The Baker administration on Friday launched a hotline to help Massachusetts residents 75 and older make appointments for COVID-19 vaccine shots, amid intense scrutiny over the state's vaccination rollout.
The call center, announced by Gov. Charlie Baker during a press conference, can be reached by dialing 211 and aims to help senior citizens who have trouble accessing the state vaccination website.
The call center, open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. will be staffed by 500 operators who will help callers find appointments at vaccination centers near them. There will be both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking operators, and translation offered in some 100 languages, Baker said.
"We believe this resource will be a huge help to individuals who are over 75 who may not have access to the internet or have trouble using the website," Baker said.
Those people who call the hotline and cannot immediately make an appointment at a location accessible to them will be put on a "call back list" and will be called when an appointment becomes available.
The same vaccination appointments will be made accessible to people who use the website and those who call the hotline.
The governor warned, however, he expected there to be wait times on the hotline given the high demand for the service, but said he expected that to be reduced in the coming days.
Susan Parker had no luck booking a vaccine appointment for her mom, Rilda Seletz, on the state's website.
"My mom's been on, I've been on, it just was not easy to navigate," said Parker.
The Marblehead family felt a sense of urgency to secure a slot.
"Anytime somebody says spots are open, we go to the website, and no spots are open locally," she said.
Seletz immediately called when she heard about the new call center.
"They could only give me something around Boston, which is a little too far," she said. "And nothing closer. I kept saying, 'How about Peabody or Swampscott?'"
She's now on a callback list, and she feels like she's making progress.
"It's great," said Seletz, 89. "At least you feel like somebody's listening, somebody's trying to do something for you."
Massachusetts started vaccinating residents 75 years and older Monday as it entered the second phase of its COVID-19 vaccination plan, joining first responders, healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, who were eligible in Phase 1.
Various organizations, lawmakers, experts and residents have criticized Massachusetts' COVID-19 vaccination rollout, calling on Baker to set up a hotline to help seniors make appointments. Baker answered the call with a promise to create a call center this week.
"The stress level was kind of really through the roof," said Carolyn Villers, executive director of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council.
Villers says too many older residents are having problems with the state's website.
"We have heard from countless numbers of seniors from across the state who really have been really distraught," said Villers. "A lot of anxiety, a lot of concern."
It's a big relief for Parker.
"It's a huge weight off my shoulders to know that this number's here and that my mom's already called them," she said.
And it's one step closer for Seletz to get her life back.
"I've been in the house for about maybe almost a year now," she said.
Meanwhile, Baker also announced the launch of a public awareness campaign, "Trust the Facts, Get the Vax," aimed at increasing trust in COVID-19 vaccines, especially in communities of color and others disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
The campaign comes after the administration conducted a survey of 1,000 residents to identify barriers preventing people from getting vaccinated.
The survey found that 53 percent of respondents had concerns about the vaccines. People of color and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were disproportionately represented among those who had concerns, officials said.
"We recognize that insuring access (to vaccines) is not enough, we need to reach out to people in these communities who may be hesitant about the vaccination," Baker said.
The campaign will launch with television spots on Super Bowl Sunday, followed by television and social media campaigns next week.
The campaign comes amid mounting concerns on Beacon Hill over equitable access to the coronavirus vaccine. A group of lawmakers filed legislation Thursday night to increase vaccine delivery in certain communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Democratic State Senators Becca Rausch, Sonia Chang-Díaz, Liz Miranda and Rep. Mindy Domb filed the bill, which requires that Baker immediately appoint a director of COVID-19 vaccination equity and outreach, among other measures.
Black people account for 2.6% of those who have received at least one vaccine dose in Massachusetts, while Latinx residents accounted for 3.3%, according to the latest weekly report from the health department. Massachusetts also ranks in the bottom half of the nation in per-capita vaccinations, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel this week acknowledged the deficiencies and said the state is working to improve its vaccination rollout.
"We’ve been working very closely with our communities on community engagement," Bharel said. "It’s a top priority and we could do more and we will. And it’s very important to us to make sure the vaccine is getting to people where they are needed."
The legislation would require the Baker administration to take a number of actions to further expand access to vaccination and testing in communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19, including:
- Appointing a director of COVID-19 vaccination equity and outreach whose sole focus is addressing disparities in vaccination rates rooted in racism, mistrust of government and disparate access to information and resources
- Partnering with trusted local organizations, including local boards of health, for direct outreach campaigns, including through phone calls, text messages, door to door canvassing, and interactive digital events, to deliver information and support relative to the COVID-19 vaccine in the hardest-hit communities
- Creating a vaccination vehicle program for mobile vaccination in communities with the highest rates of COVID-19 test positivity
- Appointing an expert on vaccine disinformation to the Vaccine Advisory Group;
- Expanding Stop the Spread testing sites to all gateway cities
- Requiring the Executive Branch to make detailed vaccination implementation and equity plans publicly available, as well as provide weekly updates on the status of the rollout