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Updated February 10, 2021 04:44PM

Move to Vaccinate Companions of 75-and-Older Hailed as 'Game-Changer' by Senior Advocate

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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UPDATE: Dr. Erwin Stuebner of the Williamstown Board of Health reported on Wednesday afternoon that the three Berkshire County clinic locations (St. Elizabeth of Hungary in North Adams, W.E.B. DuBois Middle School in Great Barrington and Berkshire Community College's Patterson Field House) have been designated as mass vaccination sites for purposes of this rule. Therefore, residents 75-and-over will be able bring a companion (with an appointment) for a vaccination at those three sites starting Thursday.
DANVERS, Mass. — Starting Thursday, residents 75-and-older who make appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations at one of the commonwealth's mass vaccination sites will be allowed to also make an appointment for a companion of any age to accompany them to the site and receive a vaccination of their own.
Gov. Charlie Baker made the announcement on Wednesday during a visit to the mass vaccination site at the DoubleTree Hotel. He said the move was being made to encourage older Bay Staters who might be hesitant to attend one of the sites, like the one at Eastfield Mall in Springfield.
The head of Elder Services of Merrimack Valley shared the podium with Baker and praised the decision to open the program to one companion or caregiver for each older resident.
"We've been able to hear the concerns and been able to provide support and help behind the scenes of the commonwealth to serve those," Joan Hatem-Roy said. "This new initiative allowing the caregivers to accompany seniors to their appointments is really a game-changer. 
"One of the things we try to say is remove all barriers, at any point, whatever we need to do to get that senior to a vaccination site. One of the barriers we did see … was the fear, the anxiety. I get nervous going to a Patriots game at Gillette, so I can imagine a senior trying to think about going to Gillette Stadium. But by allowing a caregiver or a trusted friend to accompany them, that is certainly a game-changer."
Baker said the new policy does not apply to existing appointments, only those made starting Thursday. He said residents 75-and-older and their companions should try to schedule appointments as close together as possible but that if they can't, "the mass vaccination sites will make every effort to accommodate both at the same time."
Baker did not indicate whether the companion policy would remain in effect when the commonwealth moves to the next phase of its vaccination program, which includes the population 65 and over. Nor did he say whether there are plans to expand the companion policy behind the mass vaccination sites, currently in Springfield, Danvers, Fenway Park and Foxborough and, Baker announced on Wednesday, in Natick starting Feb. 22 and Dartmouth starting Feb. 24.
Baker also said that if the 75-and-older resident is receiving a second vaccine and accompanied by an unvaccinated companion, the companion will be able to receive a first vaccine.
Elder Services of Merrimack Valley's Hatem-Roy said allowing a trusted companion to be vaccinated is a "reward" for those friends, family and neighbors who have been helping older residents throughout the pandemic. Baker said the promise of a vaccine is one way to help the older resident feel he or she is not being a "burden" by asking a companion to bring them to the mass vaccination site.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders stressed that residents 75-and-older should not accept calls from anyone offering to assist them who they do not know and trust.
Sudders said that while she understands some older residents may be hesitant about the new experience of going to a mass vaccination site, they should have confidence in the experience that awaits them.
"The staff here are physicians, nurses, medical staff, volunteers, our National Guard," Sudders said. "They allow someone to accompany a 75-year-old or older adult to the appointment if that individual needs assistance. They have accessible dropoff and pickup areas. They're fully wheelchair accessible and do not require people to use stairs. And they have wheelchairs available in medium and large sizes. … They have accessible parking available. They also have accessible restrooms and seating available.
"They provide medical grade masks for every person when they enter and support social distancing throughout the site. And they offer vaccinations for the staff who are administering the vaccine and give staff access to regular COVID-19 testing to ensure their safety."
Sudders said the mass vaccination sites strive to offer a no-line experience, and she said recipients are encouraged to not come early and to wait in their cars until 15 minutes before their appointments.
Baker said that he hopes the new policy on companions will spur more residents in the 75-and-over cohort to take advantage of the mass vaccination sites, and he reiterated the importance of reaching as much of that population as possible before moving on to the next phase.
"I think if you look at the data, being over the age of 75, being over 85, those communities are far more likely to lose their life and get hospitalized as a result of COVID, and it's not 5 percent or 10 percent, it's multiples," Baker said. "We want to make sure we make it as easy as we possibly can for folks who fall into that over 75 category to get vaccinated and get vaccinated early in this process."

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