'Tens of thousands' register on first day CT expands COVID vaccination eligibility

Photo of Nicholas Rondinone

Connecticut officials say the massive expansion Monday to the COVID vaccination eligibility that resulted in some not being able to find an available appointment for months will not derail the rest of the state’s rollout plan.

Acknowledging frustrations he heard from some of those 55 and older who reported having difficulty finding an appointment when they became eligible to register on Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont and his administration continued to urge patience and assured them more appointments will soon become available.

Lamont said adjusting the state’s vaccination schedule after the first day of the expanded eligibility “would be premature.”

“I think we are finding that we are getting additional vaccine doses,” he said. “Obviously, we will know more in the next week or so. And ... I think you will be able to fill in necessary vaccinations within the next three weeks.”

The number of appointments made on Monday was not immediately available, but state officials estimated it was in the “tens of thousands.”

The state was prepared for a surge in volume on its vaccine assist line, doubling the staffing at its call center for the expansion Monday when those between 55 and 64 as well as school and child care workers became eligible. In all, about 610,000 people became eligible after subtracting people in that age bracket who had been vaccinated in earlier rounds.

State officials expect about 365,000 of thr newly eligible to seek vaccinations. Connecticut providers should be able to incoculate that number in about three weeks at expected supply levels, but some received appointments well into April because of the way the system matched people with doses.

The experience on the first day appeared to be mixed.

When registration opened at 12:01 a.m. Monday, Cheryl O’Brien said her husband logged onto the federal Vaccine Administration Management System, but only found one appointment about 100 miles away from their house on April 14. The Shelton couple called the state hotline and a local provider later in the day and were able to get appointments in March.

Danbury resident Helen Barry logged on about 6 a.m., and the earliest appointment she could find was near the end of April.

“The soonest I could get an appointment was the end of April at a location about 20 miles away. All other locations had no slots available,” said Barry, who is scheduled to receive her first dose on April 26 in Shelton.

John Roche, who also lives in Danbury, had better luck.

“I stayed up to midnight so I could try to schedule an appointment the minute I became eligible. ... I was fortunate to get an appointment this Thursday in Danbury,” Roche said.

25 percent for targeted ZIP codes

There were also technical issues people faced such as Walgreens not updating its online registration form to include the new groups that were eligible on Monday.

“We are working to update our scheduler to include educators and other eligible populations in Connecticut,” a Walgreens spokesman said in a statement. “We apologize for the inconvenience as we work to vaccinate our most vulnerable populations as quickly as possible.”

Lamont announced last week shifting to the age-based approach and prioritizing school and child care workers instead of front-line essential workers and those with underlying medical conditions who thought they would be next in line.

The governor said the change would help streamline and expedite the process.

Connecticut was expected to receive roughly 140,000 vaccine doses this week, including 40,000 of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that was approved this weekend.

“We have 500,000 people going for those 100,000 doses, so you can see there’s going to be a bit of line right now,” Lamont said, using rough approximations. “If we had done it the other way you would have had 1.8 million people trying to go for those same number of doses.”

State officials said Monday they have asked providers to ensure that at least 25 percent of new vaccines go to vulnerable communities. As part of this effort, the state Department of Public Health has identified 50 ZIP codes across Connecticut that are in the top 25 percent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index, which weighs factors including poverty and density of housing.

“We are reaching out aggressively to those communities. We are going to allocate 25 percent of the vaccine to those communities to make sure they get vaccinated even if we have to work extra hard to make sure they get vaccinated,” Lamont said.

Lamont’s office said that DPH will track data on race and ethnicity of those administered vaccines in this area and will offer periodic reports on this effort.

Lamont will ease restictions

Amid progress with vaccination and trends with COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, Lamont said he expects to make announcements later this week regarding business and travel restrictions — after coordinating with governors in the region.

Connecticut reported a 2.35 percent positivity rate over the weekend when hospitalizations fell to 431. There were 29 more deaths recorded, however, increasing the state’s death toll to 7,651.

Lamont said it could take a week for the vaccine registration process to smooth out for those still seeking appointments.

“I urge you to be patient,” he said. “Again, if you can telecommute or you don’t have any great urgency there, give others a chance to go forward. I think that certainly would be appropriate.”

Max Reiss, a spokesman for the governor, said the appointments available Monday did not yet factor in the new Johnson & Johnson doses that could arrive in Connecticut as early as Tuesday.

“Based on the number of vaccines we are receiving, the number of people eligible who have not been vaccinated, and estimated rates of people eligible that want to take the vaccine, we are very confident that anyone in the 55 to 64 age group who would want to get a vaccine in the next three weeks should have that opportunity,” Lamont’s Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe said.

The Veterans Administration medical centers in Connecticut announced Monday they had begun offering vaccines to all VA patients regardless of age.

“Due to a steady supply and strong interest from our veterans, we feel confident in dropping the age restrictions to offer vaccine to any enrolled veteran interested in receiving it,” VA Connecticut director Al Montoya said.