BUCKLAND, MA – This is not a town full of conspiracy theorists. But there is some sort of bureaucratic conspiracy going on.
The reason little Buckland — population 1,838 — in northwestern Massachusetts has the lowest vaccination rate in the state at 11.2% is due to a quirk in the ZIP codes, which the State uses to collect data on vaccination rates. But Buckland’s story of low vaccination rates on paper alone highlights the difficulties rural communities have faced in getting help during the pandemic.
On a recent morning, Buckland city administrator Heather Butler picked up the phone to hear another reporter asking about the city’s record COVID-19 vaccination rate. She was ready with a fairly simple explanation: Post office zip codes don’t match city limits, which means vaccine data is misreported.
Most Buckland residents have a Shelburne Falls zip code. The state Department of Public Health counts vaccination rates from Shelburne Falls to the city of Shelburne, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state, at more than 95 percent. In fact, there are more vaccinated people in Shelburne than eligible residents, according to public health data.
Buckland Postal Code 01338 contains less than 200 people. But the department counts the vaccination rate of this population against the city’s total population of 1,838, which leads to a vaccination rate of 11%.
“We stomped our feet on this,” Butler said.
Phoebe Walker, moderator for the town of Buckland and director of community services at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, was furious at the bad typing. Following a MassLive story in October highlighting the low vaccination rate that did not name any local official, Walker rocked the cages at the state level.
“It has now been over 18 months since the state incorrectly reported data on Buckland,” she said in an Oct. 24 email to the department, state Rep. Natalie Blais (D- Sunderland) and State Senator Adam Hinds (D-Buckland). “Once again we are the subject of newspaper and TV stories questioning why our rates are so low while the same reporters ignore the fact that Shelburne allegedly vaccinated more people than she has. eligible residents.
Walker is responsible for the health department that serves more than a dozen rural towns in Franklin County. The region has done everything possible to provide vaccines to residents, she said, offering several mobile clinics.
The first major vaccination clinic last year at Mohawk Trail Regional School sold out “like a Bruce Springsteen gig,” Butler said.
The region has also struggled to offer vaccines. The only pharmacy east of Greenfield just got the ability to book vaccine appointments online, Walker said. When the state opened mass vaccination sites last spring, the closest was 60 miles away in Springfield.
The Franklin Regional Council of Governments also spent out-of-pocket money to hold vaccination clinics. Government councils were not eligible for reimbursement from the two federal stimulus bills, the American Rescue Plan Act and the CARES Act.
The weirdness of the ZIP code in rural Franklin County has also affected vaccination rates in other nearby towns. The state counted Hawley and Charlemont together in vaccine data. Heath appeared to have a low vaccination rate of 48%, but he also suffered from multiple postcodes running through the city. Rowe, with a population of less than 400, has five different postcodes.
This week, the city was still trying to fix the data issue. Blais was unable to arrange a meeting with the Department of Public Health because the key people she needs to meet with are all on vacation, according to an email exchange shared with Patch.
Walker said the wrong vaccine numbers were particularly infuriating given the hard work of public health nurses and health workers. She estimated that at least 70% of Buckland was vaccinated, putting it well above larger communities with more resources. Boston and Brookline, for example, have vaccination rates below 70%, according to the Department of Public Health.
“There has been a robust vaccination effort in Buckland,” Walker said. “This is by no means a particularly vaccine-hesitant community.”