State residents were surprised by Gov. Ned Lamont’s announcement this week that Connecticut was changing course on its vaccine distribution plans. Instead of essential workers and those with underlying health conditions going next in line, the state will move to a strictly age-based vaccine rollout. 

Some essential workers, such as grocery store employees, have told The Mirror that they’re “disgusted” by their removal from the front of the line. And Ron Petronella, of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 371 in Westport told WSHU, “It’s upsetting to us that the stores are busier now than ever, and the infection can spread more easily there, I think, than in the classroom.”

That’s in reference to the only exception being made to the age-based rollout, for school teachers and childcare workers, who’ll be able to get vaccines at clinics set up specially for them.

Lamont said this plan keeps it simple. “Look, we are not blazing a new trail. We looked over at Europe and we’ve seen a great deal of success there. The healthcare professionals gave me a great deal of confidence that we are still prioritizing those most at risk so I think it’s the right way to go,” Lamont said.

The change, as we have documented, means fewer people of color and those at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 will be eligible for shots in the next round. Equity advocates, like Tekisha Everette, executive director of Health Equity Solutions, and a member of the state vaccine allocation subcommittee, tells us she’s “wary” of the age-based approach, and disappointed that her recommendations weren’t heeded. She also said she didn’t even learn of the change until moments before it became public.

Another group that was upset by the change is the disability rights community. Many states have prioritized people with underlying health conditions

This episode, we also talk with Kathy Flaherty, executive director of Connecticut Legal Rights Project. She told The Mirror that the new plan was “heartbreaking” for people who “have been left behind.”

Transcript: Tekisha Dwan Everette

Tekisha Everette 2:05
Well, I’m really excited that they decided to take another course that the governor has gone a different direction. That’s been that’s very exciting to me a little disappointed that we’re still focused on age, but I do understand the clarity, focusing on age brackets will bring to who’s eligible and when. So the level of information that has been shared is really exciting. And it’s also exciting to hear that there’s going to be a focus on equity. I think for me, the devils in the details on that I’m looking forward to hearing more information about how they’re going to execute that.

John Dankosky 2:38
Yeah, so what have you been told about that this idea of a focus on equity, it seems to, in some ways, run counter to what they’ve decided to do from everything that we’ve reported here at the Mirror and everything we’ve looked at in terms of statistics around this. If you go by a strict age based vaccination rollout, you are, by its very nature, doing it inequitably, you’re going to not reach as many people of color, for instance, as you would if you do that in a different way.

Tekisha Everette 3:08
Yeah, I think this is what I’m really interested in getting some more details and things unpacked, for example, I know it was reported yesterday that I think it was 73% of those 75 and older have been vaccinated. I’m interested to know who’s left out in the 27%. What do they look like and Where do they live? But ultimately, from my perspective, this is the opposite direction of what I would have what I have recommended and what I would have gone with, personally, I would have looked at community spread, and started where we know that vaccines started, where we know that the viruses hit people the most, and where the deaths have occurred, and then vaccinated everybody within those areas and then spread outwardly. To me that would have been the equitable way to go. But here we are, at least we made one pivot in one change. And we’ll see how equity stands up when we go to age. I also have to say I do appreciate that the age was dropped lower to 55. Because one of the things that the data showed us here in Connecticut specifically is that Black and LatinX, individuals were dying at younger ages. But again, I’m still wary about an age based approach.

John Dankosky 4:16
You said originally, when we started that you were excited, though. I mean, what what is exciting about this, because it sounds to me from everything else, you’re saying that it is kind of the opposite of what you would have recommended.

Tekisha Everette 4:29
Well, the exciting part is that that sometimes it takes governors and government a lot to change. Right. And so the exciting part is this is a moment where something wasn’t working and a decision was made to go a different direction. What is not exciting about it is the allocation subcommittee had no no decision making no involvement in this and that it is not going in my opinion and equity approach first. So let’s be very clear about what I’m saying. The fact that That in the mid course, a course correction was made -good, because oftentimes we just keep staying the course, even though we know it’s not the right way to go. Was the path that was chosen the best path? Not so much.

John Dankosky 5:15
The allocation subcommittee which you are a member of was it informed at all about this in advance?

Tekisha Everette 5:22
Moments before the press release came out, we did receive an email from Commissioner Gifford explaining the governor was unveiling a plan and giving some high level information about it, just moments beforehand. And I think the challenge with that I do believe the chairs were informed, the members were not, and what I would have loved a bigger heads up, because as you can imagine, the phone started ringing and I had no idea no context. So I’m still looking for more information to understand better, how are we rolling out this equity part of it? deeper distribution into the communities that have been disenfranchised in this process already, but not having the vaccine? What does that mean? And how are we holding people accountable? That’s the information I’m looking forward forward to now, I think I’ve already been on the record and said, an age based approach is not exciting to me. So I just want to see like, how is this gonna work? And I’m still gonna voice my concerns.

John Dankosky 6:16
Could you explain a little bit about how the allocation subcommittee was utilized in the roll up to this? Did you have regular meetings? Did you feel as though you were a part of the process of how decisions, this one or any others, got made?

Tekisha Everette 6:32
I think one of the things I would say is to recognize, at least for me, I recognized we were advisors, so advisors in this particular instance, and in many instances are not decision makers. So we were given questions to respond to and information to share. And we thought about those things very deeply. And very collegially, I think we had a very good group discussion on everything, making tough decisions, with sometimes not enough data, to support the decision we needed to make. I felt like we did a wonderful job of working through some of those tough things and battling different opinions, different ideas, different strategies, different approaches, all of those things. I am not always certain that our best ideas were heard. We were not, for example, we said lower the age for one, phase 1B, which we were heard, but we didn’t say tier within that lowering. And we never really got to the point of really executing the question, how exactly should we approach this? So now that we all agree that we think lowering the age and adding a comorbidity to this is the right strategy to go? And sidebar? So did ACAP, right, as like, as we were making this decision agreed as well, we never got a chance to really talk about how to do that.

John Dankosky 7:51
The the notion that teachers are going to be part of this next rollout, but as part of a, from what I understand, somewhat separate phase, where they’re going to have their own vaccination clinics, essentially, for teachers. What it means is, is that an awful lot of of teachers will get vaccinated, that’s a good thing. It means that hopefully, more kids will get back into school. That’s a good thing. The administration seems to be casting that decision, though, as one of its ways that it is approaching the question of equity. Right? So many kids, especially children of color, in urban school districts, are the ones really suffering by not having regular school, we get the teachers vaccinated first, that helps to address a piece of equity. Does Does that sound right to you?

Tekisha Everette 8:45
Well, there’s no question that our children who are Black, Latinx, Native American are falling behind during this pandemic. And they there was already a huge educational gap before and it’s just deepening and worsening. So from a perspective of this pandemic is not treating everyone equally, I think it makes a lot of sense to try to work thoughtfully and methodically to get our children back into school, and to get them back, get them caught up and back on track. I am not so certain that having another tiered system within our vaccine system is the right way to go. I’m curious to see how that executes. Because is there learning there that we can have for everybody to be able to get the vaccine easily, more easily and readily? So I argue it is one way to address a version of equity, educational equity, but it’s not getting us all the way there and the health equity side. Now, I do want to add that I applaud the decision to simultaneously do childcare workers. Because I think as we’re opening schools and getting students back in the schools and teachers back in the schools, we have to recognize that people still have to do something with children during non-school hours and what does that look like and we’re having struggles there. So, yeah, to me, it answers the question about the educational challenges that we’re facing during the pandemic. But I’m still concerned and looking forward to see how does this all shakes out.

John Dankosky 10:12
What would you like to see as far as data that supports decisions like this being made by the state

Tekisha Everette 10:20
Yeah, well, for six years, I’ve been arguing that we do not have and have not collected race, ethnic language data collection in the correct way in Connecticut. So what I want to see is more detailed, better information. And I want us to either acknowledge that we do not have it and make a plan to get it while simultaneously putting into place metrics, that’ll help us get more information with it. We know that a lot of providers aren’t collecting the data in a structured and systematic way. And I’m concerned that even with this notion of trying to build in equity, that we won’t have the data to support it. What I’m looking for generally, is: give me the vaccine information broken down by race and age, give me the zip code information. Because we do know, at least in Connecticut, it doesn’t work everywhere, but at least in Connecticut, if we’re looking at zip code, data and the number of vaccines and who’s getting there, we’ll have a rough approximation of how we’re doing from an equity perspective, which, which is what the kudos to the press who actually pointed out that our more suburban wealthy cities and towns were getting vaccinated at higher rates than our more urban and lower income ones. And so that’s a proxy but still not getting us the race and data. So I want to see race, ethnic data broken down to the best that we have it, I want to see zip code data to the best that we have it. And I want to see that this aggregated. So we’re not just getting aggregated numbers. Mentioning before 73% of those 75 and over is a really great metric on aggregate. Let’s break down: Who are those people?

John Dankosky 11:53
Your organization got a contract with the state to help get the word out about this, maybe you can describe first of all exactly what Work Health Equity solutions is doing for the state of Connecticut right now.

Tekisha Everette 12:08
And this is a really big surprise for us. And this goes to the you ask the question enough, maybe you have to be the solution. It’s baked into our name. And so we were very concerned that we were going to hold off as a state in explaining and addressing vaccine hesitancy until people were ready and able to get the vaccine. And notably, that’s too late. We need to address myths that are happening right now and have conversations about people’s concerns right now. So we partnered with Premier Consulting, which is a consulting group in New Haven based on faith based networks and strategies to really address going through churches in the Black and LatinX community to really talk to people about their myths. And we’re working with the school systems as well working with their family engagement. And, and the faculty and staff. So talking on both sides of this to address any questions and concerns people have about the vaccine. Our approach is simple. We’re not here to convince you to get the vaccine, we’re here to make sure you have the information that you need at your fingertips to make the right decision for you and your family and your community.

John Dankosky 13:16
From what I understand the contract with the state is about $200,000. Do I have that right in the ballpark?

Tekisha Everette 13:23
That’s correct.

John Dankosky 13:24
Um, you’ve been very candid with me and with others in the press over the course of the last couple days about this. But I need to ask, has the fact that you have a contract with the state changed anything about the way you talk about this? Think about this, work at this?

Tekisha Everette 13:42
That is an excellent question, John. And I appreciate it. Let me be very clear. My commitment has always and will continue to be health equity. We are doing this work because we believe people need to get the information that’s necessary to make the right choice. And my criticism, critique, constructive or otherwise is not shifted or changed as it relates to what the state is doing. I stand ready to continually be a partner and an advocate for what’s right. For the Black, LatinX, Native American Asian individuals who live within our state period. That’s it any racialized minoritized group in our state is who I support and stand up for this hasn’t changed. What I can appreciate, from my perspective, is that knowing that I am that that loud of an advocate and that I will provide that critique, they understood they still needed a strategy to address hesitancy and decided that we were the right group to work with them on doing this.

John Dankosky 14:35
How big a gap is that vaccine hesitancy gap, right, if you’re trying to to deal with this specifically in the minority communities that you’ve just outlined? How big is the gap that you need to close?

Tekisha Everette 14:48
Well, the thing is this we don’t really know right now whether the folks that are not getting the vaccine said differently. We don’t know if Black and LatinX individuals are not getting the vaccine right now because That hesitancy or because they don’t have access. So first and foremost, we need to correct the access work at the same time. But we need to make sure that if people have questions that they’re getting the right information, the myths travel faster than the truth. And so from our perspective, we’re trying to bring trust brokers who can talk to communities, answer their questions, honestly and transparently so that they have the right decision from from what we’ve done already. What we’re hearing already is that we’re changing minds, because people now feel like they have the information. Changing minds, whether they are going to get the vaccine or whether they feel informed, because that’s our metric. What did you know, before you came into this educational session? would be you know, now? And did you change your mind? We don’t ask the are you getting the vaccine or not? Did it change your life, and we are seeing a change in people’s minds and their hearts, we just need to make sure that if that change is to get the vaccine that is there for them?

John Dankosky 15:56
A last thing for you. And this is kind of a difficult question even to phrase but I think it’s important. The governor made mention of the fact that it’s it’s really hard to figure out who to give the vaccines to next, especially if you’re going to prioritize based on job title or based on some sort of pre-existing condition. It was difficult, and that’s one of the reasons why this this change was made. Do you believe that one of the reasons it was hard, was because of that very vaccine hesitancy that you’re trying to address that there was a concern at the state level, that by prioritizing groups that might not want to take the vaccine as readily that it was making it more difficult? That’s one of the reasons why they decided to go to a different model.

Tekisha Everette 16:45
I simply asked where’s the evidence to support that? And there are people in other states who are people of color who are readily standing in line, trying to get the vaccine, knocking down doors. My is a 76-year-old African American woman in Virginia, called every single day until she got an appointment. I don’t know that we have the evidence to support that hesitancy is a challenge yet we know, we know it’s real, and we know it exists. And we know we need to address it. Right now what we’re hearing are the challenges are the access the process? Is the problem. Not really being clear. Who is eligible is the problem. Can you do you have internet to be able to get on to VAMS to really sign up? And then do you have the cellular talk? Do you have the time, the cellular minutes or the phone to actually get on a line and wait for 20 minutes to get an appointment? These are the things that we’re hearing on the problem. I think on some level, there is…I think we need to have a little bit of a better imagination on how our systems are built and already create challenges within within them to get to the next scene before we start saying a victim, not victim but blaming the people, if you will, kind of mode of saying that’s what makes it a challenge.

John Dankosky 18:03
Do you think that this this allocation subcommittee or this larger committee that you’re a part of is this going to continue? Are you going to continue as a part of this group?

Tekisha Everette 18:11
I don’t know if the allocation subcommittee is going to continue. And the reason I say that is this is a major enactment and a big decision that the governor made. And so if this is the path going forward, there may not be anything else for the allocation committee to do. I think members of the subcommittee can stand up and make their voices heard either through the press or to the governor. And we’ll see where that goes from there. The larger advisory group, I’m guessing that it will stay around and from my perspective, and one of not the only voice but I’m one of few voices who are standing up loudly speaking for the people of color in Connecticut. And so I’m planning to stick with this process until it’s no longer process and use every option available to me to make sure that I’m elevating the voices of people who are who are often left out of the conversation.

Transcript: Kathy Flaherty

Kathy Flaherty 19:36
I’ve made it very clear, I am disappointed – profoundly. I think especially when so many of us who are high risk and I count myself among the US because I am, you know, I do have several of the underlying health conditions that were on the CDC list. And we really thought Monday afternoon we were going to be getting an announcement. That expanded coverage to people who are 16 to 64, who are high risk, and to those frontline essential workers in all different industries. And instead, about three o’clock in the afternoon, I started getting calls from reporters saying the governor came out with his his new list, and it’s strictly age-based. And then I read his press release. And he’s like, it’s complicated, and it’s hard. And we decided that we were going to keep it simple and easy. So we’re just going to keep doing it by age. So, frustrated, especially considering that you’re just going to be reinforcing and exacerbating the existing health disparities, because you’re doing people who are older, which means they’re the people who had the privilege to live longer, which people don’t when you know, when they’re people who are Black or brown, indigenous, Asian, disabled, we don’t have the life expectancy, so we’re dying earlier anyway. And then you do this strictly based on age. Um, I just feel like they wanted to be able to go on these national news shows, and say, hey, look, we’re fast, we’re top of the list or top of the chart, keep giving us more vaccines, which, if that’s the way the federal government is doing it great, because maybe we do keep getting more. But you’re also leaving us behind. And I’ve written about that, too. It’s like just the fact that disabled people have been left behind since the beginning of the pandemic, I just feel like this was a slap in the face and a kick in the teeth.

John Dankosky 21:42
If If, however, the federal government is distributing, distributing based on efficiency, if they’re giving it out to the states that are the quickest at administering the most doses to the most people. And the state has made the calculation that doing it by age is going to get that done. You can you can see the reason why they might do that.

Kathy Flaherty 22:04
I can I mean, and that’s I think the thing that’s frustrating, I do get it, you know, the logistics of all of this are a mess, and difficult and complicated. And I recognize I only have to deal with any issue I deal with, with my tiny part of the world, and my clients and my communities that I’m connected to. And I don’t have to look at the whole big picture, they may actually end up being right, in which case, I will be right in line applauding them at that point. But until I see that that actually plays out that way. I’m confused.

John Dankosky 22:39
Could you walk me through some of the other challenges that folks in the disability community have, when it comes to accessing vaccines, even under a situation in which they are next in line?

Kathy Flaherty 22:50
I think there are lots of different challenges. And it all depends, and a lot of it is very individual specific, which I think makes it that much more challenging and that much more expensive. But one, we might not drive. So we won’t be able to go to a drive thru. Or we we’d have to get a ride. We don’t have access to computers, or we don’t know how to use all their clunky administration systems. And yes, they’ve changed it and make phones more available and things like that. But you know, I have friends who are deaf, who’ve gone to get their vaccines, and they don’t have ASL translators there. And it’s like, the communication is a real issue once you’re there. And you know, some people live in congregate facilities. One of the more distressing things that I’ve heard is that for the community congregate care facilities, if the facility operators were on top of things, when they announced the congregate settings could get vaccinated, their folks got access to the vaccine. But now that it’s gone strictly age-based, if that program operator didn’t do that, there are folks who are out of luck, even though they’re in a congregate facility. And that is incredibly problematic, and are there going to be any outcomes or accountability for that? So, you know, it’s the lack of transportation, it’s the lack of communication, access. And you know, for a lot of folks, I think they have been isolating and staying at home this whole time to stay safe. And if you actually look at the reopening plan, the reopening plan in stage three had high risk people still staying at home. I just feel as if this state was saying it’s okay for us to create a world in which we leave high risk people behind. And it is felt like that for a lot of us for a long for the entire length of this pandemic and to have this happen a year in. I guess in some ways we shouldn’t be surprised. But I expected better And like, like you said, Maybe this will end up working. I just don’t know

John Dankosky 25:06
What’s interesting is, with this change. Taking what you said very seriously about a feeling that high risk people are being left behind. There is a view that if you are able to get the most number of people vaccinated the most quickly, it provides the closest thing we’ll have to a full vaccination, a type of herd immunity that many people, many epidemiologists have been looking for, for quite some time that then makes it easier for people to enter back into society. You know, the, the idea is, is that it’s, as the governor says, it’s hard to get to people with different health classifications, but we just get enough people done, then those people with health classifications can reenter society, because everyone’s a little bit safer.

Kathy Flaherty 25:58
Yeah, I’ve read that. And I think I’ve also read the studies that show the way the virus mutates and people who are immunocompromised, which I think showed some issues with the way the CDC list was because it only included people who are immunocompromised because of the solid organ transplant, not all the other ways that people are immunocompromised. And the fact that the virus mutates so fast in people with that, if they get it should scare all of us. And so I it’s an impossible…I’m glad I’m not governor. So I mean, I feel in in some ways, and you know, I think it would be a fair criticism from his part to say, like, I’m out in the peanut gallery, you know, throwing rocks or something. But unfortunately, it’s been a pattern of a lot of different things during this whole pandemic, that this just seems to have reinforced. And if we hadn’t had 11 months of, you know, Disability Advocates reaching out to the Department of Public Health to do statewide guidance on health care rationing, and being rebuffed. If it hadn’t been the fact that CLRP had to sue the state, to address COVID in DHMAS facilities that the ACLU had to sue to address COVID in DOC, if we didn’t have to do this over and over and over again, might have had a very different perspective and been more willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt.

John Dankosky 27:25
What would you like to see happen next?

Kathy Flaherty 27:30
I would like to see Connecticut get a whole lot of vaccine, you know, if they’re if the claim is that doing this efficiently gets us extra doses, and that they get it, that they that that actually happens, and that they really, really make those efforts towards equity in terms of getting things done for the for communities that are high risk, and the essential workers. But I think the other thing I’d like to see, although I don’t know is you know, because I’ve had friends and my closest group of three friends, two of us are high risk, one of us is not in the one of us who’s not is a little bit older, so she’s eligible for a vaccine now. And she’s like, you guys should be getting it before me, I think I’ll wait to the Fall. And we both told her “No, like you can get it and you’re not getting it is not going to help us.” Um, so I don’t want to say to people, like if you can keep staying home, like don’t sign up, because then they won’t move through the group, and then they’ll never get to us because they’ll say, Oh, we need to wait some more, give them a chance to get it. So I just think we’re all stuck. I think I’d like to see people make better choices. And you know, not go out to restaurants. And you know, I read an article about some one of the doctors talking about, you know, he feels better and he thinks that he’ll be he’ll feel comfortable, you know, meeting other friends who are vaccinated indoors, and I’m like, “Yay, for you, who got vaccinated. I get…I’m happy for you.” You know, I know my mother will feel comfortable and a lot more safe now, once she gets fully vaccinated because she gets her second dose next week. And I don’t begrudge anybody that except maybe a little. But I would just urge people to think about how this state may have failed a lot of us collectively. And you know, I know you have to celebrate the little wins because they don’t always come. But there are times when watching the endless parade of self congratulations gets really tired. But that’s I mean, in a way that’s kind of Connecticut. I feel like that’s what we do here.

John Dankosky 29:56
We are used to seeing that, aren’t we? Kathy, thank thank you so much for spending some time with me. I, I promised I’d take just a couple of your, a couple of your minutes and and I did, um, I’m talking with to Tekisha Everette from health equity later on today, she’s, you know, on the that advisory panel, and I think she’s similarly unhappy about how this is working for, you know, some of the essential workers because they think that the, the notion was that the equity piece that we’re going to bake into all this was if we can, you know, get some of these essential workers done, that’ll mean, a way for us to vaccinate more people of color, and we’ve seen to turn that around too.

Kathy Flaherty 30:42
Yeah, I think the thing that’s hard with all of that is that, you know, there’s a claim of wanting to be more equitable, whether it’s racial equity, you very rarely hear about disability equity, which is a whole separate conversation. Um, but that they flipped that. I mean, honestly, even with the teachers, the fact that if especially if they do the teachers, and not all the other staff in the school, teachers are overwhelmingly white. So it’s like you’re just baking in and reinforcing all the existing health disparities. And I just hope we can address it and I think, especially at this point, hearing them still using the excuse of the vaccine hesitancy is ringing a little hollow, because all I see is people who desperately want the vaccine and aren’t hesitant but can’t get access.

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John DankoskyEvent / Podcast Host

John is CT Mirror's Director of Events. A well-known and highly-regarded radio personality and moderator, he divides his time between CT Mirror — where he heads up our events program and serves as a multi-platform consultant — and the NPR / PRI program Science Friday. Previously, John was executive editor of the New England News Collaborative and the host of NEXT, a weekly program about New England. He also appeared weekly on The Wheelhouse, WNPR’s news roundtable program. His 25 years in public media also include serving as vice president of news for Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, host of WNPR’s Where We Live, and regular fill-in host for the PRI program Science Friday in New York. He was twice recognized by PRNDI as America’s best public radio call-in show.