Acushnet Fire Chief Kevin Gallagher has been one of the leaders of the SouthCoast COVID-19 fight since the pandemic began almost a year-and-a-half ago.
But even Gallagher said he was wondering last week what it will take for some people in the New Bedford suburbs to get vaccinated.
That’s right. Even as the headlines this summer have been all about the city’s lagging vaccination rate, the suburbs that immediately abut New Bedford have also lagged far behind the rest of the state in their vaccination rates.
In sprawling Dartmouth, home to both blue-collar neighborhoods and some of the wealthiest zip codes in the state, the vaccination rate is just 49%, only 6 percentage points higher than New Bedford. The Dartmouth rate is a full 16 percentage points lower than the statewide vaccination rate of 65%.
In Acushnet, Fairhaven and Freetown, the rates are not much better, coming in at 54%, 57% and 57% respectively as of Aug. 10, the last date the state has reported.
Since the pandemic began, Gallagher has helped set up testing and vaccination sites in both Acushnet and Fairhaven, and he ran for — and won — a seat on the Board of Health in Fairhaven, where he lives. Under his leadership, the EMTs in Acushnet and Fairhaven were some of the first in the state to respond to respiratory distress cases in full hazmat gear.
But even the activist chief acknowledges that he’s been discouraged by the unimpressive numbers in the local suburban towns.
“You reach a point where you bring a van into a community for a vaccine for five hours and only nine people show up,” he said. That’s what happened in Acushnet a few weeks ago.
Gallagher said the organizers did everything they were supposed to in terms of marketing the event, even doing robocalls to the town’s residents. “The mystery is, why do so many people not show up?” he said. “Why are there still 5,000 people in Fairhaven who are eligible to receive the vaccine and they haven’t?”
In Dartmouth, Health Board director Chris Michaud was less disturbed by the numbers than Gallagher, describing Dartmouth’s numbers as simply “a variation” from the state’s.
“We’re not 35 percent and Massachusetts is at 60 percent,” he said. “That would be very alarming. You do have to have some expectation that there is going to be a variation.”
The Dartmouth health director argued that the town’s rate is actually somewhat higher because the fully vaccinated numbers don’t count the first dose vaccinations that some countries have said is adequate protection in the initial phases of vaccine distribution. The one-dose number in Dartmouth is 6%, according to the state Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, but even the one-dose number is greater statewide at 8%.
There appears to be a rationalization about COVID-19 that goes on across SouthCoast, even with Gallagher who argued that Fairhaven’s vaccination rate would actually be 63% if you factor in that children under 12 can’t be vaccinated. Of course, the rest of the state would also be somewhere around 6 percentage points higher if you exempt children, and the chief’s comments don’t account for the fact that children can both spread and contract COVID-19.
“We need to remember that Bristol County is Bristol County,” said Michaud. “You don’t expect to see big changes.”
Michaud said the local numbers simply reflect vaccine hesitancy that is out there.
“It’s been widely reported about hesitancy,” he said. “Cities’ hesitancy. Different parts of the country. I’d think we’d be misled to think a uniform buy-in rate throughout Massachusetts and throughout Bristol County.”
Counter to the conventional medical establishment wisdom that vaccination is the best way out of the COVID pandemic, Michaud said he thinks right now “the bigger thing to be worried about” is that “all the other controls that we had up and through May of this year are gone, largely.”
“We’re not seeing social distancing, we’re not seeing masking requirements, we’re not seeing any of the prevention strategies, gathering limits, occupancy limits, all that’s gone,” he said. “We know that we’re seeing cases increase; we know that we’re seeing this not only locally, but statewide; we’re seeing it nationally. And we don’t have any controls in place.”
It may be that Michaud’s views reflect the conservatism of the Dartmouth Select and Health boards. He is known as a very hard-working health director, but the Dartmouth Select Board has been known to have strong opinions. Dr. Christian Pope, the lone medical doctor on the health board, did not return a phone call for this story.
Longtime Select Board member John Haran said of Dartmouth’s vaccination numbers that people are simply making “personal choices,” noting that there have been media reports about risks to health, including pregnancies.
“I guess people are making personal choices because of their health situation,” he said. Although when asked if he thought a full half of the Dartmouth population has a health issue that would prevent them from being vaccinated, Haran quickly said no.
And he emphasized that he is proud of the fact that under the leadership of Fire Chief Peter Andrade the vaccination rate of the firefighters working at Dartmouth Fire District 1 is 98%.
The local leader who been most pro-active on vaccines — perhaps because he has the biggest problem — is New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell.
The city was one of the first in the state to announce vaccine enticements like Dunkin’ cards and supermarket gift certificates. And New Bedford has run a steady stream of mobile vaccine clinics, some of which have yielded good results and some of which have not.
Mitchell has also taken the first steps toward implementing a vaccine requirement for New Bedford city workers. It’s either that or they will have to be tested every week. But The Standard-Times has reported resistance to that effort, including among first responders who deal directly with the public, including those with COVID-19. The firefighters union has demanded the city bargain over the measure.
Mitchell, early on in the pandemic, was also turned away from cooperative efforts by some of the local suburbs when the city recommended a region-wide effort for all communities to publicize daily the number of COVID cases and deaths.
Some of the towns balked, agreeing only to release weekly numbers, even raising concerns about the value of the numbers that sounded a bit like denial that COVID was a big problem in the suburbs.
Dartmouth raised concerns about counting nursing home cases within its borders because some of the inhabitants were not town residents. Fairhaven objected to counting as COVID deaths individuals who had other serious illnesses, arguing that it would be difficult to determine what actually caused the death.
One of the problems for SouthCoast as a whole, Mitchell said, was that the vaccines were slower to become generally available here than in other parts of the state. By the time they were available, it coincided with news about problems with some of the vaccines. “There were a number of reports that cast doubt on the safety of the vaccines, particularly the Johnson & Johnson,” he said.
Mitchell, however, put his finger on the real problem for New Bedford and its suburbs, and that is a cynicism borne out of a half-century when this part of the state did not share in the booming economy of metropolitan Boston.
“More fundamentally, there is a different sensibility, a different cultural sensibility that has led to some skepticism of government mandates and the trustworthiness of institutions,” he said.
The mayor described some local vaccine resistance as a reflection of the big American economic themes of recent times when it’s been a golden age for major metropolitan areas but a bleaker time for smaller cities and rural areas.
Gallagher said maybe it’s time for the pro- and anti-vaxxers to start talking to each other. He theorized that perhaps there has not been enough exploration of the resistance on the local level.
“Maybe it’s time for a community roundtable,” he said. “Those like myself who advocate for the vaccine, I think, could learn a great deal by sitting across the table from someone who is extremely reluctant.”
Both Gallagher and Michaud said they think there is a bigger role for local doctors.
“All the smart people say that you can have as many celebrities and politicians promote vaccines, but most people trust their doctor, their religious leader, their religious provider,” Gallagher said.
“I just think that the big thing is if you haven’t really had a conversation with your doctor about it, that’s the best thing you can do. That’s where the conversation lies,” Michaud said. He added that pharmacists can also play a role.
Perhaps. But how many people who are not seriously ill are really close to their doctors? And seriously, SouthCoast churches are closing left and right. Is there really that much confidence in the clergy these days? Facebook seems to have more of many people’s confidence than religious leaders.
Michaud noted that there is no shortage of opportunities to get the vaccine on SouthCoast right now. He rattled off a list of all the pharmacies and mega-stores on Route 6 that are giving it. The medical providers, Walmart, Target, Stop & Shop. Even Circuit City is still open three days a week, despite its state contract having run out. The state this summer ran two mobile clinics at the Dartmouth Mall.
“We are definitely saturated with vaccines,” he said.
Michaud is probably right. The SouthCoast’s low vaccination rate is not because the elected and appointed officials are not trying.
The truth may be that about 30-35 percent of the population just doesn’t care. They’re not going to do it unless faced with some direct and adverse personal consequence. Like not being able to go into a store or a restaurant. New Orleans and New York City have already moved to enact such regulations.
Dartmouth cardiologist Michael Rocha, who has been vocal on social media on the COVID challenge, said he doesn’t know the reasons why the local suburbs have lagged behind the rest of the state. Though he said he’s sure that there are things that could have been done at the local, state and national level that might have made things better.
“It’s just unfortunate we’re continuing to have these same difficult conversations in August 2021,” he said.
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