NEW BEDFORD — Four pop-up vaccine clinics at city schools are proceeding as originally scheduled this week after the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reversed course and restored support for a lineup of mobile clinics lasting through November.

The move comes after The New Bedford Light reported Monday that the state had canceled the clinics, even though the city’s vaccination rate remains below 50 percent, lagging behind county and statewide averages.

Three POP-UP clinics were canceled last week, and the remaining series of school-based clinics had been nixed from the citywide schedule posted Oct. 14. On Tuesday afternoon it became evident that the clinic at Normandin Middle School on Felton Street was not canceled when a vendor showed up as usual to set up the site. 

On Wednesday, New Bedford Public Schools Community Affairs Manager Arthur Motta notified parents and staff that the clinics were restored. 

A post on New Bedford Public Schools’ Facebook page says, “State health officials have agreed to reinstate support for certain clinics at NBPS, including today’s clinic at Keith Middle School Community Rm., 2-5 pm.”

“Apparently the state is reinstating support for clinics, but with adjustments to the schedule,” Motta said in a phone interview Wednesday. “If we’re following the schedule before the cancellations, that would mean there’s another clinic happening tomorrow and one on Friday. I haven’t heard differently, but one never knows.”

Those two clinics, if restored according to the previous schedule, will be held Thursday, Oct. 21, at Roosevelt Middle School from 2-5 p.m., and Friday, Oct. 22, at New Bedford High School from 2-5 p.m. Doses of Pfizer and J&J vaccines will be available for free, with no appointment needed.

New Bedford Health Director Damon Chaplin did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the clinics this week. A spokesperson for Cataldo Ambulance Services, the state vendor that was contracted to operate school-based clinics in September and October, also did not respond to calls from The Light.

“This week, mobile vaccination clinics will continue, as scheduled, Tuesday through Friday,” a state spokesperson wrote in an email to The New Bedford Light. The state public health spokesperson did not provide a copy of the schedule or respond to requests for additional details, noting only that clinics last week had been canceled “due to a very low turnout for several weeks.” 

The school-based vaccine clinics are part of a program of small-scale mobile vaccine clinics that the state has provided directly to New Bedford. Since they began in May, 273 state-sponsored mobile vaccine clinics have taken place, averaging 35 doses per clinic, or 9,500 doses in total. 

The white and orange medical vans operated by Cataldo Ambulance Services appeared in force on street corners, at parks, on church lawns, and at outdoor events this summer. A number of other providers have also hosted pop-up vaccination clinics in New Bedford. Seven Hills and Southcoast Health have their own roving clinic programs that also receive state support. 

Massachusetts ranks sixth in the nation in vaccination rate, with 69% percent of its population fully vaccinated. But New Bedford has struggled to keep pace. Information reported to the state immunization database shows New Bedford’s vaccination rate lagged behind the rest of the state in the early months of the vaccine rollout. By May, when all Massachusetts residents 12 years and older became eligible for vaccines, New Bedford’s vaccination rate had fallen far behind the rest of Massachusetts, with only 29.7% of the city’s population fully vaccinated compared to 47.2% statewide. As of Oct. 12, only 48.8% of New Bedford residents are fully vaccinated.

In June, Gov. Charlie Baker announced closing dates for seven mass vaccination sites in the state, including the Former Circuit City in Dartmouth and Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. All seven shut down by mid-July, marking the end of large-scale vaccine operations in the Greater New Bedford area and in other communities where COVID-19 vaccination rates remained sluggish.

Anticipating a shift in resources toward these communities, Massachusetts launched the Vaccine Equity Initiative in March, funneling funding and support to local boards of health, nonprofit organizations, and community health centers in cities hardest hit by COVID-19.

New Bedford was among 20 municipalities selected to receive support. The state has invested $3.2 million in contracts and vaccination outreach in the city over the course of the initiative.

The New Bedford Health Department drew up plans to launch its own hyperlocal campaign in July, using census data to select areas where outreach could have the highest impact. The “Block by Block” effort targets neighborhoods with high numbers of certain prioritized demographic groups and limited access to public transportation.

The Immigrants’ Assistance Center, Community Economic Development Center and others in New Bedford have also focused on outreach to residents with limited English skills and poor access to technology. Partners in Health pointed to both factors as barriers to vaccine access in a study published this year on work in New Bedford.

“This is a community in flux,” said CEDC Executive Director Corinn Williams. “There’s been a Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Honduran community here for 20 years or so. And then there are relatives who have arrived more recently.

“We see people brand new from the border. When it comes to COVID, there was initially quite a lot of hesitancy about the vaccine in the Central American community. Folks are hearing about how back home vaccines aren’t available and fatalities are going up for their family members. Unfortunately, that’s a sad reason why the needle is now moving a little bit in New Bedford.”

Email Abigail Nehring at anehring@newbedfordlight.org.

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