Senator Warren, vaccine site partners announce direct federal shipments

The Chelsea vaccination site hosted Senator Liz Warren on Feb. 18 to announce with partners La Colaborativa and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center (EBNHC) that they would be the first site in the country to get vaccine directly from the federal government.

As a demonstration project focused on communities hardest hit by COVID-19, the federal government has promoted a program that will allow collaborative vaccination sites like the one in Chelsea to tap into the federal vaccine pipeline and no longer have to get vaccine from the state. That will allow the site’s state-provide supply of vaccine to be allocated to other places in the state.

“Chelsea was one of the hardest hit communities in the state, probably in the nation,” said Warren after touring the site, which is based in a re-purposed La Colaborativa office on Broadway. “Racial inequality, economic inequality that were already present in Chelsea were made far worse by the COVID climate. Chelsea also showed what is possible and what it means to stand up for each other, work together, have access to health care and they have food, jobs and develop partnerships in the time of vaccination. So, Chelsea is a very hopeful story as well. Chelsea is about to enter a new phase as this vaccination center becomes a site that deal directly with the federal government in getting vaccinations. That means the people in this community will have even better access than before.”

EBNHC CEO Manny Lopes said the partnership with the state has been wonderful, but dealing directly with the federal government would guarantee their current supply. The Chelsea site, and three others in the EBNHC umbrella, have the capacity to administer 6,000 doses per week, but at the moment are administering below that until the demand scales up.

“This helps us guarantee the supply,” said Lopes. “We’ve had a great partnership with the state and that will continue but now we have direct access to the federal pipeline. We’re one of the few community health centers in the country that has been granted direct access to the federal government supply. That means the supply we’re using today from the state could now go to other areas within the state and we’ll have a direct line from the federal government.”

Warren said the new program is rewarding something Massachusetts has done for a long time, and that is to reach into communities to solve big problems at the ground level.

“Part of this is what Massachusetts has been doing for a long time and community health centers are one of the principal examples of that,” she said. “Chelsea has demonstrated through this partnership how to make community health centers the primary delivery for testing, for care and for vaccinations. The federal government wants to use them as demonstration projects and that’s part of makes me so proud of what’s happening in Chelsea. It’s a reminder that hardest-hit communities can receive first-rate care for all of their people.”

Vega said getting more resources is important right now because essential workers in Chelsea will be able to go to work with confidence, and industries like hospitality that have been decimated and laid off many Chelsea workers could return.

“I want everyone in Chelsea to get vaccinated,” said Vega. “I want to make sure our workforce goes back to work and our economy continues to expand, but without vaccinations and additional resources, and making sure we continue to get more, it’s ideal for a community like Chelsea – especially when we were the epicenter of the pandemic. We’re delighted but we feel we need to rush a little bit with this process so everyone in our communities…are all vaccinated.”

Lopes said the Chelsea vaccination site was the first to be announced in the federal program, but there are six more community health centers in Massachusetts that have also qualified for the program.

One key issue is immigration concerns, and assuring undocumented residents in Chelsea that the site is safe and won’t be used as a place to deport those coming in.

“As we speak to people in the community about making an appointment, we tell them we would not have promoted this amazing center and this amazing partnership if we didn’t trust our partners,” said Vega. “We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t know that immigration had nothing to do with this process.”

Warren did also talk at length about the Essential Workers Bill of Rights she has been supporting, a piece of legislation that would go beyond “saying thank you” to essential workers such as those that live in Chelsea, and provide financial support to reward them for the job they’ve done.

That, she said, now appears to be potentially getting looped into the newest COVID relief bill being batted about in Washington, D.C.

She said that package is also about putting resources into vaccine production and distribution to hard-hit communities.

“We all need to do better on vaccine,” she said. “Part of it is we just need more vaccine available. That’s what this COVID relief package is all about. It puts more money into vaccine production and tries to speed it up. We also have to rely on states to get the distribution right. The federal government is experimenting and trying to work with the hardest hit communities like Chelsea by providing the vaccinations directly to places that are demonstrating how to do this in the community. But a part of what will be in the COVID relief package will be the bill I’ve done (with colleagues) to make sure resources are going to the hardest hit communities so places that are trusted partners like this vaccination site are places partnering up to provide the vaccinations and care in the community. This will be the best way to deal with the health inequities that COVID has exposed.”

Warren said she would like to see better distribution in Massachusetts, and the press conference was the day that the state appointment system crashed as those 65 and older began to try to book appointments all at once.

She said now is the time to be moving the vaccine to everyone – that it isn’t and “either-or moment.”

Meanwhile, she said the state needs to move to a much better, centralized online site for making appointments and getting information.

“I would like to see him have a single pre-registration system that works for everyone in the state,” she said. “Look, this is a hard time for everyone and everyone is doing their best, but adding to peoples’ anxiety because they’re up early in the morning looking at a website. They don’t know if their town is the place to look or the center down in Boston…For some people it’s about whether or not they even have transportation to these big centers. One thing that would make it easier for everyone in Massachusetts is to have a centralized system that everyone can tap into and find out what they qualify for and where the available appointments are.”

The event was the first public event in the state that Senator Warren has attended since COVID-19 broke out last year.

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