NEW BEDFORD — Families who have waited nearly a year for their children to become eligible for COVID-19 vaccines are now showing up for shots at walk-in clinics, pharmacies, primary-care offices and large-scale appointment-based clinics, all helping to boost the city’s lagging vaccination rate.
The Greater New Bedford Community Health Center is gearing up for its first appointment-based pediatric vaccine clinic this weekend. CEO Cheryl Bartlett said all 70 appointments for Saturday’s event are booked, but a second clinic on Saturday, Nov. 20, still has openings.
Meanwhile, at a Nov. 7 appointment-based clinic run by Southcoast Health at the Vanity Fair location in Dartmouth, 410 pediatric doses were administered to eligible children. There were costumed staff members, snacks, stickers and music. Appointments are available at a second pediatric clinic taking place at the same location on Nov. 28.
The city recently added pediatric vaccine doses to “McCoy Mondays” — a weekly event at the Andrea McCoy Recreation Center that includes walk-in vaccinations provided by the state Department of Public Health through its mobile-contractor, Cataldo Ambulance.
New Bedford’s vaccination rate, now at just over 50%, has ticked slowly upwards this summer and fall, making progress in piecemeal fashion at neighborhood clinics delivering a few dozen doses at a time.
Nineteen pediatric patients attended the walk-in clinic at PAACA last Friday to receive their first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s pediatric vaccine. Monday’s walk-in clinic at McCoy Recreation Center administered 18 doses after some patients left while waiting for a truck carrying vaccine doses, which was caught in traffic leaving Boston.
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Shipments of the distinct orange pediatric vials had already arrived in the SouthCoast on Nov. 2, when the CDC expanded vaccine recommendations to include children ages 5 to 11 years old — potentially affecting some 28 million youngsters nationwide. Seven Hills Community Health Services Director Connie Rocha-Mimoso flew into a frenzy last week when she received a delivery of 300 doses on the eve of the adult vaccine clinic planned at PAACA on Coggeshall Street.
“Kudos to Seven Hills because they have been providing vaccines since they became available late last fall, true and steady since then,” said Carl Alves, executive director of PAACA (Positive Action Against Chemical Addiction). “They use our site because it’s an open space and we have lots of folks coming through.”
Rocha-Mimoso and Alves have built a strong bond during the pandemic. On Friday, PAACA hosted the first clinic offering pediatric doses. “We couldn’t do a lot of advertising, but we had 19 kids show up,” said Rocha-Mimoso. “We were extremely happy.”
Friday clinics will continue at PAACA during the pediatric vaccine rollout, and Seven Hills will also offer doses for ages 5 to 11 at a Tuesday clinic at Fire Station 11, 754 Brock Ave.
“Outside of the CARES Act, the CTC grant, and Vaccine Equity funding, we haven’t received any actual new vaccine money for the pediatric phase,” said New Bedford Health Director Damon Chaplin. “We’re trying to spread it out during the duration of the grant in case we have to move in a different direction. The state has provided all the manpower through their vendors for the clinics we’ve had so far. At McCoy, we’re basically helping by providing the space.”
The state canceled and then renewed some of New Bedford’s walk-in clinics in October, citing low turnout when The New Bedford Light inquired. Chaplin said the state recently set a minimum clinic size of 25 doses, which calls for a change in strategy from efforts during the summer.
“It changes the way we develop clinics,” Chaplin said. “It’s not unreasonable, but it makes it a little more difficult. We have to do more planning and notify people. It’s a lot of work to get folks to commit to a clinic. For a lot of people, this is not forethought; it’s afterthought. There’s a portion of the community that’s waiting to sign up, planning on it, but for some people it’s an afterthought — they weren’t going to get vaccinated, but something has happened, a loved one got sick, or they’re doing something new, so now they’re now considering a vaccine.”
New Bedford has about 9,300 children in the 5 to 11 age group now eligible for vaccination. Pediatric offices will contribute significantly in the effort to vaccinate children, as well as large-scale clinics health care providers are planning independently.
A spokesperson said Southcoast has received 1,200 doses across their facilities so far this week.
“This month, Southcoast Health is planning on providing pediatric clinics every third Sunday and Tuesday evenings from 4-8 p.m.,” the spokesperson said.
Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, which received 500 pediatric vaccine doses last week, will host its clinic for ages 5 and up Saturday, with sidewalk chalk and outdoor activities to boot.
The Health Center is also scheduling appointments with patients through its physicians’ offices, and they are hoping to expand their walk-in clinics for teens and adults on Tuesdays and Thursdays to include children.
“We send robocalls out to patients,” Bartlett said. “That’s how we’ve managed this throughout the whole vaccine rollout. We let people know we have doses, and you can make an appointment. We can do it in Portuguese, Spanish, and we have a K’iche’-speaking staff member. A lot of our pediatric patients have K’iche’-speaking families.”
The health center can order vaccine doses through the Health Resources and Services Administration federal community health center program, in addition to the state route. It makes the facility eligible to receive two separate allocations and is intended to increase vaccine access in underserved communities.
Pediatric vaccines are also available at several New Bedford pharmacies participating in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. So far, there are three offering pediatric vaccines by appointment, according to their websites — Rite Aid on Acushnet Avenue, Walgreens on Kempton Street, and Stop & Shop on Kings Highway.
There are 12 other participating pharmacies offering COVID-19 vaccines in New Bedford that may also begin to offer pediatric vaccines soon.
The closest state-sponsored pediatric vaccination site is in Brockton at 1 Feinberg Way.
Immigrants’ Assistance Center President Helena DaSilva Hughes has plans in the works for a pediatrician from the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center to speak at the 11:30 a.m. Mass at St. Anthony’s and Our Lady Guadalupe.
Alves, who has convened providers and community organizations in New Bedford in a collective called Vaccination Connect, reflected on the past year’s work after PAACA and Seven Hills administered their first pediatric doses.
“We all remember when there were lines wrapped around buildings,” Alves said. “That’s not the case now unfortunately. We’re trying to persuade folks, and it’s not the low-hanging fruit anymore. But we’ve got some young people now, we’ve got them making videos talking about their experience — 12- and 13-year-olds. It’s engaging and fun.”
GNBCHC Vice President of Nursing and Clinical Operations Noelle Kohles was similarly spirited about the youthful rebranding of COVID-19 vaccines. “The turnout is better than what we expected,” she said.
“The outreach in the community is clearly working. I think the families are starting to see how important it is to take care of themselves and their little ones.
“Kids are our strongest advocates,” she said. “To hear a kid stand strong and proudly say, ‘I want to be vaccinated’ sends a message to the rest of us.”
Email Abigail Nehring at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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