PHOTOS & VIDEO BY JORDAN FRIAS
Jordan Frias has reported on the response to COVID-19 through our Pandemic Democracy Project for nearly a year. Published together below, his latest dispatches from the field show the movements of public health workers and officials on the ground, as they continue testing for coronavirus and attempt to get as many vaccines into biceps as possible.
How Boston built its massive COVID testing apparatus
Published Jan 25, 2021 in DigBoston & Spare Change
On March 28, Boston opened up its first and only coronavirus testing site for first responders and health care workers, at Suffolk Downs.
The old racehorse track was lined with cones, and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center (EBNHC) staff donned PPE to administer the nasal-swab testing to people driving through in their vehicles.
At the time, EBNHC CEO Manny Lopes knew that his staff would additionally be called on to test the masses for the novel coronavirus, so he approached the city prior to opening up the city’s first mobile site for COVID-facing employees.
“It hit me somewhat early on in the pandemic that we had an important role to play, particularly around testing,” Lopes said. “Thankfully we have the vaccine now, but testing was one of the few tools that we knew at least to try to stop the spread of the virus.”
Ten months later, more than 65% of EBNHC staff members have received a dose of the Moderna vaccine to fight against COVID-19, and the center has managed and conducted more than 100,000 tests across the city. The operation went from providing testing exclusively to frontline workers in the spring, to running popup sites in various neighborhoods. Lopes said his staff was able to do large-scale screening for the virus once more testing materials were made available. Suffolk Downs, he noted, served as sort of a test run for what was to come months down the line.
“Dealing with a defined group, it helped us understand what we [needed] to do to get to the larger population,” Lopes said, adding that there were two goals in mind: to provide testing to the people on the frontlines caring for ill patients, and to learn from that experience in order to screen asymptomatic patients for the virus at a larger scale.
Lopes also chairs the Boston Public Health Commission Board, a body led by the city’s Chief of Health and Human Services Marty Martinez. Martinez said the Boston Resiliency Fund, which was established by Mayor Marty Walsh to respond to the needs of people impacted by the virus, gave money to community health centers wanting to expand their COVID-19 testing abilities early on. Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury and EBNHC stepped up to the plate.
Looking back, Martinez said the city wanted to make testing a key part of its strategy in fighting against COVID-19, and knew it would need to partner with health centers to achieve that goal. EBNHC, the state’s largest community health center, which has 1,400 people on its staff, was then asked to contract with the city to provide popup testing in various neighborhoods and communities.
Also, a COVID-19 testing department was formed, and 35 people were hired to perform PCR nasal swab tests to residents in Brighton, South Boston, South End, Dorchester, Mattapan, East Boston, and eventually Hyde Park. Martinez said data helped them decide where they needed the EBNHC team the most.
“We look at both, Where is testing not happening? and then, How do we work in those neighborhoods to make it accessible?” Martinez added. “We also look at places that have high positivity rates.”
The HHS chief said moving the testing location around every two weeks ensures that testing is made easy and accessible in areas with high virus positivity rates and low testing rates. East Boston, at a time, was identified as a community disproportionately impacted by the virus.
“In the beginning of this pandemic, supplies were limited, the number of test kits were limited, and people were afraid also to test,” Martinez said. “We had to do a lot of that legwork, but East Boston did a lot of that work because they’ve had to already do that in their community.”
Part of the legwork included hiring a full-time director for the newly created COVID-19 testing department. Kelly Hennessy, a nurse practitioner at the EBNHC, early on expressed an interest in leading a pandemic response team. She was then given a budget, hiring, managing, and operational abilities. Among other changes, Hennessy brought on a team of “swabbers,” or medical assistants and nurses, who could test people in East Boston at mobile or walkup sites and travel to other areas of the city when needed.
The ramp up in testing came in the spring, when labs procured more tests and were able to ship them out everywhere. All things considered, Hennessy said that the decision to perform tests on asymptomatic patients was a “no brainer.”
“We just knew that this pandemic would disproportionately impact our communities, especially in East Boston, where so many of our patients don’t have the luxury to work from home. Whether combatting the pandemic or not, they’re out working every single day,” Hennessy said.
The city’s team has never dealt with anything close to the mass testing they are doing now. Hennessy’s department is now conducting close to 5,000 tests per week across the city.
“We were all caught pretty off guard when the pandemic hit, but I think that using the resources that we have available to us we have been able to meet the demand at every step, while also pivoting and adjusting our workflows to meet the needs of the community,” Hennessy said.
Lopes said the testing model or “playbook” that Hennessy and her team have created will be replicated should the health center play a role in vaccinating the general public. The mass testing effort led by the EBNHC, Martinez said, has proven to be quite effective.
Lopes advises those looking to replicate the COVID-19 Testing Department model to leverage community partnerships and agencies. He also said such efforts could be applied to vaccinating the masses once more vaccines become available.
Moving forward, Boston will open its first mass vaccination site at Fenway Park, where thousands are expected to receive the vaccine. Lopes hopes that EBNHC gets the green light to administer the vaccine to hundreds of people, and eventually thousands down the line.
In the meantime, Hennessy and Martinez are working to get the word out that taking the same precautionary measures which have been drilled in everyone’s mind since the start of the pandemic will eventually get us out of it.
“To live with COVID,” Martinez said, “you’ve got to be able to get tested when you need it, and you’ve got to be able to trace it so you can prevent spread and make sure people can get taken care of by our hospitals.”
“If we want to get back to our normal routines, testing is a priority, even after the vaccine,” Hennessy said. “In order to have that herd-immunity status, people will still need testing to make sure they’re not infected with COVID, not spreading this to others in the community.”
Mass vaccines administered to most vulnerable around Greater Boston
Published Jan 24, 2021 in DigBoston & Spare Change
Those living in congregate care settings began receiving their COVID-19 vaccines on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, as part of Phase One of the state’s vaccination plan.
Included in the congregate care group are arguably the most vulnerable populations—homeless and imprisoned people living in shelters, jails, or prisons.
Pine Street Inn, New England’s largest shelter service provider, began vaccinating shelter guests and staff on Friday with help from the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.
Lyndia Downie, president of Pine Street Inn, said Health Care for the Homeless managed the allotment of doses for shelter guests and staff and are in charge of administering shots of the Moderna vaccine.
Four men and two staff members got their shots in front of cameras on Friday afternoon. Downie said Pine Street Inn has 550 beds and 250 frontline staff who are eligible to get vaccinated. A total of 80 people had signed up to get vaccinated at Pine Street Inn on Friday.
According to WBUR, Health Care for the Homeless also vaccinated a total of 350 people staying and working in the city’s three biggest overnight emergency shelters over the course of three days.
George Thomas, 57, who contracted coronavirus back in October, was among those inoculated. He said he was asymptomatic, meaning his reaction to the virus wasn’t so severe.
The father of two said he was “relieved” after receiving his first dose of the vaccine. He will have to return in a few weeks, or 28 days, for the second, according to the CDC.
“I’m not afraid, whatever happens happens,” Thomas said. “That’s just the way it is.” He was also relieved that the Boston Housing Authority approved his application for housing.
Across the river in Cambridge, a total of 144 people received the Moderna vaccine between Wednesday and Thursday at the Salvation Army shelter and Christ Church meal program, according to a Cambridge Public Health Department spokesperson. Guests and staff living and working in the city-operated Cambridge warming center also received shots on Friday with help from the Cambridge Pandemic Collaborative.
The Collaborative, which is administering the shots, is led by local police, fire, and EMS departments along with the Cambridge Public Health Department, which plans to inoculate people at the Transition Wellness Center at Spaulding Hospital—including guests of the First Korean Church homeless meals program—on Saturday. Around 200 staff and 300 homeless residents are eligible for the vaccine right now, a department spokesperson said.
Staff and guests at the Transition House, Hildebrand Family Self Help, and Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) temporary shelters in Cambridge will be vaccinated sometime next week.
In Somerville, the COVID-19 vaccination plan for the homeless and those who work directly with the population began on Thursday, according to Doug Kress, director of the city’s health and human services department. Kress said the vaccination effort is being handled by the City of Somerville Health and Human Services Department along with Health Care for the Homeless.
A total of 50 guests and staff from St. Patrick’s shelter, along with RESPOND, a domestic violence agency, and the Somerville Homeless Coalition got a first dose of the Moderna vaccine. A second vaccine clinic is planned for Tuesday, and they anticipate 20 more individuals will be vaccinated then.
On the prison front, men awaiting trial in Middlesex County and those serving two-and-a-half years or less behind bars began receiving the Moderna vaccine on Thursday, according to the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office. That population includes some men from Somerville and Cambridge.
The Department of Correction, which oversees women prisoners from Middlesex County, deferred all questions to specific jail and prison facilities. We reached out multiple times to a contact at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department; they did not respond to questions regarding their vaccination plan for people being held in Boston, but told the Boston Globe that about one-third of its 932 inmates have agreed to get vaccinated.
Fenway Park becomes a mass vaccination site
Published Feb 1, 2021 in DigBoston
Starting this week, America’s oldest ballpark will serve as Boston’s first mass vaccination site to inoculate residents against COVID-19.
Last week, Fenway Park got the greenlight from the state to allow vaccinations for the start of Phase Two of its vaccine rollout plan.
Starting Monday, people 75 and older and everyone else in Phase One can flock to Fenway if they were able to successfully book an appointment online for the vaccine.
CIC Health, the Cambridge-based health tech company that’s been running vaccinations at the home of the Patriots in Foxboro, was selected by the state to run the venue, according to Rodrigo Martinez, the company’s chief marketing officer.
The site will begin injecting 500 people per day with the Pfizer vaccine and then ramp up to 1,000. Martinez said the goal is to get to 1,250 per day.
Those with appointments will be asked to show up to Gate A on Jersey Street, formerly known as Yawkey Way, and exit through Gate E on Lansdowne Street.
The actual vaccination process should take no longer than 3 to 4 minutes, or 5 minutes tops, according to Martinez.
Unlike Moderna, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine must be stored in freezing cold temperatures. Like Moderna, a second dose is required. The CDC recommends 21 days or three weeks before getting a second dose.
CIC Health and the Red Sox said Fenway was chosen as a large-scale vaccination site due to its proximity to public transit and to reach “urban and diverse populations hardest hit by the pandemic,” according to a joint statement.
The state said the plan is to keep the site open through the beginning of baseball season in early April. A longer-term vaccination site will then be identified by the city.
The Reggie Lewis Center by Roxbury Community College is expected to open soon as well.
On Thursday and Friday, a soft launch at the Fenway site took place and approximately 250 people were inoculated.
In addition to the vaccination areas inside of the stadium, there are observation areas where people will be required to sit for at least 15 minutes after receiving their shot. Those at-risk of having an allergic reaction to the vaccine will be monitored for 30 minutes, Martinez said.
One of the areas open to the press on Thursday during the soft launch was on the second floor near third base. There, numbers were called while staff stood behind plexiglass and the bar area to prepare their doses.
SEIU 1199 members registered for their vaccine doses during the soft launch. Lisandra Pabon of Cambridge was among them and received her vaccine on Friday.
Pabon, 38, a personal care attendant, said her union rep reached out to her two days earlier and told her some appointments were available. She took an Uber to her appointment, and said it took her 10 to 15 minutes to complete the process.
Asked about the festive baseball backdrop behind them, Pabon said she found it a bit “weird” being at Fenway for her shot, but said the process was “pretty simple,” and “easier than expected.”
“I think this will be a big help to have it here,” she said of the location. “It’s always great being here at Fenway, maybe for a different reason it would be better.”
Pabon’s colleague Thomas Darcy, 40, another personal care attendant with SEIU, was less impressed by the experience.
“It was colder, I would have much rather been somewhere warmer,” Darcy said. Despite the process being “super efficient” and everybody being “super nice,” he said he would have preferred a fully indoor convention center.
“To be honest, I think Fenway is just for advertisement … I want to see a ball game, I don’t want to get vaccines,” he said.
“This is why we’re doing it,” Pabon said. “So we can get back to normal life and be here watching the games, be with our families again.”