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Skewed Data Confuses Vaccination Rates In Some Western Mass. Hilltowns

Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts -- a village located in the towns of Buckland and Shelburne.
Mary Serreze/Masslive
Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts -- a village located in the towns of Buckland and Shelburne.

Two small towns in western Massachusetts are ranked among the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the state. But some officials blame a glitch in the data collection.

Early on, the town of Buckland — with a population under 2,000 — had to work very hard to get its residents vaccinated.

“We don't have a sports center. We don't have a big mall,” said Marty Ferguson, who chairs Buckland’s Board of Health. “We had no mass vaccination site and we had people clamoring for vaccine.”

So Buckland collaborated with other Franklin county towns and held pop-up clinics at the regional high school and senior centers.

“It was crazy. It filled up in ten minutes. People were really ready to get these shots,” Ferguson said, “and we just went until we didn't have any demand anymore.”

So how is it that, in a recent state report, Buckland is shown to have one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state — about 10%?

Ferguson said there's a simple explanation. “Out here in the hilltowns, zip codes don't correlate with the town boundaries.”

Many Buckland residents share a zip code with neighboring Shelburne, and sure enough, Shelburne appears to have one of the highest vaccination rates in the state. Local officials said it's likely Shelburne got credit for most of Buckland's immunization efforts.

In fact, if you look at the raw numbers on the state's spreadsheet, there are more vaccinated residents of Shelburne than there are residents total.

“The spreadsheet would make really good starter for fireworks,” said Randy Crochier, regional health director for several Franklin County towns, including Shelburne, Buckland and Rowe.

In the state’s data, Rowe also appears to have a very high vaccination rate — over 95% — while the Berkshire County town right next to it, Florida, is only at 10%. Again, Crochier blames the shared zip codes.

He believes the vaccination rate for all or most nearby hilltowns actually hovers around 70%.

“People look at these numbers … and they go, ‘Oh my God, the sky is falling, how come nobody in my town is getting vaccinated?’” Crochier said. “When that's far from the truth.”

He said the zip code confusion also made contact tracing more difficult, because some COVID cases were attributed to the wrong town. Local health officials often had to double-check addresses.

“A group of us got the email notification,” Crochier said, “and we would quickly hop on so that we could send the next email that said, ‘No, not Colrain [but] Shelburne.’ ‘Not Shelburne [but] Charlemont,’ whatever.”

The state health department declined an interview, but sent a statement that said small towns with low populations may have incomplete vaccination data.

Omar Cabrera, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), added that shared zip codes may have skewed the numbers.

“DPH is discussing how to most accurately capture residency data … in the future,” he wrote in an email.

Crochier said in small communities, like in Franklin County, local health officials often know personally who's been vaccinated and who hasn’t, but it's still important for state government to have the right data.

Beyond public health, he said, some towns lose out on funding for roads and infrastructure because population numbers are wrong.

In an email, state Senator Adam Hinds, who represents most western Massachusetts hilltowns, said his office has been working on this issue for years, and that some state health data is broken down by both municipality and zip code.

“It remains a serious issue from everything from school funding, to local option taxes and more,” he wrote.

Ferguson, of Buckland, said she's hoping the data collection gets sorted out, but she doesn't consider that a top priority while the pandemic continues and people still need vaccines.

“Yes, it would be great to have Buckland counted correctly,” she said. “But we have other work to do.”

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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