Guest Op-Ed: First Responders Need Vaccine Now

By Senator Sal DiDomenico 

One of the greatest bright spots of 2020 and now leading into this New Year has been the speedy development and subsequent rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. For the first time in many months, we are finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, with the promise that someday soon we will all receive the inoculation needed to stay safe from this deadly virus that has ravaged our communities. Of course, the first phase of the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has rightfully been dedicated to reaching our healthcare workers and first responders; those on the front lines who have already risked so much to serve us in the midst of this public health crisis.

However, Phase 1 of this rollout is already off to a slow and rocky start. Perhaps most concerning is the fact that the goal of “Operation Warp Speed” on the national level was to get the COVID-19 vaccine to 20 million Americans by the end of the year, and yet just over two million Americans have been vaccinated thus far. At that rate, it has been estimated it would take the United States 10 years to vaccinate 80% of Americans. That is an unacceptable lack of leadership at the federal level, which undoubtedly has exacerbated the vaccine rollout issues we are already facing in the Commonwealth.

Here in Massachusetts, I am also deeply concerned about the lack of clarity, transparency, and communication on how and when vaccines will be administered to the priority populations that fall within Phase 1 of the vaccine rollout. Many members of our first responder community – especially our firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, and police officers – have indicated that they have received little to no information about when vaccines will be provided to emergency personnel or how it will be administered to them during the Phase 1 timeline.  The current plan for administering the vaccine to public safety personnel is to give that responsibility to local boards of health, all of which have already been forced to take on extraordinary and overwhelming responsibilities throughout this public health emergency.

Many public safety officials and my legislative colleagues have raised concerns that this plan has led to confusion and delay around vaccine rollout. Vaccinating our public safety personnel will not be as simple as it is for hospital personnel or even long-term care facility residents. The disparate geographic nature of our public safety community is something we must plan for accordingly, not only to guarantee all first responders receive the vaccinations they need, but also to ensure they receive the communication from public health officials that they deserve. Unfortunately, our Commonwealth’s already overburdened local boards of health are structurally unprepared to execute this massive undertaking, especially without additional support and guidance at the state level. That is why I am joining with my colleagues in calling upon the Baker Administration to implement two key recommendations. 

First, we must create a regionalized plan in consultation with the Department of Public Health and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security on how to distribute and administer the vaccine to our public safety personnel. This plan should take into account how and when different regions will be able access vaccines and how the Baker Administration plans to prioritize each region and department. Our local boards of health cannot do this on their own, and the state must step up to ensure our public safety officials are not left behind. The second proposal is to deploy the 7000 of the 12000 professional firefighters around the Commonwealth who are also EMTs to administer the vaccine to their colleagues, including call and volunteer departments. This is a simple and effective solution that will help to more quickly distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to our men and women on the front lines.

I know that vaccine distribution and administration is a massive feat that will undoubtedly need to be reviewed and amended as rollout continues over the coming weeks and months. Under no circumstances do I believe this holdup has been deliberate by anyone on the state level; our Commonwealth is being asked to take on an extraordinary challenge without proper support and resources from the Oval Office. However, it is also clear that further action needs to be a taken and these two proposals are a great place to start. 

I am already encouraged to see that the Governor Baker plans to address many of our concerns this week and will release more information regarding vaccine distribution plans for first responders in light of these concerns. I think we all know that our first responders, including our men and women in uniform, have played a crucial role in Massachusetts’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic and have risked and sacrificed so much for the greater good of our community. We owe it to them to ensure that our vaccine rollout is equitable, transparent, and effective. I stand with our public safety community and will continue to support any and all efforts to ensure that they are given every opportunity to access this vaccine as deserved.

Sal DiDomenico is State Senator of Middlesex and Suffolk Counties.

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