The Vaccine Scene

Where Tufts Stands on Administering the COVID Vaccine

As Tufts University begins administering the COVID-19 vaccine to older members and health care providers in the Tufts community, students—who will likely have to wait months to get vaccinated—are left wondering how the vaccine rollout will affect campus life. 

Vaccine rollout began nationally in December 2020, when the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval to vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Both vaccines include two doses, spaced three–four weeks apart. As of February 23, the Center for Disease Control is reporting that about 65 million people in the US have received at least one dose, totaling to about 13 percent of the population.

The state of Massachusetts has struggled to effectively tackle many of the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an evaluation by the Harvard Kennedy School, Massachusetts received a grade of F across three performance indicators—“Deaths Per Capita,” “Vaccines Per Capita,” and “Vaccinations as % of Doses Available.” The state also received a D grade in “Months to Finish Vaccinating Eligibles.” Massachusetts ranks 44th among the 50 states for “Vaccinations as % of Doses Available, and 33rd in “Months to Finish Vaccinating Eligibles.”

Tufts has outperformed the state as a whole in terms of testing processes and contact tracing, with 99.85 percent of the 369,000 tests administered since August 3, 2020 producing negative results at the time of writing. The average processing time for test results has been 17 hours. Amy Lischko, a professor of public health and community medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine is impressed with Tufts’ handling of COVID-19: “Compared to the state and other universities, I am very pleased with Tufts’ approach,” she said, “but I think this has been a disaster at the state level … People feel justifiably frustrated … They had months to plan and I am very unimpressed in the [vaccine] roll-out.” 

After receiving the vaccine on February 9, Tufts will tackle vaccinating its faculty, staff, and students “in accordance with the state’s phased approach,” beginning with individuals identified as eligible in Phase 1 and Phase 2, according to an email sent to the community on February 9 from Dr. Michael Jordan, the infection control health director at Tufts. 

As a healthcare worker and Tufts Emergency Medical Services employee, junior Emily Brower has already been vaccinated through the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety under which TEMS operates. “The process was reasonably easy for me … I was able to get vaccinated at the Somerville Fire Department, alongside other first responders during Phase 1 of Massachusetts vaccinations,” said Brower. When other Tufts students are vaccinated, Brower hopes that Tufts’ campus life returns “as close to normalcy as possible.” Like many students, Brower is eager to return to club and sports activities on campus: “I’m also a member of the Womens’ Club Rugby Team, and I really hope the vaccination allows for the return of more in-person games and club events in general.”

In the fall, before TEMS was vaccinated, the administration did not allow them to respond to calls where COVID-19 was indicated. “After we all receive our second dose, we should be able to respond to all calls, regardless of patient COVID status,” said Brower. “Logistically, it’s meaningful to know that TEMS members will be less likely to get very ill from our work … but I’d say the emotional relief matters more.”

While Tufts’ first phase will include other healthcare workers and first responders in the community, the first group in Phase 2 to receive the vaccine are individuals aged 75 years and older. Tufts plans to contact members directly to schedule the two necessary injections. “Appointments will be scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis while our supply of vaccines lasts,” Dr. Jordan wrote in the email.

Tufts’ move to contact eligible vaccine recipients directly contrasts the state’s process. On the Massachusetts government website, individuals looking to make a vaccination appointment must first use a zip code search to find a vaccination site with availability in their area. The sites consist of large venues with a high volume of vaccines—mainly consisting of stadiums. General sites like healthcare centers, pharmacies, and grocery stores, and local sites are only open to residents of select towns. Each location has its own link for individuals to register to determine eligibility and then make an appointment.

Lischko is disappointed in the state’s processes. “Similar to the state’s decentralized testing process, there is no single portal for people who want to get vaccinated,” Lischko said. “I appreciate the prioritization that was done, but [there is] not enough focus on making it easy to sign up and actually get the vaccinations out.”

On February 8, Governor Charlie Baker said in a press conference that large-scale vaccination sites were “batting about 100 percent in terms of vaccine allocated and vaccine administered, and they’ll continue to operate at that level.” However, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported on February 9 that of the 1,283,700 vaccine doses shipped to Massachusetts so far, only 910,412 doses had been administered, which is about 70.9 percent.

Lischko is not alone in her disappointment with the state’s results. In fact, nine Massachusetts state representatives signed a letter to Governor Baker expressing their concerns with the state’s vaccine rollout, emphasizing technological and language barriers to scheduling appointments through an already “cumbersome” scheduling system, a lack of investment in staff and local public health programming, a lack of clarity in the MA Department of Public Health’s communication with citizens, and the need for “expansion of training to include non-traditional vaccination volunteers and staff.” 

Part of the frustration is a result of how public health is run in the US as a whole. “Maybe it’s just too hard to coordinate something this big between the federal and state governments and have it run efficiently,” Lischko said. “Public health and health care is mostly overseen by states, so we’re going to have 50 flavors of vaccine distribution, unlike many of our peer countries.”

Tufts student Isabella Jarosz decided to stay in her home state, Texas, where she anticipated receiving the vaccine earlier than she would have in Massachusetts. “I have an autoimmune condition, so I knew I wanted the vaccine as soon as possible … and in Texas people with my condition could be vaccinated under Phase 1,” said Jarosz. The anxiety of living on a college campus during a pandemic also affected Jarosz’s decision to stay home: “Many factors of the pandemic and quarantine are affecting mental health … and I am generally an anxious hypochondriac,” she said.  

For members of the Tufts community who have already been vaccinated elsewhere, social distancing and mask-wearing are still required while on campus. In his email to the Tufts community, Jordan emphasized that “vaccination against COVID-19 does not necessarily prevent you from contracting the virus or spreading it to others.” But, after receiving both injections, the chance of contracting the virus and experiencing severe symptoms should be greatly reduced. “I have been vaccinated—I participated in the Moderna trial over the summer,” Lischko said. “It makes me feel better to be vaccinated, but it hasn’t altered my behavior in any way.” As a student surrounded by unvaccinated peers, Brower is still “vigilant about mask-wearing, handwashing, etc.,” she said. “Although I’m vaccinated currently, I understand that this doesn’t mean I can’t contract and spread COVID.” Social distancing and wearing masks are still important now when, as of February 23, only 4 percent of Massachusetts residents are fully vaccinated. 

While Tufts receiving the vaccine is good news for individuals who qualify for Phase 1 and Phase 2, it will be some time before the majority of students will be eligible to receive the vaccination. Massachusetts anticipates beginning Phase 3 in April, when most students will likely become eligible. It remains unclear how Tufts’ vaccination process will impact campus life during the spring semester, if at all. “I will definitely feel safer upon my return to campus,” said Jarosz. “I am excited to engage in socially-distanced and COVID-safe hangouts without jolting awake in the middle of the night thinking I may have accidentally strayed within six feet of someone!” 

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