By James Paleologopoulos
Boston University News Service
BOSTON – Gov. Charlie Baker detailed funding for vaccination outreach efforts, along with 50,000 new appointment openings, in the run-up to Thursday’s oversight meeting with state lawmakers.
Baker made the announcements following a tour of the new mass vaccination center in Natick, which opened earlier this week in the former Sears location at the Natick Mall.
About $4.7 million will go to the vaccine equity initiative Baker’s administration unveiled last week, Baker said. Aimed at addressing barriers and improving vaccination rates among historically underserved communities, the initiative will focus on 20 cities and towns across the state considered to be hardest-hit by the virus.
“These funds will be used to work with local leaders and community and faith-based organizations to strengthen existing efforts to reduce barriers to vaccination,” Baker said. “[They will also be used] to increase awareness about the efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Communities of color, home-bound seniors, disabled individuals and “other hard-to-reach populations” are targets for the initiative, according to a state press release.
In addition to the funding, Baker said some 50,000 appointment slots will be made available Thursday morning through the state’s vaccine reservation website.
Following last week’s website crash, which left thousands of residents waiting for a chance to book an appointment, Baker said a state tech team has worked to “improve the site’s capabilities and functionality” in order to handle a surge in traffic.
“The site will have bolstered service server capacity to help manage heavier website traffic,” Baker said. “That also means, among other things, we’re implementing what we’re calling a ‘digital waiting room,’ which is a feature to prevent outages on the scheduling website for mass vax sites.”
The waiting room, according to Baker, will display information regarding appointment availability, adding users to a queue that will eventually allow them access to the website.
The website crash, among other topics, are likely to surface when Baker meets with the Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management on Thursday at 11 a.m..
The first of multiple oversight hearings this legislative session, committee Chairs are expected to ask Baker and possibly other officials about the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chaired by Sen. Joanne Comerford, the Northampton Democrat, along with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, voiced concern with the state’s vaccination website rollout and crash last week, among other issues.
In a tweet, Sen. Comerford called the website’s “four-legged” octopus image, which greeted vaccine-seekers while the site was down, an “apt metaphor for an incomplete @MassGov creature without enough limbs to do its work.”
According to the State House News Service, the committee also asked several other committees to “assemble expert panels to testify,” including the Health Care Financing, Public Health and Racial Equity, Civil Rights and Inclusion Committees.
Discussions regarding vaccine equity and ways to improve the state’s vaccine rollout efforts are also expected in Thursday’s meeting.