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Conn. Mega And Mass COVID-19 Vaccine Sites Shut Down As Focus Shifts Toward Hyperlocal Efforts

Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Members of the public wait in line to be vaccinated at the Connecticut Convention Center Jan. 13, 2021, after the state began to open up registration to people 75 or older.

Just a few months ago, Hartford HealthCare was vaccinating as many as 1,600 people a day at its mega COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.

But only a couple of dozen people were scheduled to get doses Wednesday before the health provider shut down the site for good. 

“We knew this day would be coming, that we would not need these large sites to vaccinate folks,” said Dr. Jim Cardon, Hartford HealthCare’s chief clinical integration officer. “That doesn’t mean our work is done.”

It signified a milestone in the state’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic -- overall demand for the shots is in a steady decline, leading Hartford HealthCare and other health organizations throughout Connecticut to close some of their largest vaccination sites.

About 67% of Connecticut residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of June 24, according to federal data. It’s among the highest in the nation, but it still leaves many unprotected against the virus and mutations like the rapidly spreading delta variant.

Connecticut health providers say they’re now looking to bolster their mobile vans, homebound services and other community-based programs as they narrow in on specific cities, towns and neighborhoods that have lower vaccination rates.

“There are two things at play here,” said Dr. Tom Balcezak, chief clinical officer at Yale New Haven Health. “A certain population is hesitant, but there’s also a population that simply doesn’t have the technological feasibility or they’re homebound or are facing other barriers that make them unable to get access to a vaccine.”

In addition to the convention center, Hartford HealthCare closed its mega locations at Central High School in Bridgeport and Sacred Heart University in Fairfield on the last day in June.

Cardon said the organization will shift resources to its mobile van vaccine program and other smaller vaccine sites.

“A lot of them have been very targeted to a specific population, but what we’re trying to do is make them more public so people can just walk up to any place we have a mobile site going on,” Cardon said. “So that is also a work in progress to get that calendar built out so that it is more public.”

Credit Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
People drive up to receive COVID-19 vaccines at Community Health Center Inc.’s mass vaccination site at the former Pratt & Whitney airport in East Hartford on Jan. 25, 2021.

In nearby East Hartford, Community Health Center Inc. workers celebrated the closure of the mass vaccination drive-thru site on the former Pratt & Whitney airport runway late Wednesday afternoon. At its peak, the site was administering up to 2,400 doses a day.

“We’re now down to about 100 a day,” said spokeswoman Leslie Gianelli.

The center has also closed its other mass vaccination sites in Stamford, Danbury and Middletown. Gianelli said they will now target other types of venues.

“For months, we’ve been going to churches and schools, this summer we’re going to beaches, campgrounds and amusement parks,” she said, “so it’s really taking the vaccine into the community so it’s convenient for people and meeting them where they’re at.”

Balcezak said Yale had already dismantled all eight of its mass vaccination sites in June. Earlier in the year, he said, those locations were vaccinating more than 4,500 people a week, collectively, until demand dried up.

But people can still get vaccines at pop-up clinics and other smaller sites throughout the health organization.

“People need to know that it’s not that there isn’t vaccine, it’s just that demand doesn’t require [having] large mass sites anymore,” Balcezak added.

Valerie Massaro, a registered nurse at Hartford HealthCare, has worked the mega site at the convention center since it opened last December. On Wednesday morning, she began to pack away vaccine supplies and clear out individual stations as she thought about the future.

“I’ll see if they need any help with homebound or mobile or some smaller sites, you know, if I can do it,” she said.

Massaro saw the closure of the Hartford mega site as a good thing, because it means a lot of people overall are already vaccinated. But she worried about places like Hartford, where state data show less than half of all residents have gotten a shot.

“I live in Hartford, I work in Hartford, my husband has a family business -- it’s 102 years in Hartford,” she said, “so to hear that number, it’s very disheartening. You know, we got to find a way to reach those people.”

Health officials say going forward, they plan to get COVID-19 vaccines into primary care and pediatrician offices as they try to reach more of the state’s population, including children under 12 who may become eligible later this year.

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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