Massachusetts has no plans to create any mass vaccination sites for children, the state's top health official said at a hearing Monday.
Instead, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services will focus on getting COVID-19 vaccine shots out through school-based clinics and pediatricians, Secretary Marylou Sudders said. Museums and other venues will also be tapped.
"That’s where kids are. Families trust their primary care practices, their doctors, and we know kids are in schools," Sudders said at an invite-only state legislative oversight hearing on COVID-19 vaccinations for children at the Museum of Science in Boston.
Held by the Joint Committee on Public Health and Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, the hearing also included testimony from doctors, school nurses, public health advisors and pharmaceutical representatives about how best to keep children safe as schools reopen.
Sudders didn't offer a specific timeframe for when that plan would go into effect, only that it would come after the vaccines are given their next level of authorization, which officials anticipate will come in the fall.
Dr. Chris Garofalo, a family physician from Attleboro, has been pushing for kids being vaccinated, and said
"We do this all the time. We have the infrastructure built out, we have the list of kids, we know how to get those kids in and get them vaccinated," he said.
So far, only the two-dose Pfizer vaccine has been authorized for people younger than 18 years old and no vaccine has been authorized for children under 12. And with COVID cases on the rise in Massachusetts, some lawmakers have been wondering if the state is doing enough to protect unvaccinated kids as the first day of school fast approaches.
“I think we need to have a more transparent conversation,” said Democratic State Rep. Marjorie Decker over the weekend.
Doctors and school nurses testified at Monday's hearing about how to keep kids safe in the classroom, but some were furious that the state's education commissioner, Jeffrey Riley, didn't come, despite being invited. They wanted to know a baseline for what vaccination rates would trigger stronger directions for schools, and more insight on what the fall will look like as cases rise.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education didn't immediately respond to questions about why Riley didn't attend.
Asked Monday after the hearing started whether he was open to bring back a mask mandate for schools, Gov. Charlie Baker was noncommittal.
"I'm going to continue to collect data from the CDC and others…most of the governors that I've talked to said they're waiting to hear more from the feds before they make their own decisions," he said, in a message echoed by other state officials.
Baker said Thursday that he has no plans to bring back coronavirus restrictions in Massachusetts as two Cape Cod communities implement mask policies amid a spike in cases. Baker also said he has no plans to change mask guidance for school in the fall, despite a call from some lawmakers to revive a school mask mandate amid the spread of the delta variant.
"We're not looking at changing any of our existing rules or policies," Baker said last week. "We have a set of statewide standards and they're based on what we see on a statewide basis. And if communities believe they need to pursue strategies that are more effective and appropriate for them, that they should do so, and that's exactly what Provincetown did."
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said masks shouldn’t be required for anyone in schools who are fully vaccinated. Shortly after, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that everyone older than age 2 wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, when schools reopen in the fall.
With only weeks to go until her two kids head back to school, Decker, the Public Health Committee Chair, said she is not alone in her concerns.
“I know it’s the conversation that everyone in Massachusetts wants to have right now,” she said. “I think what’s hard for everyone is that, what was true four weeks ago, is slowly starting to change."
With COVID cases steadily increasing and the delta variant detected in some communities, Decker said the state needs to be prepared for a quick rollout when a vaccine is approved for kids under 12.
“We know that everything is really nimble right now, but I’m expecting somewhere in September, maybe mid-October,” she said about the timeline.
Meanwhile, with only half of the state’s eligible teenagers vaccinated right now, Decker's also questioning Baker’s decision not to impose any statewide COVID-19 guidelines for back to school.
“I have a lot of questions about are we doing everything we should be and are we providing the kind of statewide leadership this moment calls for,” Decker said.
The hearing is open to the public online. It starts at 11 a.m. Monday and can be viewed here.
More on COVID in Mass.
State House News Service contributed to this report.