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Attleboro area lawmakers among 20 urging halt to 'companion' vaccination program

By George W. Rhodes grhodes@thesunchronicle.com Feb 12, 2021 Updated Feb 15, 2021

Twenty state representatives, including two who represent Attleboro and North Attleboro, have sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker urging him to reconsider the vaccination “companion” program he announced Wednesday.

The program allows those who accompany seniors to coronavirus vaccination sites to get inoculated as well, regardless of their age.

Currently, only those who are 75 and older are allowed to get the vaccinations under the first step in the Phase Two rollout. Those from Phase One can get shots also.

State Reps. Jim Hawkins, D-Attleboro, and Adam Scanlon, D-North Attleboro, signed on to the letter authored by Rep. Tami Gouveia, D-Acton.

Gouveia’s letter raised the concern that allowing younger companions to get vaccinations will cut into the supply of vaccine that should be going to older residents who are at most risk from coronavirus.

However, others in favor of the program argue protecting companions helps protect the seniors.

Gouveia said that all essential workers, including teachers, should be vaccinated before young people in general.

“The companion system will put thousands of healthy adults ahead of those who have the most significant risk of getting and dying from COVID-19,” Gouveia wrote. “This includes our seniors, those living with co-morbidities, and essential workers who have been putting their lives on the line during this pandemic from Day 1.”

“We encourage you to put the companion program on hold until those 65 and older and those with chronic conditions, as well as essential workers and our teachers, are vaccinated,” she told the governor.

Gouveia suggested program could endanger the elderly who take rides with strangers. She noted that “there were advertisements on Facebook, Craigslist and other social media sites with offers by young people to bring elderly to their appointments.”

And she said more vaccine should be distributed to local health departments to administer.

Hawkins echoed those points and said he’s gotten “several angry emails” from constituents regarding the move, which he characterized as “controversial.”

“It allows people to cut in line and delay vaccines for teachers and elderly people with health risks,” Hawkins said in an email to The Sun Chronicle.

He said the buying and selling of appointments is one result.

“It has created a black market for vaccines in the face of a chaotic sign-up system,” Hawkins said.

The shortage of vaccine limits the number of weekly appointments statewide, which creates a mad rush every Thursday when new appointments can be made.

But on Friday the state announced the number of shots given is increasing and that 242,000 people were vaccinated this week alone and over 1 million have been inoculated since the effort began more than a month ago.

Hawkins said local health departments can efficiently give shots and should get more than the 100 doses per week to which they are currently restricted.

Scanlon agreed.

“The companion system moves ahead healthy people in front of seniors and vulnerable populations in the vaccine rollout, people that have biggest risk of dying from COVID-19,” he said in an email, adding more vaccine distributed locally would be a better way to deal with the problem.

“Vaccines should’ve been allocated on a more local level to ensure equity and preserve public health amongst the senior population,” he said.

Meanwhile the governor’s Coronavirus Command Center defended the companion program.

“The policy to allow 75 or older residents to be accompanied by a caregiver, who can also schedule their vaccine appointment, to a mass vaccination site is widely supported by senior groups and provides critical support and comfort for seniors who may be hesitant to go a mass vaccination site alone,” command center spokeswoman Kate Reilly said in an email.

But she added that the older residents should only bring a companion “who they know and trust.”

Mass Nurses Association and Mass Senior Care both support the companion program because companions are often the caregivers.

“Frontline registered nurses and healthcare professionals have been noting this for the past several weeks now — it’s efficient, ensures better protection for the older individual and expands the state’s vaccine outreach program,” Katie Murphy, president of the MNA, said in a communication with the command center.

“We fully support Governor Baker’s initiative to allow the companions of those over 75 years old to receive the Covid-19 vaccines,” a Mass Senior Care spokesperson said. “Many of the Commonwealth’s frail elders depend on the assistance of younger family members and other so-called ‘informal supports’ to allow them to live safely and independently in their home.”

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