BOSTON — Health care workers and others who are treating COVID-19 patients, or who may be exposed to the virus, would be among the first to get a vaccine in Massachusetts under a plan submitted to the federal government.

The state's plan for distributing coronavirus vaccines, which was filed last week with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, envisions three phases of distribution as the new drugs become widely available.

Vaccines are being developed and tested by several companies including Pfizer and Cambridge-based Moderna, some of which are expected to be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for review next month. The companies are already producing mass quantities of the vaccines in anticipation of approval.

Medical experts say when vaccines become available drug makers won't be able to produce enough doses for the entire country, so federal and state officials need to plan for who will be first in line, and who will have to wait.

Besides essential workers, the Baker administration's plan prioritizes vaccinations for those 65 and older and others at greatest risk for severe infections —such as people with chronic lung illnesses — in the initial round of distribution.

Plan outline

The plan anticipates a maximum of 60,000 doses will be available to the state during phase one, so hospitals and health care facilities will need to create priority lists of workers and patients who will be inoculated against the virus.

A second phase anticipates wider availability and variety of vaccines. The state would work with community health centers to distribute the drug locally.

A third phase assumes enough vaccine for everyone in the state. Health officials will work with providers and pharmacies to set up vaccination centers, similar to the drive-up testing sites, with a focus on reaching hard-hit communities and areas with low vaccination rates.

The plan is the work of an advisory group set up by Gov. Charlie Baker to lay out plans for distributing COVID-19 vaccines. The group included physicians, experts in infectious disease control, health officials, lawmakers and municipal leaders.

"This is going to be a mammoth task," said Dr. Asif Merchant, a North Andover physician who represented the Massachusetts Medical Society on the board. "We’re talking about mass immunization in a short period of time, so we need a plan to make sure we're not scrambling once a vaccine becomes available."

Merchant, who works in nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state, said states will receive allotments of vaccines from the federal government and will need to make sure the initially limited supplies get to those who need it.

"You have to take what you get initially and distribute it to the most vulnerable people," he said. "Healthcare workers are up there in priority, but it’s also people who are working in grocery stores who are more exposed to the virus.

The state's plan calls for deploying the National Guard to help nursing homes and other long-term care facilities distribute the vaccines.

Health officials will track distribution of vaccines through the Massachusetts Immunization Information System, which is used to track vaccinations for the flu and other contagious diseases.

Public skeptical

Medical experts say an effective vaccine is crucial to ending the pandemic, which has sickened nearly 8.4 million and killed more than 230,000 nationwide.

Massachusetts has been hard hit by the outbreak, with more 9,600 deaths and about 146,000 confirmed cases. The state has seen an uptick of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks that has raised fears of a second wave of infections this fall.

The global race for a COVID-19 vaccine has substantially shortened the development and trial process, which usually takes years, if not decades, experts say.

Meanwhile, the American public is growing increasingly skeptical of a hastily developed vaccine. A Gallop poll released last week showed only about half of those surveyed would be willing to get an FDA-backed COVID-19 vaccine.

Merchant said whatever vaccines are approved by the FDA would likely go through another layer of review by Massachusetts health officials and experts before being cleared for widespread distribution. Rigorous public outreach campaigns will be needed to ease public fear, he said.

"We need to create public trust," he said "We don’t want people be scared and not take the vaccine, which could be life-saving."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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