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Massachusetts' Medical Workers Will Get Vaccine Before Elderly Population

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Massachusetts, many young, healthy medical researchers who work remotely have been rolling up their sleeves to get the COVID vaccine. Meanwhile, seniors are waiting on the sidelines, not yet eligible. Massachusetts has one of the nation's largest hospital workforces, and officials there have decided to put all of them at the front of the line. Gabrielle Emanuel of member station GBH in Boston reports.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Carol Halberstadt is 82, and she's been in her apartment just outside Boston since the beginning of the pandemic. Nobody comes in; nobody goes out.

CAROL HALBERSTADT: I've become more and more despairing and lonely, cut off from human contact.

EMANUEL: Halberstadt has a long list of complex medical issues. The most urgent one, she's going blind. She says she's desperate for eye surgery. But in order to safely be in the hospital, she needs a vaccine.

HALBERSTADT: The vaccine would change my life. It would give me a future.

EMANUEL: For weeks, she's been desperately trying to figure out how to get a shot.

HALBERSTADT: I am still totally, totally in the dark.

EMANUEL: She's watched with jealousy as seniors in many other states have started receiving vaccines. She studied data from the CDC, finding Massachusetts in the bottom half of states in per capita vaccinations. But perhaps most baffling is seeing healthy young people get inoculated before the elderly and the sick.

MICHAEL MINA: We're seeing just a huge number of people get vaccinated who I think should, frankly, be way down the line.

EMANUEL: Michael Mina is at Harvard's School of Public Health.

MINA: These are people who have nothing to do at all with COVID or with patient care or really with the hospitals.

EMANUEL: They just happen to be employed by a hospital, and thus they can get the vaccine. A few things are happening here. First, the federal level - nationally, vaccines are being distributed to states based on their total population. But the federal government has told states to prioritize certain groups like health care workers. With lots of hospitals, Massachusetts has lots of health care professionals at the front of the line.

MINA: It effectively means that the elderly and vulnerable people who might need the vaccine first will generally be pushed back.

EMANUEL: The second factor - state- and hospital-level decisions - here, the health care worker category has been defined to include all hospital employees - those in research labs, in telemedicine, in HR, including people working remotely. Paul Biddinger oversees the vaccine rollout at the Mass General Brigham. He says his hospital network needed to bring in some of those working from home during the first surge. They called up researchers...

PAUL BIDDINGER: And administrators and others in the intensive care unit listening for the alarms of ventilators because the federal surge ventilators that we had wouldn't plug into our alarm systems...

EMANUEL: Now, a third issue - individuals have been flakey. The Dana Farber Cancer Institute sent out a mass email saying, quote, "We have had far too many researchers not show up for COVID-19 vaccinations over the past week." The result, the email says, is vaccines may have been wasted. These challenges have been compounded by communication missteps and technical glitches. And Massachusetts has admitted hundreds of thousands of doses are sitting unused in hospital and pharmacy freezers. Governor Charlie Baker has announced those over 75 will be eligible on the 1 of February, and he's hoping they'll have enough vaccines to meet all the pent-up demand.

For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "INDIGO OF THE KINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.