Helena Niziolek, of Plainville, gets the second dose of COVID-19 vaccination at a vaccination site in New Britain run by Hartford Healthcare. The mass vaccination site that started at the end of February has about 500 visits per day on average. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Frank Cicarelli, 98, of New Britain, says bye to a staff as he and his daughter, Roseanne, behind the wheelchair, leave after getting the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine at the Liberty Square mass vaccination site. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

In early March, when New Britain was struggling to vaccinate a significant percentage of its 72,495 residents, Gov. Ned Lamont was among those who publicly noted the city’s shortcomings.

So Mayor Erin Stewart reached out to Hartford HealthCare in search of a creative solution.

“I was getting frustrated, because I kept hearing the governor talk about how New Britain is extremely low, and we’re not vaccinating our communities of color, and I’m standing here, like standing on top of the table waving, ‘Well, hello, you’re only given us 100 vaccines a week, how the hell do you expect me to vaccinate my community?’” Stewart said during a recent interview.

Stewart worked with Hartford HealthCare to open a mass vaccination clinic at One Liberty Square, which started out slowly but quickly tripled the number of doses it administered, Stewart said, causing nearby business owners to complain about the amount of traffic in the area.

“[It’s] a problem I’ll gladly solve,” she said.

The efforts in New Britain are a microcosm of what is happening across Connecticut and the rest of the country as state and federal officials struggle to vaccinate the most socially vulnerable people against COVID-19. The federal government is funneling millions of dollars to the state for outreach programs to address vaccine hesitancy and for mobile clinics that will make it easier to reach more of the population.

All of that is on display in New Britain this month, from public service advertisements in both Polish and Spanish, to the FEMA vaccine trailer that visited the city earlier this week, to new initiatives by Hartford HealthCare, which include offering vaccines to residents as they wait in line for free food at the local YMCA.

Progress has been slow but steady, Stewart and others said.

As of April 14, about 32% of New Britain’s residents had received at least one dose of vaccine. While that percentage has doubled since the beginning of March, the city still lags behind the state average.

“We’re making good progress, but we’ve got a lot more to do,” said James Cardon, chief clinical officer at Hartford HealthCare.

Cardon said it is going to be a “slog” to pivot away from mass vaccination clinics to smaller, targeted efforts where, on a good day, you may vaccinate 100 people or fewer at a pop-up clinic or other outreach effort.

“It’s all about continuing to try and remove the barriers, as we look to administer the vaccine to all the communities so nobody’s left behind,” Cardon said. “We’ve learned a lot about the importance of having community relationships to allow us to get access to those that normally experienced barriers to care and bring the vaccine to them.”

Liberty Square 

When Stewart first reached out to hospital officials, they told her the fastest way to pump more vaccine into the city was through a mass vaccination site.

Stewart was tasked with finding a good location, and after considering everything from a baseball stadium parking lot to Central Connecticut State University’s field house, she decided upon office space in Liberty Square that is owned by the Tomasso family, whose real estate, construction and property management company is based in New Britain.

“I was able to get Hartford HealthCare to agree to work out a deal with Billy for the Liberty Square location, and they had space that was available anyway, so it all worked out,” Stewart said.

“Billy” is William Tomasso, who served time in federal prison for bribing state officials in exchange for millions of dollars in state contracts. Tomasso oversaw the renovation of then-Gov. John Rowland’s Bantam cottage while his family’s business was getting some of those state contracts. Rowland eventually resigned and pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2004.

Both Stewart and Hartford HealthCare officials said the Tomasso family donated the office space for the clinic and haven’t been paid any federal or state funds.

Stewart said the city used about $60,000 from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant to help offset the cost of opening the mass vaccination clinic, which opened in early March on the first floor of One Liberty Square. Hospitals officials took empty office space designed for a medical practice and turned it into a clinic, using the examination rooms to vaccinate people and turning the front lobby into an observation area.

Through the first week in April, 13,340 vaccines had been administered at the Liberty Square clinic, about half of them to residents who live in areas identified by the state as underserved by the vaccine rollout, according to Hartford HealthCare.

One of them was Frank Cicarelli, an 82-year-old New Britain resident, who got his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Liberty Square. Cicarelli is in a wheelchair, and his daughter Roseanne had signed him up for the clinic and brought him there from his long-time home on Belmont Avenue in the city.

“I’ve been worried about finding him a place where he could get vaccinated, and this was great. We parked right out front, and they helped me wheel him right in to get his shot,” she said. “He doesn’t go a lot of places, but soon we’ll be able to visit him and not worry.”

A visitor heads to the observation area at the FEMA Mobile Vaccination Unit in New Britain, which visited the city this week. After federal health officials called for a pause of the use of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine, people at the site received Pfizer vaccine Tuesday morning. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
A visitor heads to the observation area at the FEMA Mobile Vaccination Unit in New Britain, which visited the city this week. After federal health officials called for a pause of the use of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine, people at the site received Pfizer vaccine Tuesday morning. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

The city has used more of its ELC funds to promote the mass vaccination clinic through a series of public service announcements and mailings.

“We’ve mailed home postcards to every residential address in town with the phone numbers and locations for all of the places that you can get access to the vaccine, including Liberty Square,” Stewart said. “We’ve run advertisements in local church bulletins and put advertisements in Polish in all of our Polish newspapers, and we have started airing radio commercials in Spanish.”

The mayor also reached out to prominent local officials such as Fire Chief Raul Ortiz, Paulette Fox, a prominent influential figure in the African American community in the city, and former Mayor Lucian Pawlak, who is well-known in the Polish community.

“We got them on camera to talk about why they got the vaccine and why it’s safe for others,” Stewart said. “But it’s two messages here for us as well. It’s one, here’s where you can register, but also why it’s safe and why you should get the vaccine, because that’s another problem that we had to overcome as well — people who are hesitant to get it.”

Creative solutions 

Hospital officials knew it would take much more than one mass vaccination clinic to get vaccine to the city’s minority populations, so they rolled out two additional initiatives.

The first was partnering with the local YMCA and Food Share to offer people a vaccine while they waited in line for their bi-weekly food distribution. The second, announced at the beginning of April, will offer the vaccine to every eligible patient who comes to the Hospital of Central Connecticut emergency room.

Food Share distributes food every other Wednesday at the local YMCA. On any given week, 150 people line up for whatever fruit and vegetables are being distributed. Now they also are able to get a vaccine through Hartford HealthCare’s pop-up clinic.

Hospital officials were surprised by the number of people who asked to either get the shot on the spot or signed up for one at Liberty Square on another date. This is a good example, Cardon said, of people taking advantage of getting the vaccine if it’s directly offered to them.

Helena Niziolek, of Plainville, gets the second dose of COVID-19 vaccination at the Liberty Square vaccination site in New Britain run by Hartford HealthCare. The mass vaccination site serves about 500 visitors per day. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

For Food Share officials, the COVID crisis has only exacerbated existing health care inequities, leading them to hope for an expansion of their partnership with the health system beyond vaccines.

“We know during COVID-19 that there are many more people who are struggling with both food insecurity and increasing health disparities,” said Katie Martin, executive director of GE Institute for hunger research and solutions at Connecticut Food Bank.

“This partnership is so critical because we’re increasing access to healthy food and increasing access to health care and particular vaccines,” Martin said. “Very often, we’re serving the same people as the hospital, and yet we don’t always partner, so this collaboration is so critical to break down barriers and to increase health equity.”

While the Food Share program will only reach a relatively small number of people, the plan to vaccinate emergency room patients could reach thousands every week across Hartford HealthCare’s nine emergency rooms.

Hartford HealthCare President Jeffrey Flaks, along with Stewart, announced the new initiative earlier this month outside the Hospital of Central Connecticut’s emergency room entrance.

“Today we are ensuring that every person who is in our emergency department will be assessed and considered for receiving the vaccine — if they’re clinically appropriate, and if they have not been vaccinated,” Flaks said. “This is another effort to ensure that no person can fall through the cracks [and] that we are protecting the health and well-being, and ensuring the maximum amount of access, to all people whose care we are entrusted with.”

Stewart said the emergency room program is another way to increase access to the vaccine in communities like New Britain.

“You have to think about getting creative. You have to bring the vaccine to where people are, meet people where they are and give them options, and that’s exactly what is going to be done here at the hospital in the emergency room,” Stewart said.

Anyone who comes to the emergency room will be offered the vaccine as they are being discharged. Hospital officials estimate about 2,000 people a week will get access to the vaccine through emergency room visits.

“I am hopeful, as much as we talk about vaccine hesitancy, that an awful lot of it remains access, and the more people are aware this opportunity is here, the more they will come in expecting it to be available. I think we’ll see greater uptake, which would be very, very reassuring,” Cardon said.

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.

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