Cars line up at a 10-lane mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Rentschler Field. The site opened last week with a goal of vaccinating between 7,000 and 10,000 people per week. Cloe Poisson /
Cars line up at a 10-lane mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Rentschler Field. Cloe Poisson /

When Yale New Haven Hospital officials opened their first mass vaccination clinic at the Floyd Little Athletic Center, they thought they had found the perfect site – near the center of the city and accessible by multiple bus lines for the residents it hoped would come there.

But it didn’t take long for hospital officials to realize that while they were vaccinating lots of people at Floyd Little, few of them were from New Haven.

“We were very disturbed in the first two weeks of opening the Floyd Little site that it was predominantly white suburban people getting vaccinated,” Yale’s chief clinical officer, Dr. Thomas Balcezak, said.

Floyd Little wasn’t alone. Many mass vaccination clinics — established in cities to encourage minority residents to participate — instead were drawing more white suburban residents than anticipated.

Yale New Haven Hospital and Hartford HealthCare, two of the largest vaccinators in the state, have vaccinated the state’s most vulnerable residents at similar rates, according to data they shared with CT Mirror.

Yale had administered about 45,000 first doses to the general public as of March 3, and 82% of those went into the arms of white people, while only 6% went to African Americans and 4% to Hispanics.

For Hartford HealthCare, as of March 1, about 78% of their vaccines went to white people, 5% to Hispanics and 4% to African Americans.

Those percentages closely reflect the general population of the 65-and-older age group that was eligible at the time to get vaccinated. Census data show that about 84% of the state’s residents older than 65 are white, about 7% African American and 6.4% Hispanic.

But some of the mass vaccination sites, such as the Floyd Little site in New Haven and another Yale opened at Mitchell College in New London, were supposed to target the more vulnerable populations in the cities, where the demographics are different.

The largest mass vaccination site at Rentschler Field, operated by Community Health Center Inc., inoculated in quantity, not to targeted populations. For weeks, it was the only mass vaccination site where people were getting appointments if they called the state’s dedicated vaccine line, whether they lived near the East Hartford location or elsewhere in the state.

Community Health Center Vice President of Communication Leslie Gianelli said since most of the appointments at the Rentschler site are booked through the federal VAMS website and the state’s dedicated vaccine line, they have not been able to access ethnicity data and are in the process of creating a program to capture the data themselves.

Both Yale and Hartford HealthCare cautioned that their data is skewed because vaccine recipients aren’t required to disclose their race, and many don’t. About 15% of Hartford HealthCare’s first dose recipients didn’t disclose their race when they got vaccinated. At Yale, the non-disclosure rate was about 6%.

At the Floyd Little site, when Yale officials realized it was mostly suburbanites getting the vaccine appointments, they made changes to the system.

“We quickly changed our policies and practices for how we get people signed up at Floyd Little,” Balcezak said. “We are trying to be nimble and change to try to accommodate the people we need to reach.”

Yale made the clinic accessible only to people who live within certain ZIP codes in New Haven, a process that the state is now asking vaccinators to adopt statewide.

State officials recently sent a list of 50 or so ZIP codes that they have identified as qualifying for the CDC’s Socially Vulnerable Index to vaccinators and told them to concentrate on getting vaccines to those areas.

Dueling Bloomfield clinics

Both hospitals are now ramping up pop-up clinics focusing on working with church leaders in the minority communities.

Hartford Health did its first church clinic last weekend at the United Methodist Church in Hartford, vaccinating 55 people. On Friday, hospital officials came to the First Cathedral Church in Bloomfield, the same place where Gov. Ned Lamont made one of his last campaign stops before his election, to vaccinate another 80.

Many of them left First Cathedral to go to another event in Hartford with the Hispanic Health Council, where they announced a new pop-up clinic that will run every week. The first 100 people who signed up were getting vaccinated Friday.

People started lining the halls of First Cathedral about 20 minutes before the clinic opened, and William Rhoe was one of the first people in line. The 64-year-old Hartford man doesn’t have a computer and was wondering how he would get a vaccine when a friend of his wife’s told him to call First Cathedral because they were having a clinic.

“We were fortunate enough to have a friend call us,” Rhoe said as he sat for his 15-minute waiting period after getting his shot.

“I am too old to be nervous. I just wanted to get it done,” Rhoe said. “I’m relieved. It’s been a long year.”

Venita Goodwin decided to get her shot after seeing Gov. Ned Lamont get his at the church a few weeks earlier. She called First Cathedral the next day to ask if they were doing more clinics. They took her number and called last week to sign her up for Friday’s clinic.

Goodwin suffers from diabetes and has been careful not to go out much. She admitted she had concerns about the vaccines initially, but after seeing people get vaccinated without side effects, including the governor, she felt it was time.

“People are dropping like flies from this virus. I don’t want that to be me,” she said.

Get the shot

First Cathedral Pastor Michael Bailey said there’s no reason to fear the vaccine. He believes people are willing to get it if they have access to it. He pointed to the fact there were two clinics going on at his church to show there should be no excuses not to get the shot.

“We want to be a place of comfort, a place where you can come here, feel safe, feel happy, feel cared for,” Bailey said. “If the door is open, you have to walk right through it to be able to get whatever you need as far as getting the shot. Certain places you have to register — there’s also places you don’t necessarily need to register to get the shot.”

While Hartford HealthCare officials set up their clinic inside the First Cathedral Church, the staff from the Charter Oak Health Center and a few members of the Connecticut National Guard set up tents for nurses to prepare the vaccine. They set up a row of computers to register people and put out orange cones in the parking lot to mark lanes.

Charter Oak is one of four federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) that will be getting extra vaccine from the federal government under a new program. It is the third week they have run a vaccine clinic out of the church parking lot. They had used Bloomfield High School previously, but that is no longer available.

Charter Oak Communications Director T.J. Clarke said they expected to administer about 110 shots on Friday.

“We have been working with the mayor to set this up for Bloomfield residents,” Clarke said.

The FQHCs are seen as a vital part of reaching minority populations because many don’t have health care and use the facilities as their main medical provider.

“As the age limit has gotten lower, we have seen more people driving here, so we expect that it will continue to grow as the weather gets better and people more likely to have a car become eligible,” Clarke said.

Clear line of sight

In January and February, Hartford HealthCare was busy doing mobile vaccinations at six different homeless shelters in the Hartford and Windham areas. They are now turning to pop-up clinics to reach the socially vulnerable population.

Hartford HealthCare’s Chief Clinical Integration Officer Dr. James Cardon said they study their numbers to see “where we’re doing well, where we’re not doing so well and where we need to move to ensure that we’re not leaving anybody behind.”

Cardon acknowledged that racial and ethnicity numbers at the hospital’s mass vaccinations sites “were not good.” He said with all the systems people use to sign up for vaccines, it is easy for some to get lost and sometimes difficult for vaccinators to see the full picture.

“Nobody has the clear line of sight of the universe, except for potentially the state, in the end,” Cardon said. “We are continuing to parse in and look at the vaccine schedules to make sure that we’re reserving them for the populations we’re trying to target.”

Similar to Yale, Hartford HealthCare has started blocking off appointments by ZIP codes to make sure that, “unless you’re from a ZIP code the state has asked us to target,” you won’t be able to get appointments at certain sites, he said.

“You have to protect schedules somewhat and limit access to where they can schedule to make sure that you’re reserving spots for those that just aren’t savvy enough to figure out how to search the world and find myself a vaccine, or who may not have the technology to do that,” Cardon said.

At Gov. Ned Lamont’s press conference Thursday, state Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe said that the vaccine team has been meeting regularly with providers all around the state, talking about strategies to make sure people in those critical ZIP codes have access to vaccines.

“We’ve got a number of initiatives, dedicated call-in lines, outbound calling. Many of our providers are now reserving appointment slots to make sure people in those ZIP codes have better access to appointments. We have community workers out literally knocking on doors and more and more mobile clinics getting spun up everyday,” Geballe said.

“So we are working really hard at this, and we’re hopeful we will see improvements in those vaccination rates in the coming weeks.”

They are ready

On Dec. 28, New Haven Director of Public Health Maritza Bond stood before a small crowd to see the first Moderna vaccines administered to nurses and firefighters.

She recalled a conversation she had had that morning at the Fair Haven Community Center, where a woman had asked her in Spanish when the vaccine would be coming.

“It really reminded me of last March, when we were looking and scrounging to expand testing in the community, and we will vouch today that we will do everything together collectively to ensure the vaccines are available to the community, because they are ready.”

Since then, Bond has done 14 pop-up clinics all over the city, including one at the Bethel A.M.E. Church, where Yale officials did their first pop-up clinic Wednesday. Bond has paused her community pop-up clinics to comply with DPH orders to vaccinate teachers, other school staff and child care workers this month.

Griffin Hospital did its first mobile clinic on Jan. 21 at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Ansonia. They vaccinated 22 people that day, Griffin Hospital CEO Pat Charmel said.

The next day, they did a three-hour mobile clinic at a Derby Housing Authority complex and vaccinated 16 residents.

Since then, they’ve done at least 16 other mobile clinics all over the Naugatuck River valley and beyond, from a senior center in Beacon Falls, where 60 people were vaccinated on March 3, to senior housing complexes as far away as Wilton.

They have returned twice to several housing projects in Ansonia and Derby, two towns in the CDC’s SVI Index, and have clinics throughout March, including some as far away as Newtown.

Charmel said the hospital sent vaccination teams to senior housing facilities and churches even before they started getting vaccine to generate interest.

“Towns that are high on the SVI index usually have a significant number of low-income people who might have challenges with things like transportation to a mass vaccination site,” Charmel said.

They also met with church leaders from some of the African American churches in the area.

“As a hospital, we don’t have deep relationships in the community. Our relationship is more episodic — they visit someone at the hospital or use the emergency room, so we knew we needed help reaching the community,” Charmel said.

As they have returned to some housing authority complexes to vaccinate residents 65 and older, they have seen an increase in the number of people willing to get vaccinated, Charmel said.

“We need to meet these people where they are and let them know that they don’t have to come to us if they want to be vaccinated.”

Avatar photo

Dave AltimariInvestigative Reporter

Dave does in-depth investigative reporting for CT Mirror. His work focuses on government accountability including financial oversight, abuse of power, corruption, safety monitoring, and compliance with law. Before joining CT Mirror Altimari spent 23 years at the Hartford Courant breaking some of the state’s biggest, most impactful investigative stories.

Leave a comment