New Haven among first municipalities in Connecticut state to begin COVID-19 vaccinations, but many towns are still working on obtaining the vaccine

Dave Altimari, Hartford Courant

Just before he rolled up his sleeve to get his COVID-19 vaccination Monday, New Haven Fire Chief John A. Alston Jr. acknowledged it was a historic moment. He not only became one of the first people vaccinated by the city’s Health Department, but — as Black man — he said he was showing people that it is safe.

“These are unprecedented times and the fire department has literally been the tip of the spear in fighting this virus,” Alston said. “This is the best possible tool we have to fight this and the only way that it works is if everyone gets vaccinated.”

As the campaign to immunize health care workers and first responders spreads from hospitals and nursing homes into cities and towns across Connecticut, the New Haven Department of Health Monday became one of the first local health departments to start vaccinations.

Under what is known as phase 1A of the rollout, the available vaccine will go to the 360 members of the fire department, all of whom are first responders, select police officers as well as health care professionals. But New Haven Health Director Maritza Bond said her department is already planning future clinics all over the city as the availability of the vaccine widens and more people become eligible.

“This is a historic moment to have a safe vaccine within a year,” Bond said. “I promise that we will do everything we can to make sure the vaccine is accessible to everyone.”

A total of 36,276 people have been vaccinated so far, Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday. DPH officials have estimated there are about 300,000 health care workers and first responders who will have the opportunity to be vaccinated in the next few weeks.

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, who attended the New Haven event and another at the Bloomfield/West Hartford health district earlier in the day, said it will be “a massive logistical effort” to get to everyone who wants to be vaccinated. She said state officials hope to finish the 1A category by the end of January and be ready to begin the next phase in February.

But as of last week only 21 health districts had received shipments of the Moderna vaccine. New Haven got 1,000 doses while smaller health district such as the Pomperaug Health District got 300 doses. Since then several other health districts or departments have asked to start receiving the vaccine this week, including Hartford.

The local districts will be getting the Moderna vaccine because it is easier to store. The Pfizer vaccine requires special freezers that only some hospitals have purchased.

There are some 70 health districts across the state, including some covering wide geographic areas and others based in larger cities that would be eligible to receive the vaccine. Two of the state’s largest cities — Bridgeport and Waterbury — are not among the ones that have requested the vaccine.

Several local health directors said state Department of Public Health officials have warned them the vaccine supply is limited and that they should be placing potential candidates from the 1A category into three levels — highest risk, medium risk and low risk, and vaccinate accordingly. The DPH defines highest risk candidates as health care workers who directly work with COVID-19 patients or who have close contact with people who cannot wear masks.

One of the concerns of state officials is how many people will agree to get the vaccine, particularly among communities of color often skeptical of government health programs.

In New Haven, Alston said that initially only about half the department’s 360 member said they were definitely getting the vaccine. The health department did a Webinar with the entire department last week to answer questions people had about the vaccine and Alston said he is hopeful that will lead to more members getting vaccinated.

“We need to get vaccinated as quickly as possible not only to protect the people we serve but also our own families,” Alston said.

Alston also said it is important that he show people that believes in the vaccine to set an example.

“As an African-American I understand there’s some history with vaccines, but it’s important that research of this vaccine has been done by experts internationally and that it is safe,” he said.

Several health directors said before they do any clinics, they need to get used to using the new vaccine tracking system designed by the federal government called the Vaccine Administration Management System or VAMS.

In order to schedule a vaccine, a group or a person must register through VAMS, which will then direct them to an agency to schedule their vaccinations.

“For me it is going to be critical that health care providers understand that when they are eligible for the vaccine they need to register in VAMS and upload their roster of who will be vaccinated,” Bond said. “We need to increase messaging so local health care providers who have direct care with patients really understand they need to register.”

Registration will be even more critical when the state moves to vaccinate everyone in phase 2, a much larger group ranging from grocery store workers to police officers to corrections officers and possibly inmates.