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COVID Vaccination Opens To People Over 55, Educators

A Hartford HealthCare worker prepares a COVID-19 vaccine
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public

Starting Monday, everyone in Connecticut 55 and over can begin scheduling COVID-19 shots. That’s an expansion from the previous rules, which limited vaccinations to people over the age of 65, first responders and medical workers. Vaccination is also being opened up to educators and child care workers. The online scheduling tool opened up at midnight. Gov. Ned Lamont said at a Monday news conference, more than half a million additional people are now eligible for the shots.

“There’s an awful lot of 55-year-olds who were up at 12:01 in the morning, trying to get online,” he said. “I think for a lot of people it worked pretty well. A lot of people I am afraid you are going to have to be a little bit patient over the next week or so. But I guarantee you we are going to be able to get everyone vaccinated, I think within the period of time we have estimated.”

Lamont says most people over the age of 55 should be vaccinated over the next three weeks. 

His chief operating officer, Josh Geballe, said right now some residents have not been able to schedule their appointment until April, but the newly released doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine could change their place in line.

“If someone has an appointment in April and you like that apointment and want to keep it -- great,” he said. “I think the message is there are going to be a lot more appointments coming online in the next few days and weeks between now and March 22, so there will probably be an opportunity to improve your slot if you want to.”

The shots can be arranged online or over a telephone hotline, which state officials say is being staffed by some 300 people. The phone line was expected to be swamped for the next several days due to demand.

The number of doses coming into the state to serve the additional eligible population is a concern, but Lamont said the newly approved, single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine will help.

“When you get 30,000 doses of J and J, that equals two doses of Pfizer and Moderna,” he said. “So that is going to make a big difference. We will start getting those shots in the arm this week.”

That hopeful narrative was somewhat contradicted by a new directive to local health departments from the state Department of Public Health. 

A February letter from DPH directs local health directors to pause most clinics for the general public and focus instead on school faculty, staff and child care providers. Other residents should be directed to hospitals and pharmacies for vaccines, according to the letter. It makes an exception for clinics targeting “racial equity” issues. It also instructs districts to continue scheduling people in congregate settings and vulnerable senior populations.

“At the same time that the Governor announced that 55 and older are eligible, there are exceedingly limited opportunities for those individuals to find slots," said Jennifer Kertanis, director of health for the Farmington Valley Health District. “Our phones are ringing off the hook with eligible, age-appropriate candidates and we just cannot accommodate them at this time.”

“We were also told for those that have second appointments scheduled, existing appointments, that we were to keep those,” Kertanis said.

Kertanis said that has presented challenges as the district works to honor prior commitments while also incorporating a new pool of school faculty and staff.

“All of our clinics, really, are booked forward for at least a month. Because we have first dose appointments scheduled as well as slotting in anyone that needs a second dose,” Kertanis said.

Acting Commissioner of DPH Deidre Gifford countered that her agency did not direct local health departments to focus only on vaccinating teachers.

“It’s a little more of a blended message than that,” she said during a news conference. “And most of our local health departments are working with their school departments and child care providers and figuring out ways to do both.”

Kertanis said she’s hopeful vaccine supply will increase to meet demand. In the meantime, she’s added a Saturday vaccine clinic that is just for school faculty, staff and child care providers.

Meanwhile, the VA Connecticut Healthcare system has announced it’s now offering the COVID-19 vaccine to all enrolled veterans regardless of age.

“Due to a steady supply and strong interest from our veterans, we feel confident in dropping the age restrictions to offer vaccine to any enrolled veteran interested in receiving it,” said VA Connecticut director Al Montoya in a statement.

As of Feb. 28, the health care system said it had vaccinated approximately 17,000 enrolled patients through scheduled appointments and walk-in clinics.

This story has been updated.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.
Harriet Jones is Managing Editor for Connecticut Public Radio, overseeing the coverage of daily stories from our busy newsroom.
Matt Dwyer is an editor, reporter and midday host for Connecticut Public's news department. He produces local news during All Things Considered.

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