Published February 25, 2021


NORTH READING — The frustration over the bungled rollout at the federal and state levels of the COVID-19 vaccine during the past few weeks was palpable at Monday night’s Select Board meeting, culminating with the state’s decision to curtail most town-based clinics in favor of mass vaccination sites.

Members hashed out the particulars for over an hour with the local Board of Health and Health Department personnel, as well as state Rep. Brad Jones and state Sen. Bruce Tarr. By the end of the virtual discussion the consensus was clear: a desire to bring back locally-based clinics, especially to serve the town’s most vulnerable elderly citizens and those with co-morbidities.

It was explained by state Sen. Bruce Tarr that the most likely way to achieve such a goal would be to team up with the Boards of Health at about four other area communities and get state Department of Public Health certification to run larger clinics at the Hillview that would not be as difficult for area elders to travel to as the mass vaccination sites like Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park, with shorter wait times, sheltered from the elements and exposure to fewer random strangers.

Town’s numbers leveling off

The meeting also served as an opportunity to recognize the many people who have contributed countless hours in managing the pandemic locally in an effort to minimize its spread throughout the community as well as update the town’s current numbers and assure those who have received their first dose at the Hillview will be able to return for their second dose in four weeks, per the recommendations.

“Right now we have a total of 1,026 patients who we have been notified as having positive or suspected probable infections with COVID-19,” said outgoing public health nurse and Board of Health member Pam Vath. “This week we have had 18 new patients and that is significantly different than what we’ve been averaging on a weekly basis. We are currently monitoring 69 cases. We have 941 cases who have recovered.”

“Just as a reference point, a weekly census, this week (we had) 18. Over the last few weeks it varied between 43, 47, 66, 68, 53, 31, 66, 74, so it has been all over the place. A week after Christmas we had an average of 13 patients a day, and then it dropped to eight patients a day, and then two weeks after Christmas we had an average of 17 patients a day which gave us a bad blip that the state anticipated would happen after gatherings for the holidays.”

“It’s been very busy and we’ve been fortunate enough to have the help of a lot of folks in Town Hall who have given up some of their time to help us do contact tracing and notifying patients, so they need to be thanked very much for the work they’ve done,” Vath said.

Board of Health Chairman Gary Hunt added that the town has also benefitted from plenty of support from Superintendent of Schools Dr. Patrick Daly and the school nurses. “It’s been a major effort, not only of us but also volunteers and other town employees. A lot of it you are aware of, but a lot of it happens behind the scenes. It has been a battle,” Hunt said.

Health Director Bob Bracey noted “as a community we have worked tremendously well.” He pointed out that weekly meetings had been held with Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto, Director of Public Safety/Police Chief Michael Murphy, Fire Chief Don Stats, the public health nurses and Dr. Daly to keep themselves abreast of current information. Additionally, Bracey has taken part in twice weekly calls with the state DPH since March.

“Through the Board of Health we have implemented several orders to try to minimize the spread of the virus within the community, working with the schools, the local nursing home, and our delegation,” Bracey said.

Bracey added that to date the town has conducted 12 vaccination clinics for first responders and those 75 and over. The clinics have since expanded to include the “new priority group of 65 and over, plus individuals with two or more co-morbidities” following Gov. Baker’s announcement last week.

Since last week’s changes at the state DPH level, the town has been allotted enough vaccines to conduct two more clinics of 100 doses each — this week and next week — which are open only to town residents in the expanded Phase II priority group. Then, during the four weeks that follow the town has been assured that it will be provided enough vaccines to administer second doses of the Moderna vaccine to those who had received their first dose locally. 

As it currently stands, between the town’s first responders and elderly residents the local Health Department will administer two doses of the vaccine to 370 people by mid-April. All first responders who wanted the vaccine have already received both doses.

Phone bank for 2nd dose

Monday night the Health Department and Gilleberto assured the public that those town residents who received their first dose at a Hillview clinic will be able to return for their second dose. The town is in the process of organizing a phone bank to call those residents who attended the first two clinics to register them for their second dose.

Arrangements are also being made this week to sign up all residents who received their vaccine on Tuesday or Thursday of this week and next week to sign them up for their second dose upon arrival at the clinic when receiving their first dose.

Mass vaccination sites

Despite the success of the clinics locally and the desire by many elders to have the local option available to them, as it currently stands all future clinics will be conducted either at area pharmacies, like CVS and Walgreens, limited doctor’s offices or at mass vaccination sites.

Bracey told the board that the memo his department received from Executive Secretary Mary Lou Sudders indicates “based on limited vaccine, the state is moving towards regional clinics and the local Boards of Health may not be receiving any additional vaccines after we receive the second doses” from the DPH.

Therein lies the rub. What has been exceedingly frustrating to the town’s health officials has been the fact that their available expertise is being underutilized in favor of shuffling residents to far-flung mass vaccination sites.

Feeling betrayed

“The evolution of this whole clinic came out of an emergency preparedness program that the town has been a participant in for almost 20 years and one of the objectives of that program is to prepare for a health emergency, such as this. And I can’t think of a greater health emergency in my lifetime or the last 100 years, than this pandemic,” said Hunt, who has served on the town’s Board of Health for 35 years.

“We were instructed to participate. We did so willingly, devoted resources for the last 20 years only to be told recently that they didn’t need our services anymore. As a result many of the Boards of Health and the Health Departments within the commonwealth feel betrayed… It’s disgraceful the way we’ve been treated by the Department of Public Health. I think that’s something we all need to understand. This wasn’t something we took lightly. We made a commitment to be prepared,” Hunt said, adding that he knows both Sen. Tarr and Rep. Jones are aware of this sentiment from all of the other communities they represent.

Select Board Chairwoman Kate Manupelli said, “It’s a good point. This is something you have been getting us ready to deal with for a long, long time. We didn’t know it was going to be this, but we were ready for it.”

Rep. Jones said the town is not alone in its frustration as they have been hearing the complaints at the State House daily. He was glad to report that in the immediate aftermath of the about-face by the DPH they went to work seeking a commitment that those who had received their first dose here would have a second dose in the pipeline available at the local clinic.

“I’d feel happier if in some location within North Reading those doses were present and under Bob’s lock and key. We’re not there yet but we did get a delivery last Friday, which would be the first doses for next week’s clinics,” said Jones.

“A lot of this is the frustration of miscommunication, lack of communication, change in communication, at all levels, from the federal to the state and to the municipalities who were left holding the straw despite doing a lot of work under very difficult circumstances,” added Jones.

The crux of the issue has been the supply of the vaccine in every state to meet the demand. “The numbers (of available vaccines) are not lined up with the capacity that exists to vaccinate people… Our preference would be local (clinics) particularly with the populations we’re dealing with initially — the most vulnerable, the most difficult to reach, maybe the ones who are not as tech savvy or not as amendable to hopping in their car to drive to Gillette or Fenway during wintertime,” Jones said.

Sen. Tarr thanked everyone on the front lines involved in getting the town to this point. “This has been a long road even before we got to the subject of vaccinations. We’ve had issues around testing and health protocols. Brad and I understand that we have the capacity in Massachusetts to be vaccinating even more people than we are if we were to make full use of the infrastructure that’s built into the emergency management plan at the local level,” he said.

Tarr said he believes the state could be vaccinating more than 300,000 per week but “we’ve been getting enough vaccine to do roughly 130,000, so we — the royal ‘we’ of state government — certainly have to make difficult choices of allocating a lesser amount of the product to the greater amount of outlets we have for the product, and that’s the challenge.”

Tarr added they are trying to balance accelerating the benefit of herd immunity by utilizing some concentrated sites with getting to “vulnerable populations who may have restricted mobility, who may have other health conditions that prevent them from being able to go to a super vaccination site and stand in line.”

The town has tremendous capabilities and has proven (that) with regard to what’s been happening at Hillview. Currently, unless we see significant more vaccines coming into the state it is not likely we would see individual communities conduct vaccination programs in the way that they have. But it’s reasonable to have a conversation about whether a cluster of communities (could hold clinics) smaller than a super site but bigger than an individual community,” Tarr said.

Select Board member Stephen O’Leary said, “It’s important for the board to recognize that North Reading was on the cusp of becoming a regional site with the blessing of DPH…at the Hillview Country Club.”

Bracey said the plan for the town and surrounding communities was approved for up to 1,400 doses per week. “Unfortunately, due to vaccine shortage, that plan was put on shelf,” Bracey said.

O’Leary suggested that the capability could be set at 750 doses per day, twice a week so if five communities participated, they could possibly assist in getting up to 150 of their most vulnerable residents from each community vaccinated each day to meet this unmet need. Manupelli said the message they are giving to Tarr and Jones is that the town “would really like to keep this in our local hands and you will take that to any ear that will listen.”

Public health nurse lauded

One person in particular who was recognized was the town’s public health nurse, Pam Vath, who signed on two years ago on an interim basis, originally at five hours per week, after the town’s long-term public health nurse had retired. After the pandemic hit, it became clear to the Board of Health that five hours would not be adequate and that an experienced nurse would be needed to fill this role. Vath has served on the Board of Health for over 22 years and she will continue to serve in that role, but a new public health nurse has finally been found, Donna Hovey.

Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto explained that the role of the public health nurse in town is “a position in transition. Pam is continuing to assist us with our public health clinics. Pam did not sign up for this. She stepped up to be a bridge between the last nurse and the next nurse… This was thrust upon her…It’s not goodbye; she will continue to be a Board of Health member.”

“Donna graduated from MGH School of Nursing. She has a master’s in public policy and is a candidate for a Doctorate in Nursing Practice and Executive Leadership. She comes to us with decades of experience,” Gilleberto said, adding, “We welcome Donna here. We want to stress you will see her or Pam or both administering vaccines.”

Hovey said so many of the residents she met at the clinics “were so very appreciative of being able to come to the Hillview Country Club and were very concerned about having to go elsewhere. She complimented the set up created by Bracey and the Health Department. “You go right through and that whole process is easily expandable… I’m new with a different kind of eye; I see how complete it is and how patient-focused it is…I don’t want to lose that for the community,” Hovey said.

Hunt thanked Vath for convincing Hovey to leave New Jersey to take this job. “This town is very blessed to have had my colleagues on the Board of Health and the Health Director available when this pandemic hit… This would not have happened as well as it did if not for all those people, and it was a pleasure to work with them,” he said.