Harvard-affiliated hospitals began vaccinating health care workers against Covid-19 in December as hospitals across the country race to shield workers from the infectious disease.
The Mass General Brigham hospital network had administered 39,309 first doses and 4,602 second doses as of Tuesday, and as of Wednesday, Boston Children’s Hospital had administered 7,606 first doses and 2,306 second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to its employees, according to hospital administrators.
Still, Harvard hospitals’ initial vaccine distribution yielded several issues, including a vaccine sign-up website that crashed and complaints from employees that hospital administrations did not prioritize workers most exposed to Covid-19 to receive the vaccine.
Similar to guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Massachusetts divided its vaccine distribution timeline into phases, prioritizing patient-facing healthcare workers who are at high risk of exposure to Covid-19 in phase one, followed by residents and staff at long-term care facilities, first responders, and medical workers who do not treat Covid-19 patients.
Massachusetts’ largest healthcare provider, Mass General Brigham, experienced issues with its vaccination program beginning the day before workers were eligible to sign up. On Dec. 16, the enrollment app crashed. The next day, available slots were booked within minutes of the website going live at 3 p.m.
Mass General Brigham nurse Jennifer M. DeVincent, who works in the neonatal intensive care unit, said she was caring for a baby at the time the website opened for sign ups and was thus unable to secure an appointment.
DeVincent said she comes into contact with mothers who have contracted the coronavirus and was initially excited about the prospect of getting vaccinated. She soon grew frustrated with the hospital’s vaccine rollout, however, as she felt it did not prioritize frontline workers.
“People got angry whenever we started hearing who got the vaccine, and who didn’t,” she said. “There [were] doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists that work in the emergency room and in the Covid ICU that weren’t able to get appointments, but people who don’t do direct patient care did.”
Katie E. Murphy, a charge nurse who works night shifts in the special pathogens unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, also said she faced challenges scheduling a vaccination appointment despite working in an intensive care unit for coronavirus-infected patients.
The first shipment of Pfizer vaccine doses Brigham and Women’s received on Dec. 17 were all used by the end of that day, according to Murphy, who said she was not able to book a vaccine appointment until her third attempt.
Murphy likened the process of trying to schedule a vaccination appointment to buying concert tickets.
“It reminds me of getting Rolling Stones tickets on the phone years ago — you waited until they went on sale and quickly got on the phone and started re-dialing,” she said.
Since the first round of signups, both DeVincent and Murphy said they have received the first dosage of the vaccine and have booked appointments for the second dose.
DeVincent said she believes most frontline medical workers at the hospital have since been able to secure vaccination appointments, adding that she appreciated that the hospital acknowledged and resolved initial problems.
Paul D. Biddinger, director of emergency preparedness at Mass General Brigham, said he attributes improvements to the hospital’s vaccination program to an increased supply of vaccines and better management of staff expectations.
“The biggest challenge for us was at the very beginning, where the initial allocation that we received from the state was not enough to cover what we call Wave A, which is our emergency departments, intensive care units, inpatient areas caring for Covid patients,” Biddinger said. “We didn’t message the fact that we would have to subdivide Wave A.”
Biddinger said vaccine distribution is challenging because hospitals do not know in advance how many vaccines they will receive from the state in each shipment. The state receives the vaccines from the federal government, which has faced its own problems with distribution.
Mass Gen Brigham, which has 81,000 employees, is currently ahead of its original vaccination goal, per Biddinger. The hospital had scheduled vaccines for at least 75 percent of eligible workers as of Jan. 6. Biddinger said he believes the hospital will begin to vaccinate high-risk patients as part of Phase Two as soon as February.
At Boston Children’s Hospital, hospital epidemiologist Thomas J. Sandora said he witnessed no issues regarding vaccine distribution. The hospital established teams to oversee its coronavirus vaccination program, including one group that categorized workers based on their exposure risk.
Boston Children’s Hospital pediatrician Aaron Bernstein and nurse practitioner Keri Sullivan agreed the vaccine rollout has gone smoothly. Though he was not in the first priority group, Bernstein said he received two doses of the vaccine earlier this month.
As the majority of Americans remain ineligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, elite hospitals, including Harvard’s, have come under scrutiny for inoculating medical staff who are not patient-facing, raising ethical questions, which surfaced in a recent report by The New York Times.
Biddinger explained that Mass General Brigham included researchers in its initial vaccine rollout because they are involved in the hospital’s staffing plans in response to a surge in Covid-19 cases. He said researchers are redeployed to ICUs to help nurses and doctors monitor patients.
Mass General Brigham will vaccinate any Harvard medical student working clinically in eligible areas, including ICUs and ambulatory clinics, Biddinger added.
Biddinger, who also chairs Massachusetts’ Covid-19 vaccine advisory group, which counsels the state on vaccine distribution, emphasized that the order of who gets vaccinated first does not suggest the state values some lives more than others. Instead, he said, the order is intended to maximize the number of lives saved from the virus.
“The advisory group, and I think probably everybody involved in this effort in general, wants to vaccinate as many people as quickly as they possibly can,” he said.