When state officials unveiled the $33 million outreach program aimed at bringing COVID-19 vaccines to the state’s minority population, Gov. Ned Lamont likened the distinctive yellow vans to ice cream trucks that would soon be cruising through the neighborhoods.
But after a promising start, the program has hit a wall, and the number of doses administered from the vans has plunged by more than 50% in the past few weeks.
Last week, personnel from Griffin Health Care, which runs the program for the state, administered 1,032 doses, according to data provided by the state Department of Public Health. During the first week of April, 2,321 doses were dispensed through the vans.
Over the past two weeks, the CT Mirror has visited yellow van sites in Bristol, Griswold, East Hartford, Manchester, New Britain and New Haven and found that in the majority of those locations, the vans administered fewer than 20 doses over five- and six- hour shifts.
Many of these mobile clinics have little or no advertising, other than a listing on Griffin’s website. Several pastors and local health officials who have hosted the vans in their communities are registering complaints about how the program is being run.
The vaccine outreach effort, they said, is hampered by a lack of planning, a lack of communication between local officials and officials running the program, and little or no help getting the word out about the van, from either the state or Griffin.
The yellow van program is the centerpiece of the $33 million outreach program the state launched in late March using federal funding. The outreach program is designed to reach unvaccinated residents who live in areas identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “socially vulnerable.”
The state has identified 50 ZIP codes, most in cities and with minority populations, that fall under the social vulnerability index (SVI). Griffin is getting paid an unspecified amount by the state to run the mobile vaccination clinics, using the yellow vans or SUV’s, starting in late March. State officials have not said how much Griffin is being paid to run the mobile clinics.
‘Whatever it is, it’s not working’
But all the money and manpower dedicated to the yellow van program hasn’t saved it from hitting the same barriers as the state’s overall vaccine rollout, which has slowed considerably in the last few weeks.
For those in Connecticut’s hardest-to-reach communities, the outreach failure is particularly frustrating.
“I’m just trying to understand what the strategic plan is here because, whatever it is, it’s not working,” said Pastor Kelcy G.L. Steele of the Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, which is located on Dixwell Avenue in New Haven.
The distinctive yellow and blue vans have come to Varick the last two Monday nights, which is when the church hosts a soup kitchen. The goal was to vaccinate some of the vulnerable population seeking a meal at the church. Steele said he was contacted by DPH employees about having the yellow van come there a week or so before it first appeared.
The vans have administered fewer than 20 doses in two weeks, Steele said.
“What are they (the state) getting out of this program?” Steele said.
The mobile clinic program is supposed to include 35 vans, although not all of them are being used right now. The state’s chief operating officer, Josh Geballe, said Monday that officials are reviewing what they’ve learned over the first month of the program.
“We’re continuing to work on our strategy there, based on what we’ve learned over the first month, looking to provide additional support for locating and doing outreach to drive attendance at those vans, looking into different local incentive partnerships that we can stand up,” Geballe said.
He said one idea is to move them around less.
“One of the things we think we’ve learned is that if we can park them in the same place for a longer period of time, people become aware that they’re going to be there. They can plan around that,” Geballe said. “So there’s a bunch of different strategies we’re looking to continue to maximize that opportunity.”
Overall, the state has now vaccinated more than 70% of residents who are 18 and over – making Connecticut among the top vaccinators in the country.
State officials have hailed their decision to eschew federal recommendations and roll out the vaccines using an age-based strategy as the reason for their success. Many states switched to Connecticut’s plan after seeing how well it worked.
Where Connecticut’s outreach hasn’t been as successful, however, is in reaching residents in the 50 SVI ZIP codes identified by the CDC; the majority of those ZIP codes are in the state’s four largest cities. The state, like the federal government, has struggled to get the vaccine to minorities, either because of a lack of access or hesitancy to get the shot.
In late March, Lamont and DPH officials unveiled the “yellow van” program as part of a plan to solve this problem, vowing to use $33.3 million in federal funding to “establish outreach, education, and services for minority and traditionally underserved communities, as part of the state’s ongoing efforts to increase access to COVID-19 vaccinations.”
“I think we’re gonna see those 35 yellow vans heading out, you know, within a week or so if I have that about right,” Lamont said during his March 29 press conference.
“The yellow vans each have about 150 doses, and pretty soon you’ll be able to walk up to one like an ice cream truck and get a vaccination right away.”
Evidence that the program is struggling can be seen in the data released this week by DPH, which shows how many doses have been administered in each community, as well as overall numbers for the past four weeks, from April 7 to May 8.
The data show how few doses have been administered in some communities despite sending as many as a half-dozen vans to some locations.
For example, the vans visited New Britain for seven separate clinics, from April 29-May 2, and did a total of 71 doses at all of them combined.
According to the data released by DPH, the vans had administered 9,376 doses from April 7 to May 8. The most shots administered during that month have been given in Waterbury, with 1,375 doses. Other cities where more than 1,000 doses were administered by the vans include Hartford (1,179), New Haven (1,161) and Norwalk (1,041).
With so many people already vaccinated, reaching the last 30% will be time-consuming, said DPH spokeswoman Maura Fitzgerald.
“We are now in the phase of actively going out, finding people and communities who haven’t yet been vaccinated, giving them factually accurate information so that they can make the best decision for themselves, and providing them with convenient, nearby, easy access to vaccines,” Fitzgerald said. “To be sure, getting as many of the remaining 30% of Connecticut residents vaccinated as possible is a time- and labor-intensive process. Every shot that goes into an arm brings us one step closer to reining in this virus, and with more than 9,300 shots administered by the vans, they are a valuable resource in our efforts to end this pandemic in Connecticut.”
The data also shows how uneven the program has been so far.
In the state’s largest city, Bridgeport, only 46 doses were administered by the vans during the month, with no additional clinics scheduled there through May 22. In New Britain, the number is 71 and in Griffin Hospital’s backyard – Ansonia and Derby — they have done 46 and 35 doses, respectively.
Griffin Health spokesman Rob O’Mara said the mobile clinics are designed to go to the most hard to reach residents, which means they aren’t designed to do large number of vaccines.
“You’re going to run into a lot of hesitancy, a lot of resistance, but the idea is to sort of bring the vaccine to where people live. And honestly, if we’re vaccinating down to one person at a time, that’s worth it,” O’Mara said.
“These SUVs are the ground game in this overall comprehensive approach. And then even one or two at a time is still moving the needle, because if you think about it, those people did not have access to travel, they didn’t have access to the vaccine. And so we’re trying to kind of take away all those barriers and make the vaccine,” he added.
Loss of J&J
The program has also been impacted by the loss of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was overwhelmingly used by the vans in the program’s first weeks but was temporarily pulled from use after reports of a rare blood clotting problem in some recipients.
DPH officials decided not to resume use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on the vans even after the federal pause was lifted. The reason, they said, was feedback from community partners that people didn’t trust the vaccine.
But while it was being used on the vans, the number of doses being administered was high.
For example, 258 doses have been administered at three clinics in Griswold. The first clinic, in early April in Jewett City, was very successful, according to Griswold First Selectman Todd Babbitt.
“I think we did over 200 doses of Johnson & Johnson the first time, and we could have easily done three times that,” said Babbitt, adding that Jewett City is a low-income area with a high number of homeless people, many of whom live in tents.
“We focused on getting our homeless population vaccinated, and it was perfect. They got one shot of J&J, and we didn’t worry about chasing them down again,” Babbitt said.
The yellow vans have come back twice since then, setting up at town hall once and then, last week, at Griswold High School. But those two clinics combined reached fewer than 60 people using the Moderna vaccine, Babbitt said.
“I reached out to town leaders in Lisbon, Plainfield and Voluntown about the vans, and we had a few people from those towns come, but it was a little harder to get any interest,” Babbitt said.
Babbitt said town officials didn’t have as much time to spread the word and organize before the last two clinics. But he also believes there were other factors at play– the loss of the one-dose J&J, and better availability of vaccine now.
“The first clinic, we got calls from all over the area looking to get vaccinated, because at that point, we didn’t have a lot of options to get vaccinated. But now Walgreens has plenty of vaccine, and the local health center is doing three clinics a week,” Babbitt said. “I just don’t see enough of a demand for us to have the vans out here again.”
“When we first engaged with them, it was the J&J vaccine, and that is much more effective in this setting, because maybe you can get someone to come down once or walk over and get that shot and be done,” said Manchester Director of Public Health Jeffrey Catlett.
Catlett said the van administered about 190 shots in the first three days it stopped at Manchester’s East Side Neighborhood Resource Center in mid-April, but last Monday, they administered only 11 doses.
Catlett said that the city aggressively marketed the mobile vans, putting up flyers in the center of town and throughout the neighborhoods. There also were signs advertising where the van was located and how long it would be there.
At clinics in East Hartford and New Britain recently visited by the CT Mirror, there were no signs and, in several cases, the vans weren’t visible from the road or the front of the buildings.
“We pushed the immediacy of it. You don’t need insurance, you don’t need to pre-register, just walk up and get vaccinated. We had several people who saw the flyers in a restaurant and came over,” Catlett said.
Griffin Health’s spokesman said there’s no question the Johnson & Johnson pause had an impact on the mobile clinics.
“If you’re on the fence and then you just heard the news about pausing the J&J, it’s gonna really make you question getting vaccinated,” O’Mara said.
Fitzgerald, the DPH spokeswoman, said the state is working with Griffin to reintroduce J&J onto the vans.
“The federal government’s pause of the J&J vaccine last month certainly impacted the demand for vaccines in the state and forced major logistical changes to the operation of the vans, which had to switch from administering J&J to Moderna and Pfizer,” Fitzgerald said. “We are now working with Griffin to rotate J&J back into the vans where possible, to provide people a choice in vaccines.”
No time to prepare
Because it is one of the oldest black churches in the state, Varick has been a popular choice for vaccinators. The New Haven Department of Public Health has held clinics there, as has Yale New Haven Hospital.
The church is located almost directly across from the Cornell Lewis Health Center, a federally qualified health center that has been getting vaccine from the federal government for months.
“Everybody has come here to do their clinics, so the members of our church have had numerous opportunities to get vaccinated. This was about offering it to the community,” said Steele, the pastor at Varick Memorial.
Steele said someone from DPH reached out to him about hosting the mobile clinic during soup kitchen hours. DPH has reached out to churches across the state to host clinics in hopes of getting people right after the service.
Varick volunteers called other parishes in the area to tell them about the mobile clinic, and parishioners distributed flyers to surrounding communities, emphasizing the vans would offer the Moderna vaccine, Steele said.
Steele said no one from the state or Griffin assisted in getting the word out about the mobile vans.
O’Mara said the state makes the decisions on where to send the mobile clinics, and then Griffin arranges the site visits.
“I think they (DPH) have a plan that’s evolving over time,” O’Mara said. “I think they’re adapting and learning and trying to figure out how to maximize [the vans].”
Fitzgerald said the program requires a lot of logistical coordination with municipal leaders, local health departments and other community partners for siting and advertising the vans. She said it also is supposed to involve door-to-door canvassing to selected neighborhoods in the days leading up to the vans’ arrival.
The church vaccine clinics have had limited success.
The vans visited the Mount Zion Seventh Day Adventist in Hamden after Sunday services on May 2. Pastor Oliver B.J. Archer said only about 20 people got vaccinated during the six-hour clinic, and one of them was himself.
“We did this for the community, so I was a little disappointed there wasn’t more interest,” Archer said. “Had we been more involved initially in the planning, I would have suggested giving us three weeks to prepare, but we only found out about a week or so before that they were coming.”
Archer, who is new to the Hamden community, reached out to other churches to let them know about the clinic and also had parishioners distribute flyers in the neighborhood around the church advertising the clinic.
“In the process of connecting with people about the clinic, it became clear to me there is some vaccine hesitancy, and where you find that hesitancy, it is very strong,” Archer said.
Archer got his vaccine at the van, hoping to show people that it was safe.
“I tell people it is the only way to get back to normal,” Archer said. “I thought by having the vaccine right here it would make it easier for people to overcome any barriers to getting vaccinated, but it didn’t happen.”
We will not stop
On Saturday, about 75 New Haven residents, including Mayor Justin Elicker and Health Director Maritza Bond, went door-to-door in the Newhallville and Dixwell Avenue sections of the city handing out flyers about the vaccine.
“These are communities that had a high number of COVID cases, so we have to make sure we get to every door in those communities,” Bond told the volunteers before sending them out on their mission on a chilly, gray day.
“We will not stop until every single person has been offered the vaccine,” Bond said.
The city coordinated with three entities to have vaccines available on Saturday, including Griffin Hospital and a yellow van at the Bassett Community School in Newhallville. There also was a clinic in Science Park operated by Cornell Hill, and Yale’s mass vaccination clinic was nearby at the Floyd Little School.
In total, 66 people were vaccinated throughout the day — including 15 at the Griffin yellow van.
In the first few hours of the Bassett School clinic, about 10 people showed up, although at least one person came looking for a second dose of Moderna and was turned away because the van only had Pfizer.
One of the 10 was Bobby Griffin, who slowly walked up Shelton Avenue with the assistance of a cane to the clinic. Griffin said his wife saw something about the clinic on television the night before, and since he lived only a block or so away, he decided to make the trek to Bassett.
Even as raindrops started to fall as he shuffled home, Griffin wore a big smile after getting his first shot.
“I was definitely hesitant about doing it. I wanted to wait it out and see how other people were doing after they got their shots,” Griffin said.
Griffin said the whole process went smoothly — from the national guardsman who helped him up the stairs, to not needing to pre-register.
“I can’t wait for my second shot,” Griffin said. “It’s too bad no one else is here.”