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Hartford Partnerships To Boost COVID-19 Vaccine Efforts In Underserved Communities

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
CDC Foundation registered nurses Alison Howard and Jenni Eckstrom draw 0.5 milliliters of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the city of Hartford’s vaccine clinic for Hartford residents 75 years and over at Dunkin’ Donuts Park on Feb. 6, 2021.";s:

Connecticut has so far administered nearly half a million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to eligible residents and workers, but emerging data on the vaccine rollout in individual towns and cities indicate early signs of inequity.

It’s why local health providers, community advocates and leaders are working together to identify residents who are being missed, particularly people in underserved populations within larger cities. In Hartford, collaborators are undertaking more targeted approaches to vaccine education, messaging and accessibility. 

“Our communities assert to have real, honest and clear information about the vaccination distribution plans,” said Maria Lino, CEO of The Latino Way. “We are committed to drafting communications respecting culture, identities and languages.”

The Latino Way, a Hartford-based Hispanic marketing agency, is part of a larger collaboration among Wheeler Family Health and Wellness Center, the city of Hartford and United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut.

Nearly half of the state’s residents 75 years and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but in Hartford, which has a majority population of Black and Hispanic residents, state data show only 29% of seniors have gotten one.

Tina Loarte-Rodriguez, vice president of nursing at Wheeler Clinic, said the group is launching a new awareness campaign and boosting existing outreach and support services to get more vaccines into people’s arms.

She said that includes addressing trust issues with the health care system and vaccine hesitancy within the city’s Black and brown communities.

“And keep asking questions as to why they have those beliefs or what experience they’ve had in the past that created that hesitancy,” Loarte-Rodriguez said. “And then we try to process that information with them.”

Wheeler Clinic, as a federally qualified health center, has administered about 600 doses of COVID-19 vaccine at clinics in Bristol, Hartford and Waterbury.

The health provider serves a large population of low-income residents. Dr. Rebecca Eleck Bruce, Wheeler Clinic primary care medical director, said many of Wheeler’s patients have suffered disproportionately throughout the pandemic.

“Not only in COVID infections, morbidity and death rates,” she said, “but in COVID-related challenges. Our patients are seeing reduced hours, job loss and a lot of food insecurity.”

Loarte-Rodriguez said the goal is to create education and messaging in multiple languages that’s more relevant to city residents and their needs, not only related to the COVID-19 vaccine but also other social services and support they may need in housing, food and transportation.

Additional financial support could go a long way toward these efforts, advocates and providers said.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and a majority of his colleagues in the Senate early Friday morning approved a budget resolution that will likely fast-track President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan.

Later that afternoon in Hartford, Blumenthal said lawmakers moved to create an amendment that would set aside money specifically to grow COVID-19 vaccine education and awareness campaigns being carried out by community health workers.

“The reasons for this federal money is to enable other communities to have exactly this kind of cadre of people who can speak the languages of people in communities, look like them, know their fears and apprehensions, provide food and other services that gain their trust and credibility,” he said.

Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Dorothy Evans, 82, gets her first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine from University of Saint Joseph pharmacy intern Alfred Owusu during the city of Hartford’s Department of Health and Human Services clinic for Hartford residents 75 years and over at Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford, Connecticut, Sat., Feb. 6, 2021.

Liany Arroyo, director of Hartford’s health department, said the city will soon launch a research project to study vaccine hesitancy in local communities. It also opened a new COVID-19 vaccination clinic Saturday at Dunkin' Donuts Park where nearly 200 people got vaccinated.

“Our work in doing this was to ensure that those seniors who are at risk of being left behind are not being left behind,” she said.

The site’s main purpose is to provide vaccines to eligible residents of Hartford, and city officials said they plan to hold the clinic weekly every Saturday. Residents can sign up for an appointment through the city’s bilingual vaccine interest form.

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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