A long line awaits a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in a retail parking lot in Southwest Hartford. The clinic had 260 Johnson vaccines to administer. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org
Hartford residents line up for COVID-19 vaccinations on April 1, 2021, the first day of eligibility for anyone 16 or older. The pop-up clinic inoculated 260 people with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

The state recorded its lowest COVID positivity rate in months on Thursday, even as state officials acknowledged demand for vaccinations has slowed down, particularly among young people, and providers started slowly reintroducing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The state’s COVID-positive test rate Thursday was down to 1.34%, the lowest rate since early October, and hospitalizations are barely over 400, the lowest number since early March.

“You know I’m not a day trader, but this … is a four week trend. … Over the last couple of weeks, [the positivity rate] is down 50%,” Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday. “So I like to think that this is a trend that’s going to be with us for a long time … And again, the reason is the vaccines are working. ”

Lamont said that the state has administered about 1,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccines since the pause was lifted last weekend. The state’s Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe said about 500 doses were administered in the past day.

“So we’ll see,” Geballe said, adding, “We will let demand drive how that J&J continues to be rolled out.”

Geballe said a number of the smaller independent pharmacies have been offering J&J and that there has been a surge there.

“So we’re hopeful that we’ll continue to see strong demand for J&J going forward,” he said.

Small crowds at first J&J clinics

The first Johnson & Johnson-only vaccination clinics in the state since the federal government declared them safe for use drew relatively small crowds in Norwich and Vernon on Tuesday.

At a four-hour clinic at the Rose Senior Center in Norwich, 32 people were vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and 17 people canceled their appointments. The numbers were a little better in Vernon, where 46 people were vaccinated during a two-hour clinic at Rockville Town Hall — among them a group of migrant workers from a local apple farm.

“I wanted to try it to see what the response would be,” Uncas Health District Director Patrick McCormack said, referring to the Norwich clinic. “There has been a decline in demand at all clinics, so I wouldn’t say it was only because of the J&J.”

McCormack said he is considering using the rest of his Johnson & Johnson on vaccinating the homebound, where people are likely to be older than the group that has suffered blood clots after receiving the vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered a pause on using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because there have been 15 cases of rare blood clotting and low platelets among its shot recipients — almost all of them women between 18 and 49. Three have died and seven have been hospitalized, with four in intensive care.

Over the weekend, federal authorities reinstated the vaccine after studying the data and determining the risks were not that high compared to the need to get people vaccinated. The state Department of Public Health told vaccinators over the weekend to begin using some of the 136,000 doses of the vaccine warehoused in the state.

Court workers and apple pickers

Vernon Town Administrator and Emergency Services Director Michael Purcaro said he was happy to have vaccinated nearly 50 people Tuesday, given the clinic occurred on short notice with virtually no publicity.

“This was a pop-up, walk-up clinic with basically no publicity, so I think it is a strong indicator that people still want to be vaccinated,” Purcaro said.

The clinic took place outside of Rockville Town Hall, not far from the courthouse, bus routes and the town center, in hopes of drawing foot traffic. Purcaro said about a half-dozen workers from the Johnny Appleseed Farm in Ellington came to get vaccinated. The town had a Spanish-speaking nurse on duty to explain the process.

Purcaro said he will definitely be holding more no-appointment Johnson & Johnson clinics in the coming weeks because he still has about 150 doses of the vaccine to distribute.

“It’s upon the government to break down the barriers and get the vaccine to the people that need to be reached,” he said.

Hartford HealthCare officials announced this week that they will be doing a Johnson & Johnson-only clinic on Saturday at the Xfinity Center to gauge the public’s interest.

Chief Clinical Director Dr. James Cardon said hospitals in the system began using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in emergency rooms and in its program to vaccinate patients transitioning out of our acute care.

“We will hold our first J&J clinic this Saturday at the Xfinity Center, and we will see how that all goes,” Cardon said. “We’re all looking to see what the interest can be, and hopefully we’ll continue to see robust uptake of that vaccine.”

Supply over demand 

The J&J pause came just as the state’s vaccine rates started to slow down. More than 66% of the state’s residents have received at least one dose of vaccine. The state went over 3 million vaccinations on Thursday, and more than 1,870,000 first doses have now been administered.

State officials said vaccinators are ordering fewer doses because the demand is not as great as it was just a few weeks ago. Many mass vaccinations sites are now taking walkups rather than scheduling appointments.

“We are absolutely seeing a time where demand for those vaccine appointments is weakening somewhat, so there is plenty of availability, and which is a good problem to have,” Cardon said. “We anticipated we would be here and we recognize that we need to continue to remove any barriers to access.”

Cardon said Hartford HealthCare will be looking to “distribute its work force to be able to administer vaccines in more local target areas.”

“We absolutely need to make sure that access is not a barrier, and right now I think a big part of the work is there’s still room for us to provide easier access,” Cardon said. “We aren’t going to do that through the large mega sites where we can do thousands of shots a day day — down to where we’ll be in sites doing a few hundred at a time to make sure that we can make it readily available.”

Lamont said the state needs to focus on the youngest age group, people in the 16-44 age group, because the numbers have already started to plateau, even though only about 45% of that group has been vaccinated.

Lamont said there’s more work to do in that age group, especially when compared to people over 65, where “well over 80% are vaccinated.”

“So we’ve got to be extra aggressive in terms of incentives and making sure everybody in that age group gets vaccinated,” Lamont said.

Lamont listed incentives such as discount cards at local Stop & Shop and CVS stores and said that more than 160 restaurants are now signed up for the state’s “Drinks On Us” program. The governor said more than 200,000 people had visited the state’s website listing the participating restaurants.

Most hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated

The daily COVID numbers released Thursday showed four deaths after only one death was recorded on Monday’s numbers. Lamont said he is hoping that the lower death total is catching up with decreasing numbers of cases and hospitalizations.

Even as those numbers have slowly declined, the death totals have been consistent, with the state averaging 6-8 deaths a day.

“These unfortunate fatalities are still a stark reminder that the pandemic has not gone away and that we still have to be cautious and make sure we focus on our vaccination efforts,” Hartford HealthCare Executive Vice President Ajay Kumar said.

Kumar said almost all of their COVID patients now are unvaccinated and that the ages have changed slightly, particularly since the nursing homes deaths have almost been eliminated.

Hartford HealthCare still has more than 100 people with COVID in its hospital system, so “the virus is still here,” said Keith Grant, Hartford HealthCare’s senior system director for infection prevention, at a press conference Tuesday.

“The majority of individuals who were infected that are dying right now probably don’t fit into the same group that we saw before,” Grant said, referring to last spring, when the death of nursing home residents overwhelmed hospitals.

“But, regardless, individuals are still dying from this virus, and it is very important for us to focus, especially with this new mandate coming from the CDC.”

Grant is referring to the CDC’s recommendation on Tuesday that people who have been vaccinated no longer need to wear masks when they are outside or with people that they know who are vaccinated but should still wear them when among strangers.

Gov. Ned Lamont said that he will recommend Connecticut residents abide by the CDC edict but said residents should still wear masks inside at public places, particularly as the state prepared to reopen fully on May 19.

Grant said that he understands the science behind the CDC’s recommendation, and while he agrees with it people still need to be cautious. Grant said he recently attended the funeral of his 48-year-0ld cousin, who died of COVID-19.

“Be mindful, and if you’re symptomatic, definitely wear your mask, regardless of whatever the recommendation is,” Grant said. “Be aware of your surroundings, and be aware. If you have symptoms, especially if you have certain comorbidities, I would still recommend you consider wearing a mask as well.”

Variants discussed

On Thursday morning, Nathan Grubaugh, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, and Mark Adams, deputy director of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, gave a presentation to legislators about the COVID variants spreading in the state.

Grubaugh said the B.1.1.7 variant from Great Britain is now present in over 60% of COVID cases. He said the B.1.526 or New York variant is a distant second in terms of cases. He added that Connecticut has not seen any cases yet of new variants that have emerged in the outbreak in India.

Grubaugh’s lab and Jackson lab have been conducting genomic sequencing on virus samples since December and plan to keep doing so to monitor any possible new variants or spikes in some that are already here.

Grubaugh said the test samples are mostly limited to New Haven County and Hartford County because both Yale and Jackson labs are using samples from their own testing facilities. He added he’d like samples collected from a far wider area to get a better picture of the spread of the variants.

Grubaugh mentioned an on-going study at Yale New Haven Hospital, where they have sequenced over 1,100 cases of individuals who are not vaccinated and sequenced 40 cases of individuals that tested positive after getting vaccinated.

“The take-home message with this preliminary analysis is what we find in the vaccinated population, and these are mostly from either Moderna or Pfizer, matches what we find in the non-vaccinated individuals,” Grubaugh said. “We’re not seen enrichment of one thing that might suggest that this is leading to breakthrough. So this to me suggests that the vaccine breakthroughs are more likely to be caused by a host response, so not developing enough antibodies or not developing the right antibodies in response to the vaccine and not specifically due to any specific variants themselves.”

With the infection rate falling and hospitalizations dropping, Adams said the vaccine is winning the race against the variants in Connecticut.

“To sum up, it’s a real race, I think, between vaccines that are protective and variants that are either spreading more rapidly or have the potential to infect vaccinated people. The data right now show that, I think, with a declining case count in the state, that vaccination is winning out,” Adams said. “But it’s something that’s really important to keep an eye on going forward.”

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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