who are legitimate caretakers and those who just want to get their own vaccine early becomes complicated, said Paulette Durrett, a member of the Boston chapter of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council.

“It’s a win for the elderly person,” Durrett said. “But for the person who tried to beat the system, it’s not fair for the rest of us who have to wait for Phase Two or Phase Three or whenever.”

Educating seniors on not giving out personal information to strangers and only accepting rides from people they know and trust should be a priority, said James Fuccione, senior director at the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative.

He added that online posts are relatively rare and some Craigslist posts have been deleted.

“[The Craigslist posts are] by far the exception, not the rule,” Fuccione said. “This is intended and is benefiting older people who didn’t have access before to be able to go get the vaccine, and that’s the whole point.”

The new policy mirrors Phase One, when workers in long-term care facilities were vaccinated alongside residents, Fuccione said. Similar to those employees, most caregivers live or come in frequent contact with at-risk seniors.

Fuccione added there should be a focus on vaccinating as many people as possible, rather than worrying about people “skipping the line.”

“One or two ads on Craigslist does not mean that this policy is a bad policy,” Fuccione said. “The main point is that if you allow caregivers and younger companions that frequently interact with older adults to get the vaccine as well, that opens up access for older adults, and that’s a population that’s a priority right now.”

Joan Hatem-Roy, CEO of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley — a nonprofit supporting elderly residents of Northeast Massachusetts — said most caregivers who accompany seniors are older adults themselves and would already get the vaccine shortly after.

“It’s usually spouses who may be 74 years old or 73 years old and adult children who are also elders themselves,” she said. “So, now having them both vaccinated is certainly to an advantage.”

She said the issue of young people being vaccinated before older adults is likely blown out of proportion.

It is difficult to figure out who deserves the first vaccine doses, Hatem-Roy said. She said she believes everyone who wants a vaccine will eventually get one.

“It’s just a matter of taking a breath and letting the process happen,” Hatem-Roy said. “It’s really hard to put one group in front of another, but they’ve got to start somewhere.”

Linda Freeman, another member of the Boston MSAC, echoed claims that there are larger issues with the vaccination process for seniors.

Freeman said the transportation issue for seniors is prevalent — especially with recent snowfall hindering those with mobility issues — but there are also issues with mass vaccination locations being out of reach for communities most impacted by the pandemic.

“Those who are non-white or poor whites get sidelined,” Freeman said. “They’re an afterthought.”

Durrett added the main issue is the Commonwealth did not adequately consult high-risk communities before developing its vaccine plan.

“They’re not even addressing the main issue, which is you haven’t established a relationship with the community,” Durrett said. “Now you have a crisis situation and you want them to believe you. Why should they?”

Seniors are facing other barriers, such as difficulties making appointments if they are not computer-savvy, accessing information in their native language or being unable to make an appointment because people from outside the city came in and took the spot, Durrett said.

“The lack of communication, overall, is appalling,” Durrett said. “People coming from outside Boston and other neighborhoods being able to get the vaccine in Boston neighborhoods is unconscionable.”

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