Volunteers go door-to-door Saturday to sign entire New Haven neighborhood up for COVID-19 vaccines

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Christopher Arnott, Hartford Courant
·5 min read
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Politicians, community organizers and hundreds of volunteers knocked on doors in New Haven’s Fair Haven neighborhood Saturday afternoon — not to get votes, as they usually do in these situations, but to get shots in arms.

A take-it-to-the-streets event called Vaccinate/Vacunate Fair Haven! mobilized in less than two weeks, with plans to knock on over 5,000 doors Saturday afternoon, urging residents to schedule appointments for COVID-19 vaccines. The scheduled shots will happen this week between Tuesday and Friday. Adding to the efficiency, transportation is provided and some shots be administered in homes.

More than 220 community members volunteered to hit the streets with registration forms and information packets.

“This is what equity looks like,” said Karen Dubois-Walton, president/CEO of the New Haven Housing Authority (who revealed last week that she was exploring running for mayor of New Haven). “We bring it to them.”

The gathering was a mix of community outreach, political demonstration and celebration. It helped raise awareness of the latest steps in a year-old public health crisis, spoke both favorably and unfavorably about state government and marked recent national victories in confronting the COVID crisis. Participants ranged from health care workers and immigration activists to artists, community organizers and politicians of all stripes.

“No pun intended, but this is a real shot in the arm for the community,” quipped Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who said the vaccination event capped a “great week” which included the inclusion of her pet child tax credit legislation in the just-passed COVID relief bill.

The main organizer of the effort, Kica Matos, is a well-known immigrant rights activist in the area who works at the Vera Institute of Justice and is a former deputy mayor of New Haven and the former executive director of New Haven’s oldest Latino advocacy group, JUNTA.

According to Matos, “Fair Haven was one of the areas that was hardest hit by the pandemic.” She said she approached Gov. Ned Lamont and Deidre Gifford, acting commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, for “waivers so we could get appointments for everyone in the neighborhood” and not just those in currently eligible groups, but her request was denied.

Prior to the door-knocking, a rally was held at 11 a.m. outside Fair Haven Community Health Care, with speeches by DeLauro, Dubois-Walton, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, U.S. Sen Richard Blumenthal, DeLauro, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith (who teaches at the Yale School of Medicine and serves on President Joe Biden’s White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force) and Fair Haven Community Health Care’s CEO Dr. Suzanne Lagarde, among others.

The speakers described Fair Haven as an underserved neighborhood which contains what Matos called “the largest undocumented population in our city.

Matsos was followed by DeLauro who said “the community of color is disproportionately discounted. We need to overcome the existing disparities.”

Blumenthal spoke after DeLauro, calling her “one of the great national justice fighters. We need justice now. The injustice is a shortage of vaccine information. That’s why going door to door is so important, offering the knowledge that this vaccine is safe and effective and free.”

The campaign’s volunteer coordinator, David Weinreb, said that volunteers would cover 70 blocks in the area. “If one of our neighbors decides not to vaccinate, it will not be for lack of access or information.”

Fair Haven Community Health Care’s Lagarde announced that “two weeks ago I called Kica and said ‘help us get the word out,’ and was awestruck by the results. She praised her staff and noted that this was the center’s 50th anniversary. “Everyone we sign up, we can guarantee them a vaccine within a week. We can offer them transportation. We are trying to remove all the barriers.”

Nunez-Smith, who is from Connecticut, called the afternoon “inspiring. I talk often of a grief gap in our communities, but I’m feeling optimistic. We are at a very very good moment in our country.”

Elicker noted that with efforts like Vaccinate/Vacunate Fair Haven! and COVID-era initiatives like pop-up sites to assist and house the homeless, “New Haven is making an impact on the national level.”

The volunteers were given a choice of T-shirts commemorating the movement: blue or purple ones with large letters saying “Vaccinate/ Fair Haven/ Vacunate” or white ones in a Mexica folk art style with images of horses, riders and hypodermics rushing to the rescue.

Abbie Storch and Armando Ghinaglia, a married couple who live in Fair Haven, were already wearing their shirts and excited to hit the streets, having heard about the event online.

As he prepared to join a group and walk several blocks to Wolcott Street to start knocking on doors, Blumenthal observed that the volunteers demonstrated “such diversity. It’s such an extraordinary combination of ethnic, racial, religious.”

Echoing Nunez-Smith, Dubois-Walton and others, Blumenthal saw Vaccinate/Vacunate Fair Haven! as “a model for how to do this. It is where the action is.”

Then Blumenthal, joined by Elicker, the new International Festival of Arts & Ideas director Shelley Quiala, volunteer group leader Caroline Scanlan and a few members of the media, found their way to Wolcott Street, about a quarter mile from the health center. Elicker and Blumenthal bantered casually as they strolled. “We should be registering them to vote,” the senator said.” “I’ve done this walk many a time,” said the mayor. Among their parting comments after a half hour or so of mutual door-knocking was Elicker saying to Blumenthal “Thank you for the stimulus,” and Bluementhal responding that the bill was a group effort.

They visited a few houses where nobody was home, then a 13-year-old boy whose parents were out, then some people playing with a dog in their driveway. “I know you,” a man said. “I see you guys on TV.” That man did not commit to a shot, but a woman heading to her car just down the street signed up for her shot. She was 54, and not eligible for a vaccine for a couple more weeks, but she’ll now be ready.

Christopher Arnott can be reached at carnott@courant.com.