$75 gift cards for COVID vaccinations in Mass. called 'Hail Mary' – Worcester Telegram

WORCESTER — A “Hail Mary” is how Dr. Michael Hirsh, the city’s medical director, described a state program to give a $75 gift card to anyone who gets a COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot at certain clinics. 
The sports reference usually means a last-second, desperate attempt to win on the field or court, but Friday Hirsh applied it to Get Boosted, a vaccination program rolled out by the state Department of Public Health that is offering the gift cards. 
“I think it reflects a level of frustration the public health community has with the response of the public to these vaccination offerings, including the new bivalent booster,” said Hirsh, who stressed his views do not reflect those of city’s Department of Public Health.
“(The $75) is a little of a Hail Mary, I think. We’ve tried just about everything.” 
The aim of Get Boosted is to increase COVID-19 vaccination access in the state’s 20 vaccine equity communities, identified by the state Department of Public Health as those hardest hit by COVID-19 due to social and economic factors. Worcester, Fitchburg and Leominster are among the 20 communities.  
“I don’t like the ($75) approach, personally,” said Hirsh. “I don’t like those kinds of enticements.  
“We’ve tried that, giving away Chromebooks, gift certificates to local grocery stores. I think there is a certain level of resistance, not just resistance to the COVID vaccine, resistance to all vaccinations.” 
Dr. Estevan Garcia, chief medical officer at the state DPH, doesn’t see Get Boosted as an act of desperation in light of current vaccination and booster rates in Massachusetts. 
“It’s not a Hail Mary. We’re always looking for ways to incentivize communities to get vaccinated,” said Garcia. 
Worcester trails the state when it comes to vaccination rates, based on a review of numbers supplied by the city and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
As of Friday, 77% of Worcester residents had one of the two-dose COVID-19 vaccines, compared to 95% statewide. 
Those with both doses reach 65%, compared to 88% statewide. The level for those with at least one booster is 35%, compared to 55% statewide.  
The figure that jumps out is the woefully low percentage that have the second or so-called bivalent booster that offers protection against the highly contagious omicron variant — 8% in Worcester, according to Hirsch, 12.7% nationally. 
The public health community is frustrated, said Hirsh, because it has tried everything to give residents access and convenience to the vaccines and boosters, but the numbers aren’t rising. 
It hasn’t come from a lack of trying. 
Hirsh praised Dr. Mitilde Castiel, the city’s commissioner of Health and Human Services, for making vaccines available in underserved parts of the city, including churches, public housing, community centers and small grocery/convenience stores. 
In addition, regular vaccination clinics have occurred at the Worcester Public Library, the YWCA and the Mercantile Center. The city’s mobile vaccination van visited neighborhoods, and UMass Memorial Health’s vaccination corps of nursing and medical students fanned across the city to administer vaccinations. 
Those efforts haven’t been enough to extend Worcester beyond a 65% vaccination rate for the two primary vaccinations against COVID-19, and Hirsh is at a loss for what else the city can do to push the percentage higher. 
“We’ve been stuck as a community at 65% total vaccination for a long time. When you add the booster factor, it’s below 50%.  
“It’s a very frustrating time for public health,” said Hirsh. 
Garcia stressed the positive. 
Since Get Boosted started five weeks ago, 24,000 residents have received a COVID vaccine, many of them boosters, at 200 sites across the state.  
“Those 24,000 individuals are more protected going into the holiday. That’s great news,” said Garcia. 
The program runs through the end of this year, and the Worcester clinics will be held at three locations: the YMCA Central Branch, 766 Main St., from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Dec. 5, 12, 19; the Worcester Public Library, 3 Salem Square, from noon to 5 p.m. Dec. 3, 10, 17; and the Belmont A.M.E. Zion Church, 55 Illinois St., Dec. 9, time to be announced. 
Children 6 months to 4 years old can get a COVID-19 vaccine and anyone 5 and older can get the vaccine or updated booster. 
No appointment is necessary, but some locations may encourage registration. Vaccines and boosters are free and no identification or health insurance is needed. 
“Politicization” and “alternative facts,” said Hirsh, have contributed to eroding the credibility of public health, making the fight against COVID-19 with proven science a difficult slog. 
“The politicization of vaccination and the entire public health fight we wage has been so altered with alternative facts and revisionist history, now in many ways we’ve been discredited in public health arenas,” said Hirsh. 
Public backlash and long hours took a toll on those working the front lines to fight COVID-19. Roughly one-third of the city’s public health staff retired or left for other jobs in the past six months, said Hirsh. 
“A sense of burnout and also frustration, because efforts are not really rewarded,” said Hirsh of the department’s schedule the past two years of 18-hour workdays, seven days a week. “A lot of what we did worked. It was thankless work.” 
Garcia’s view is that he understands people’s frustrations but stressed that the public health community is doing all it can to increase access to vaccines in order to protect residents against COVID-19.
The virus is responsible for more than 1 million deaths nationwide, according to the CDC. 
The Get Boosted program, Garcia said, is the latest example of the effort to safeguard citizens.
“Anything we can do for (vaccine) convenience and availability, we want to do. That is the way.”  
Contact Henry Schwan at henry.schwan@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @henrytelegram