Local leaders are readying broad-based public education campaigns to encourage as many people as possible to get their shots as the state and nation begin down the road to recovery with the first doses of coronavirus vaccine expected to reach Massachusetts on Monday.
“It’s a huge step — we’ve been through a lot. There is light at the end of the tunnel — but the tunnel has many more challenges to go,” said Boston Health Chief Marty Martinez.
Pfizer vaccines — granted an emergency use authorization by the FDA on Friday — will reach select hospitals around the state sometime on Monday, according to state authorities. From there, they will be redistributed to 74 hospitals across all 14 counties, where medical workers in COVID-19-facing settings will receive the first doses.
The commonwealth is expecting about 60,000 doses to arrive in the first week, according to a COVID-19 Command Center spokeswoman. It was still unclear on Sunday exactly when vaccinations would begin.
Residents and workers at long-term care facilities, prisoners, homeless people staying in shelters and first responders are second in line, according to a three-phase vaccine distribution plan outlined by the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker last week.
Teachers, essential workers and, people over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions will be vaccinated beginning in February, followed by the general public sometime in April.
One of the “biggest challenges” facing public health workers will be to overcome public skepticism of a vaccine program mired by a divisive political climate and widespread mistrust in the federal government’s COVID-19 response, Martinez.
“I believe there’s a very universal concern that people will not take the vaccine,” Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said. But “the vaccine is going to be a powerful blunting instrument against the spread of the coronavirus and we need to show the information to the public and help them understand why it’s important and why it’s safe.”
A MassINC poll published Tuesday revealed the “vast majority” of Massachusetts residents plan to take a vaccine but uncovered more hesitancy among Black and Latinx residents to take it early than among whites. It showed 28% of Black and 22% of Latinx people compared to 38% of white residents would rush to take the vaccine, with women in each subclass being even less likely.
The Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church said last week “anecdotal polls” of her parishioners “were still very skeptical.”
“I think that’s probably indicative of a lot of people in our community,” said Walker, who is leading equity efforts and outreach on the state’s COVID-19 advisory boards.
Baker last week approved $1 million for a public education campaign to be launched by Feb. 15 that requires the Department of Public Health to partner with community-based organizations in areas disproportionately impacted by the virus.
But many mayors are already getting to work.
In Boston, Martinez said the city plans to have multiple public awareness campaigns and will hold focus groups with people of color “to understand who’s going to help convey more trust.”
Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan is planning a summit with local faith leaders on Wednesday, the “sole focus” of which “is to educate and inform about the vaccine to all the different clergy and pastors in Brockton so they can extend it to their populations.”
Revere will lean on its multilingual field teams and other existing strategies to promote a “home-grown and relatable message around the vaccine,” Mayor Brian Arrigo said. Revere is already working with Mass General Brigham on public education and plans on tapping into the Spanish-language communications network it has established with several neighboring communities. The city’s public health director has also signed up to take the vaccine on video to demonstrate its safety.
“I know that there are going to be people who for a lot of different reasons may be suspicious of the vaccine or may not even understand that we’ve got access to it and availability,” Arrigo said. “We really want to make sure we’re getting that message across.”