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'Balancing Act': Vaccine Committee Considers Next Steps

A Hartford HealthCare worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Health care workers receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Mon., Dec. 14, after a news conference at Hartford Hospital announcing the vaccine’s arrival in Connecticut earlier that morning. ";

Transportation workers, mail carriers, teachers, first responders, grocery store employees and others are positioned to be the next groups of people eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in Connecticut.

State officials said during a public meeting Tuesday that the state’s Phase 1B vaccination distribution could begin as early as this month and include up to 800,000 workers and residents. 

“Not too many more than that, because that allows us to have a somewhat manageable phase size,” said Benjamin Bechtolsheim, COVID-19 vaccination program director at the state Department of Public Health. “We think that that’s something that can be accomplished in roughly 10 weeks of a vaccine rollout.”

As of Monday, about 75,180 doses of vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have been administered to health care workers, hospital employees, long-term care residents and staff, and others in Phase 1A of distribution, according to the governor’s office.

Both vaccine types require a second dose given three to four weeks apart before a person is fully immunized against the coronavirus.

State officials hope to have a majority of this group completely vaccinated by the end of the month before moving into Phase 1B, but DPH acting Commissioner Deidre Gifford said timelines and schedules could change depending on how many of the eligible workers and residents choose to get the vaccine.

“We don’t know exactly what uptake is going to be in each one of these groups, but we are monitoring every single day how many doses are out on the street and how many doses are being administered and by whom,” she said. “As soon as we see appointment slots not filling, we will be able to begin planning and moving to the next phase.”

Members of the state COVID-19 vaccine advisory group’s allocation subcommittee, which met Tuesday afternoon, are consulting federal recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which indicate that residents 75 years and older and specific front-line essential workers should be next in line.

The subcommittee agreed to amend those recommendations specifically for Connecticut and move up health department inspectors, food service and food delivery workers, and wastewater and sanitation workers into Phase 1B.

There was also support for including uncompensated caretakers of elderly, disabled and other vulnerable residents in Phase 1B, as well as adding residents and staff of congregate living settings like prisons, inpatient mental health and substance use treatment facilities, halfway houses and reentry housing, group homes, homeless shelters and other places.

But Ray Sullivan, director of health at the Brookfield Health Department, said the committee needed to be mindful of how these changes could ultimately impact the vaccine schedule for others across the state.

“If we push more and more people into 1B, we only prolong the availability of vaccine to a larger number of people further down the line,” he said.

Based on the federal recommendations, other people further down the line in Phase 1C would include adults 65 years and older, and other essential workers like electricians, banking employees, civil engineers, restaurant workers, legal professionals and construction workers.

All residents aged 16 through 64 years old with at least one or more underlying medical conditions would also not be eligible for vaccines until Phase 1C, which is slated to begin sometime in mid-to-late spring.

It’s a broad population that contains residents who are more at risk of suffering severe COVID-19 illness and death. Tekisha Dwan Everette, executive director of Health Equity Solutions, suggested prioritizing some of these people in earlier vaccine phases, regardless of their profession.

“We are talking about people and access to the vaccine through the lens of utility or job function, and that is problematic because it reinforces our status quo and the structural racism that has led people to the positions they are working in or not working in,” she said.

Among the front-line essential workers being considered for Phase 1B vaccination in Connecticut, about 63% are non-Hispanic white, according to DPH data.

Hispanic and Latino residents make up significant portions of the transportation, manufacturing, and food and agriculture industries and would account for about a quarter of all eligible workers in Phase 1B.

However, Black residents are significantly underrepresented in these working groups at only 8%. And they are dying from COVID-19 at a higher age-adjusted rate than any other race and ethnicity, state data show.

“We can’t ignore this data if our ultimate goal is to prevent deaths, reach herd immunity,” said Dr. Reginald Eadie, CEO of Trinity Health of New England. “These are the people that are dying in Connecticut, so shame on us if we don’t consider this in that balancing act.”

But the subcommittee did not come to a consensus Tuesday on how the state could better implement racial equity into its upcoming phases of vaccine distribution.

No final decisions or recommendations for the state's 1B and 1C phases of vaccine distribution have been sent to Gov. Ned Lamont for approval. They are still in development.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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