The college received approval to become a vaccination center by the government of Massachusetts, the college announced in early February. As the nationwide vaccine rollout continues, and people struggle to obtain appointments, the college’s status as a vaccine distributor could play a pivotal role in helping the local community combat Covid-19, if it were to become an operating site.
According to Chief Communications Officer Sandy Genelius, Amherst’s status as a vaccination site does not mean that it has been conferred any access to vaccines, only that “as vaccines become more widely available, we have the option of being able to distribute them on campus.” Should that come to pass, the college will likely be classified as a local vaccination site, the most limited role in the state’s vaccination location classification system, which means that vaccines — if available — would only be disbursed to residents of the town of Amherst or nearby municipalities.
Nearby, both UMass Amherst and Amherst Regional High School (ARHS) have already been operating as vaccination sites. ARHS is currently classified as a local vaccination site, while UMass Amherst is classified as a general vaccination site, meaning that it’s open for anyone residing in Western Massachusetts.
Nationwide, the overall supply of vaccines is limited and many doses have gone unused. Only 11 percent of the U.S. population has received the first dose and 3.4 percent have received both doses of the vaccine, as of Feb. 15. The varying tiers of vaccination eligibility in each state has further complicated who may or may not be able to become vaccinated.
Massachusetts is currently in phase 1 of its vaccination schedule. Health care workers, staff and residents of congregate care centers, like homeless shelters and first responders, are eligible to receive the vaccine in phase 1. Phase 2 is scheduled to begin in February and includes four eligible populations: individuals over the age of 75, individuals age 65+ and individuals with two or more medical conditions specified by the commonwealth, workers essential for the functioning of the state, like early education teachers, and, finally, those with certain medical conditions. Phase 3, the vaccination of the general public, is scheduled to begin in April.
Chief Student Affairs Officer Karu Kozuma reported that the vaccination process by the school is unclear at this time. “Depending on the availability of the vaccine, individual eligibility will be based on the State’s vaccination eligibility,” he said. This means students, professors, staff, and local residents may receive the vaccine at different times. Additionally, he noted, “it is unknown what the vaccination process for students will look like at this time.”
College students become eligible to receive the vaccine under the third vaccination period in Massachusetts, which begins April 2020. Whether there are enough doses available to vaccinate the whole student body at that time remains in question. As a result, there is not a definitive timeline for when inoculation might be campus-wide and how Covid campus protocols might change.
A Feb. 4 statement by the college to staff and faculty discussed that its status as a vaccine distributor “only means that, if and as vaccines become more widely available, the College will be eligible to administer them on campus.”
“Simply put,” the statement continued, “the fact that the College has been chosen as a vaccination site does not automatically confer any access to vaccines and there is no indication that we will be approved to receive the vaccine any time soon.”
Nonetheless, many students and staff members have already received the complete vaccine. For staff, a number of departments on campus were qualified for and were offered the vaccine under Massachusetts guidelines, including members of the Amherst College Police Department, Environmental Safety and Health, the testing center and the health center, said Genelius.
As with students, Mary Gum ’24 received both doses of the Moderna vaccine by volunteering at a vaccination site in Dallas County, Texas. “At the end of the day there are normally extra vaccines, so they just start handing them out to volunteers,” she said.
She noted that the process to get vaccinated in her county “is chaotic right now,” and “there are some people who have to wait in line for four hours.”
Gum feels more comfortable on campus with the vaccine. “I definitely feel better after getting my second dose knowing that the odds of me getting Covid and developing those symptoms are a lot lower,” she said.
Talia Bloxham ’22, from Santa Barbara, California, obtained the two doses because she works at a physical therapy clinic. “I think I got lucky both times because my company was given the links to a different county by accident, but we didn’t find out until after I got my shot there,” she said.
“After I got my first shot, everyone else in my company had to cancel their appointments and get the vaccine in our county, which worked out fine for them,” she added. “For the second dose, I signed up for my county and the other one. In my county, they turned me away because I didn’t get the first dose at the same location. I was also told that the other county might not give me a shot because I wasn’t a resident there, but I was able to get it thankfully. There was a little drama there.”
Declan Sung ’23 works as an EMT and noted the tricky process involved in receiving the vaccine. “The county was supposed to send out links for workers to get vaccines but there seemed to be a logistical back up there so they recommended that I schedule an appointment at a regional facility that vaccinates health care workers. So I went there and got vaccinated,” he said.
“Definitely getting the vaccine has helped my peace of mind a little bit. Like yesterday, I worked a 14-hour shift, dealing with several patients who had Covid-19. We still had to wear full gowns, N95 masks and face shields to protect ourselves. But I would say the vaccine did make me feel a little more reassured.”
These three students represent only a small portion of the Amherst student body; the unlikelihood of college students securing a vaccine under the current state of vaccine rollout and eligibility guidelines means that many Amherst students are relying on the college to supply them, if they’re to obtain them in the near future.
After the Amherst community is vaccinated, Kozuma hopes, “That life will return as much as possible to what it was like before the pandemic, and it is impossible to tell when exactly that will be at this point.” However, there are many Covid-19 safety protocols that Amherst students can continue to follow, such as social distancing, wearing masks and washing their hands, to hopefully speed up the timeline towards normalcy.
Sung echoes this sentiment: “The likelihood that we can see the end of the tunnel, with the new variance, the new strains, and cases, infection rates, and deaths being expected to rise, I feel will increase if as a country we push through the next few months and not start to relax because the vaccine is here.”