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Howard leads charge for health centers

by Amy Sokolow

asokolow@ lowellsun. com

Lowell » State Rep. Vanna Howard, backed by 34 other legislators, sent a letter to Gov. Baker earlier this week urging him to “ immediately implement a targeted strategy to leverage our community health care organizations’ expertise and experience,” instead of his current strategy of prioritizing the state’s six mass vaccination sites.

“I was quite honored to get the support from my colleagues ( in both) the House and in the Sen-



ate, and ( the letter is) generating quite a buzz,” Howard, who just began her first term, said in an interview. “ We’re talking lives here. To lose one is too many.”

Howard has the authority to speak to this issue, having resigned from her role as Lowell Community Health Center’s chief of external and governmental affairs just a month ago.

“ We just feel that why not keep it local?” she said. “ It’s a proven strategy over and over that community health centers, community hospitals, local boards of health, those are the institutions that the community trusts, ( that) people know. We’re in a health crisis, people are scared, especially the vulnerable people, the disabled, the el- derly.” She added that she’s been disappointed in the vaccine rollout, given the amount of time the state had to prepare for it.

On Wednesday, two days after Howard sent the letter, state. Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders sent a letter to local health centers affirming their role in administering vaccines and quelling the pandemic. She also listed 20 communities with the greatest “ COVID burden” in the state that also have the greatest percentage of nonwhite residents, including Lowell, Fitchburg and Boston, and said that these communities will be assisted with vaccine awareness efforts.

According to a Feb. 16 press release, the Baker-Polito administration will also provide a Department of Public Health Community Liaison for each of the 20 communities to coordinate resources, “( disseminate) culturally appropriate translations of communications campaign materials,” and “( hire) local residents to provide ‘ boots on the ground’ for neighborhood and local business outreach, which may include a door- knocking campaign to provide information and answer questions about vaccine efficacy and safety.”

These municipalities will also be eligible for grants to support vaccine outreach efforts and will be first in line to receive additional doses of the vaccine.

It is not immediately clear whether these changes were implemented in response to Howard’s letter, or whether they mean community health centers will receive more vaccine doses. A spokesman from the state Department of Health pointed The Sun to this phrase from Gov. Baker’s recent press conference in response to these questions: “ The 20 hardest hit municipalities I just mentioned will continue to distribute vaccine at the local level, are prioritized for the retail pharmacy program, and are served by community health centers and other health care providers administering vaccine.”

When The Sun spoke with other legislators who signed the letter, all expressed disappointment at Gov. Baker’s vaccine rollout thus far.

“ The issue with the Baker administration prioritizing mass vaccination sites over community health centers and hospitals is it says some citizens — those with access to reliable transportation — are more important than others with less means or who live in the wrong communities,” state. Sen. John Cronin, whose district encompasses Fitchburg’s Community Health Connections, said in a statement.

“ It’s a false choice to prioritize speed over equity.” He called on the administration to increase transparency of the vaccine distribution system. “ It’s time to do better,” he said.

State Rep. Michael Kushmerek, whose district primarily comprises Fitchburg, said that the city’s community health center, Community Health Connections, has received only 400 doses of vaccine per week, even though it serves over 20,000 patients. He added that he signed the letter to focus on equity in some of the hardest- hit communities by COVID-19, which are the same ones struggling to acquire vaccine doses.

“ Ever since Community Health Connections received COVID vaccines, we have been committed to their distribution to our staff and our patients. While we are helping who we can through the state’s phased vaccine distribution, we see the dire need for care in our community every day,” CHC’s President and CEO, John A. DeMalia said in a statement.

“ Having our state officials advocating for community health centers speaks to the solid and equitable work we are doing to reach and help those individuals in need to gain and maintain their access to healthcare, including COVID testing and vaccinations.”

State Rep. Tami Gouveia of Acton criticized Baker’s innovation- centric approach, advocating instead for the utilization of existing public health infrastructure.

“ He tends to lean into large hospital organizations and centers of innovation, which is not necessarily always the worst thing to be innovative in times of crisis, but we have an infrastructure that has the ability to address the crisis, and he has constantly gone around them, not communicated clearly with them, and changed the rules,” she said. “ We have people on the ground who are ready to start putting shots in people’s arms.”

State Sen. Eldridge of Acton added to the criticism, emphasizing that the Baker- Polito administration should have prioritized community health centers “ from day one” because they often have better translation capabilities and are more familiar places for members of marginalized groups. “ The admin-istration’s done a really bad job of prioritizing racial equity, and community health centers are a key part of reversing that disturbing reality,” he said, and thanked Rep. Howard for her efforts.

State Rep. Jim Arciero of Westford called Howard “ the perfect person to lead this charge” given her background in both government and public health. He added that the rollout of the vaccine has been “ rocky.”

Susan West Levine, CEO of Lowell Community Health Center, said that centers like hers deal with the highest- risk patients for COVID-19 and its effects, making them obvious destinations for vaccine doses.

For example, when cases peaked at 10% COVID-19 test positivity rates in Lowell as a whole, the test positivity rate at LCHC was 30%. Although she acknowledged that the mass vaccination centers are “efficient” and “ highthroughput” sites, they lack the community trust the community health centers have.

“ Many health centers have been around for more than 50 years… and health centers do have the trust of the patients that they serve. Our patients, based on our model of delivering linguistically and culturally competent care, they rely on us and they trust us,” she said.

“ That’s the role that health centers can ( play): to squarely focus our efforts on at- risk communities and at- risk patient populations, get into the neighborhoods, and make sure that when we still are scheduled for the vaccine, it’s those targeted audiences.”

Rep. Vanna howard

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