One of the smallest health districts in the state inoculated more than 300 teachers and school staff Wednesday, even as the state is trying to get the COVID-19 vaccine out to residents 75 and older first.
The plan to vaccinate teachers in the Pomperaug Health District, which was put into motion more than a week ago, comes just days after DPH Acting Commissioner Deidre Gifford issued a stinging memo warning vaccinators to adhere to the governor’s priorities and vaccinate the elderly first.
Gov. Ned Lamont reinforced the vaccine priority at a press conference earlier this week, making it clear that, with vaccine doses at a premium, he wants people 75 and older to be vaccinated first as the state rolls out Phase 1B.
Pomperaug Health District Director Neal Lustig said he had already filled the vaccination slots for Wednesday and had more teachers and staff scheduled for Thursday, but after hearing the state’s warnings, he restricted Thursday’s clinic to those 75 and older and will vaccinate 450 seniors from Oxford, Southbury and Woodbury, the three towns in the district.
“We had been working with our school districts for a couple of months, preparing and when the categories came out and teachers were in it we scheduled a clinic that filled up quickly,” Lustig said. “As we got more information from the state and it was made clear that they wanted seniors to go first, I contacted state health officials and was told to proceed.”
Lustig said he also is running a third clinic Saturday that will be for residents 75 and older. The 90 spots for that clinic were booked within hours after the health district announced it.
DPH spokeswoman Maura Fitzgerald issued a statement Wednesday that said state officials were aware of the clinic and did allow it to proceed.
“Some clinics were inadvertently [scheduled] for groups who were not yet prioritized for vaccination. With the understanding of the logistical challenges of taking down already scheduled clinics, coupled with our directive that no vaccines go to waste, we have allowed clinics and appointments scheduled for today and tomorrow to proceed,” Fitzgerald said Wednesday.
“However, we expect that all vaccinators with clinics or individual appointments for anyone who is not 75 and over or eligible under Phase 1a, scheduled beyond Thursday, have cancelled those and are now focused on vaccinating our vulnerable 75 and over population.”
The clinics highlight the challenges of distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to state residents in the order that state officials wish. There are reports that teachers in other towns also jumped the line, and others who weren’t supposed to be in Phase 1A got inoculated anyway.
The state moved into Phase 1B for vaccinations this week, a category that contains well over a million people — from the elderly to teachers to grocery store workers and prison inmates. During the first round of vaccinations — Phase 1A — nursing home residents and staff were vaccinated directly by CVS and Walgreens through a contract with the federal government; hospitals, for the most part, vaccinated their own staffs.
But now, during Phase 1B, the Department of Public Health is distributing the vaccines to the state’s regional health districts and health centers. Some of those doses have gone to others who weren’t supposed to receive them yet, including teachers in some districts that entered all of their employees into the VAMS system — the federal government’s online vaccine scheduling system — when they were supposed to enter only school nurses. As a result, some teachers got vaccinated.
The issue of people jumping the line came to a head over the weekend, when Gifford sent the two-page memo to all vaccinators, warning them to stick to the state’s plans.
“It has come to our attention that some providers have inappropriately contacted individuals affiliated with their organizations and offered them vaccinations out of turn,” Gifford wrote in the Jan. 17 memo obtained by the Connecticut Mirror.
“We have no indication that these vaccines were actually administered, but we want to be sure that this practice is discontinued. Any intentional violation in the allocation of this scarce resource risks damaging the credibility of the entire program and will not be tolerated by DPH.”
At Gov. Ned Lamont’s press conference on Tuesday, state officials made it clear that they want the elderly to get vaccinated first and went as far as announcing that if teachers have vaccine appointments scheduled starting Friday, they should cancel them.
The state’s Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe downplayed the teacher issue Tuesday, saying that it was only about a dozen school districts that had “skipped the line” out of more than 500 in the state, including private schools.
But Gifford’s memo makes it clear the state sees the problem as much larger than just a few teachers.
“Please ensure that only members of these groups are being scheduled for appointments going forward until further notice from DPH about opening appointments to other groups,” Gifford wrote. “We understand that in an endeavor this complex there will be misunderstandings, and some others in group 1b may have inadvertently or prematurely been scheduled for vaccination. Despite isolated incidences of these scheduling errors, please do not open your schedules to anyone beyond those described above.”
There have been issues with getting the older population properly signed up, which Gifford also addressed in her memo.
“There are many individuals 75 years and older across the state who have not yet been able to secure an appointment to receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” Gifford said. “It is our collective role as a healthcare system at this moment to conduct active outreach and create access for this population,” she said, before warning, “Conducting outreach and scheduling for individuals younger than 75+ and the Phase 1a population is at direct odds with this goal of ensuring access for individuals 75 years and older.”
State officials have not announced any penalties for people who skip the line or how they would deal with a hospital or health department that skirted the priorities. Lamont has said he expects most people to follow the rules, but as the state rolls out more mass vaccination sites, such as the one at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, tracking who is actually getting vaccinated will not be easy.
Gifford said it is up to the vaccinators to keep order.
“The Governor has directed DPH to implement an allocation strategy that focuses on the risk of severe disease and death, with an emphasis on health equity and health disparities,” Gifford said. “We know that you share those priorities with us, and we need your further cooperation to ensure a continued smooth vaccine program, and public confidence in the effort.”
Lamont said earlier this week he is prioritizing those 75 and older because they have been the most affected by COVID.
The governor said while that age group makes up only 8% of the state’s population, it has accounted for 70% of the state’s COVID deaths. Many of those people have been in long-term care facilities, which have been devastated by the virus.
State officials are hoping the death toll from the virus will slow significantly as more people are vaccinated.
At a press briefing Wednesday, officials with the Yale New Haven Health system said they had vaccinated 65% to 75% of their staff — more than 22,000 employees received their first dose and 3,000 had gotten a second dose — and have begun inoculating people 75 and older.
Tom Balcezak, the chief clinical officer, estimated that “a few hundred” seniors 75 and older had been vaccinated. With the supply on hand, the health system expects to have immunized 6,000 seniors by Sunday. He said they have followed the governor’s orders while downplaying whether some people have been skipping the line.
“As a society, I think we should try to adhere as best we can to the spirit of what the regulations are. But let’s not waste time in chasing down every single time this may not have gone right,” Balcezak said. “Instead, we really need to focus on the goal of getting everyone vaccinated as fast as possible. And if one or two went out of order, then so be it.”
CT Mirror staff reporter Jenna Carlesso contributed to this report.