Massachusetts first responders will begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations next week, while some of the state's oldest residents will move up in line to access the crucial immunization, state officials announced Monday.

Marking another milestone in the sometimes-bumpy vaccine rollout, Gov. Charlie Baker said the more than 45,000 police officers, firefighters and EMTs in Massachusetts will gain access to the first doses starting Jan. 11.

"These men and women put their lives on the line regularly back before we had COVID-19, and for the last 10 months, they've kept on working the front lines, protecting and caring for residents across Massachusetts," Baker said. "Police officers, firefighters, EMTs and all first responders work in risky situations every day, and this vaccine will protect them from COVID and the terrible illness that can come with it."

Some departments that can administer the vaccine to at least 200 people will qualify to host vaccinations on location, and individual first responders can also use a state website to find information about more than 60 sites where vaccines are available. They will be able to make appointments later this week.

The Baker administration is also finalizing details on several sites that will be able to administer 2,000 vaccines per day, which should open to first responders by the end of the month. Those mass vaccination sites will likely expand into serving other populations as the months-long distribution plan unfolds, Baker said.

With responders up next, the administration has started offering vaccines to three of the six groups outlined in the first phase of its distribution plan. Those in congregate care settings such as correctional facilities and shelters, home-based health care workers, and health care workers who are not involved in COVID response are next on the list.

Baker said he is confident that emergency personnel will embrace the vaccine's availability.

"They, like many of the folks in the health care community and long-term care community, say the same thing when they talk to the lieutenant governor and me about this, which is: 'I'm out there all the time. I worry about the places and spaces I'm in. I'm afraid that if I get it, I might give it to my family members,'" Baker said.

In another significant step, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the state will increase the priority level for residents aged 75 and older and allow them to receive vaccines early in the second rollout stage. They will now fall into "Phase Two, Group One" alongside individuals who have two or more comorbidities increasing their risk of serious illness, Sudders said.

Sudders said the update, which will affect about 170,000 Massachusetts residents, follows new federal guidelines for vaccine prioritization based on the higher threats that older adults face from the respiratory illness and its complications.

Under the original plan, all adults 65 years old and older were near the bottom of the list for receiving vaccines in the second phase, which officials aim to run between February and April.

The change leapfrogs those 75 and older ahead of workers in early education, K-12 education, transit, grocery stores, utilities, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works and public health workers.

Mike Festa, Massachusetts state director for the AARP, said that focusing on older adults can help limit the pandemic's damage and its strain on the health care system.

"With remarkable speed, vaccines have been developed, and continue to be developed, and now it's time to put them to good use," Festa said. "AARP is fighting for older Americans to be prioritized in getting COVID-19 vaccines because the science has clearly shown that older people are at higher risk of death. Vaccinating the people most likely to wind up in the hospital alleviates burdens on communities' health care systems, too."

So far, about 287,000 doses of the vaccine have been distributed to providers in Massachusetts, and about 116,000 have been administered, according to Baker. Those numbers are reported with a lag of a few days.

The governor acknowledged that "there have been bumps" in the rollout of COVID vaccines across the country, but stressed that the administration so far has not received any reports of lost doses.

A handful of community health centers already distributed some vaccines to first responders "rather than keeping them in storage," Baker said, adding that he believes "it's important to use it" rather than allow any waste.

Officials are planning to reach out to leaders in the private sector to help craft plans to vaccinate employees and to get a sense of any additional storage capacity that businesses could provide for the vaccine.

Sudders hinted that the Baker administration will not look harshly on providers who occasionally step outside narrow distribution plans or communicate with one another when they find extra doses on their hands.

"It's very important that we want the vaccines utilized," she said. "In these early days, providers are estimating what they believe the use is going to be. If they have slightly overestimated, if they assumed 60 percent of the individuals would be vaccinated and if it's 55 percent and you have some left over, we obviously don't want the vaccines wasted."

Last week, the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts publicly criticized the vaccine rollout, arguing that too much responsibility was placed on local boards of health and that the state "still has not provided any dates, times, or vaccination locations."

The group on Monday notified members about the updated announcement and directed firefighters to the Baker administration's guide to first responder vaccinations.

--Chris Lisinski/Stte House News Service

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