New Britain lags the rest of Connecticut in COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Here is what its troubles reveal about distribution in cities

Alex Putterman, Hartford Courant
·7 min read

Of all the Connecticut cities struggling to vaccinate their oldest residents against COVID-19, none has had greater difficulty than New Britain.

According to state data released last week, New Britain had vaccinated residents 75 and older at less than half the rate of the state as a whole and about a third the rate of neighboring Farmington. It ranked behind Connecticut’s other large cities in vaccine administration and was one of several that Gov. Ned Lamont mentioned as needing to speed its distribution process.

Officials in New Britain point to several reasons for the slow-going vaccination efforts, including high numbers of vulnerable residents, lack of supply from the state, a dearth of local sites and a degree of vaccine hesitance.

But these issues aren’t unique to New Britain, a city of about 70,000 residents, 36% of whom are Hispanic or Latino and 11% of whom are Black. In fact, the issues New Britain is facing are mirrored to some extent in other cities across the state, which have typically recorded lower levels of vaccination than their wealthier, whiter surrounding suburbs.

Here is what New Britain’s efforts to inoculate its population reveal about the difficulty of vaccination in Connecticut’s cities.

Vulnerable populations are often left behind

Officials in New Britain and other Connecticut cities note that residents in poorer, less white areas might have less technological ability, less faith in the vaccine process, fewer transportation options and greater likelihood of a language barrier.

At a joint press conference with Hartford Healthcare Wednesday to announce an expansion of vaccine capacity in the city, New Britain mayor Erin Stewart referred to “three Ts” that hinder vaccine distribution.

“You have transportation issues, you have trust issues and you have technology issues as well,” she said.

Rowena White, spokesperson for the city of Bridgeport, said registration itself has been difficult for some residents.

“If you don’t have a computer and you don’t have a mobile device, if you don’t have an email address, if you don’t have WiFi, you can’t register yourself,” White said. “So if you have a community of vulnerable persons who are homebound who are seniors or do not have any one of those four items, it puts folks at a disadvantage.”

Despite public commitments from local, state and federal officials, vaccine distribution nationwide has so far shown significant racial disparities, with white residents far more likely to get vaccinated than Black and Latino residents. In Connecticut, data released Wednesday shows that Black and Latino residents were far less likely to have been vaccinated than white residents, as of Feb. 3.

In a statement released Monday, Reps. Bobby Sanchez and Manny Sanchez and Sen. Rick Lopes, all of whom represent New Britain, noted that “some communities are being grossly underserved in this pandemic.”

“Given the current shortage of vaccine supply,” they said, “we must double our efforts to reach communities that have historically faced challenges — especially as supplies increase.”

Supply is scarce everywhere

Connecticut is now receiving about 54,000 vaccine doses a week, up slightly from earlier in the rollout process, to be distributed to hospitals, other healthcare providers, local health departments and others.

Despite state efforts to distribute vaccine evenly, with a particular focus on vulnerable communities, New Britain currently has only three vaccination clinics within city borders: at Community Health Center of New Britain, at the Hospital of Central Connecticut and at the New Britain health department, which Stewart said receives only 100 doses a week.

“The frustrating part is the lack of available vaccine,” Stewart said. “You can’t increase the amount of people who are getting vaccinated if we’re not increasing the accessibility to vaccination.”

This problem isn’t specific to any one city. Vaccine providers and local officials statewide have made clear they could inoculate far more people if they had greater supply from the federal government.

“Say we had 500,000 doses available, every significant city and town could set up a clinic at their senior center, their high school, wherever,” said Rep. William Petit, whose district includes New Britain. “The issue right now is not vaccinators, it’s not locations, it’s vaccine supply.”

In New Britain, access may soon increase. Hartford HealthCare announced Wednesday that it will soon open a mass-vaccination site at 1 Liberty Square, one of several such sites to be spread across Connecticut.

The state as a whole will still be limited by the supply it gets from the federal government, but the new site may direct a greater share of that supply toward residents of New Britain and the surrounding towns.

“We cannot expect people to go to where the tests are,” said Jeffrey Flaks, CEO of Hartford HealthCare. “We’re going to go to people.”

Cities need local sites for local residents

Of New Britain’s three existing vaccine sites, only one has supply reserved specifically for New Britain residents. That is the local health department, which receives only a small number of doses.

As a result, residents from surrounding towns take up many of the vaccine appointments available in New Britain, leaving city residents to look elsewhere.

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Samuel Blanks, pastor at Spottswood A.M.E. Zion Church in New Britain

Petit said his parents, both in their 80s, would rather wait for a nearby vaccination appointment than drive far to find one.

“They had a chance to get [a vaccine] right at the get-go, but they were going to have to drive to Hartford, East Hartford to do so,” Petit said. “They said, ‘we’re not driving,’ we said, ‘we’ll drive you,’ they said, ‘we don’t want to go that far.’”

Samuel Blanks, pastor at Spottswood A.M.E. Zion Church in New Britain, said one of his older congregants had to drive several towns over to West Hartford to get a vaccine.

“The challenge is if people do sign up for the vaccination, then they have the challenge of how do I get to the vaccination,” Blanks said. “So that presents another challenge.”

Though the coming Hartford HealthCare mass-vaccination site will bring more doses to downtown New Britain, it won’t be exclusive to the city’s residents, meaning some number of appointments will be taken by residents from surrounding towns

Dr. Jim Cardon, chief clinical integration officer at Hartford HealthCare, said the health system will attempt to reserve some doses, or even certain blocks of time at the new clinic, specifically for vulnerable residents.

“It’s about managing that scheduling process that understands where are we lacking, where do we need to focus our efforts,” Cardon said.

Vaccine hesitance is an issue

In New Britain, as elsewhere, officials and community leaders have observed some level of vaccine hesitance, particularly among the city’s Black and Latino residents.

Black people both in Connecticut and nationally have reported higher levels of skepticism toward vaccines, likely due in part to a history of racism in medicine.

“The challenge is helping people overcome whatever anxieties and fears they have regarding the vaccine, particularly in the Black and Hispanic communities,” said Thomas Mills, pastor at Grace Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in New Britain. “The best way to get the word out is through word-of-mouth and for people who get the vaccination to encourage others to do the same.”

Liany Arroyo, Hartford’s health director, said last week her department had seen less hesitancy among residents 75 and older but anticipated increased skepticism as younger groups become available.

For now, officials continue to emphasize the safety and importance of vaccination.

“This is a public-education campaign that we all have to do,” Stewart said. “To tell people in different cultural subsets of our community that the vaccine is safe, that the vaccine is effective and that we want you do get it.”

Alex Putterman can be reached at aputterman@courant.com.