Donville Barrow slowly shuffled into the University of Bridgeport’s Wheeler Recreation Center Tuesday afternoon, aided by the cane in his right hand, to get his COVID-19 vaccine shot.
Employees from Bridgeport Hospital checked him in and escorted him to one of the 20 vaccination stations set up on the basketball court. Within minutes, he was sitting in an observation area, his first dose completed.
The 83-year-old city native had been reluctant to get vaccinated until “some buddies got it, so I decided I’d take a shot at it too,” Barrow said as he placed a light blue sticker that said “I’m vaccinated. Crush COVID-19” on his sweatshirt.
“I didn’t even feel it. Testing was much worse than this, when they were sticking that Q-tip up my nose,” Barrow said.
Barrow, who is Black, lives on Wells Street, a short drive from the college campus, and the proximity of the clinic was one of the reasons he decided to get vaccinated.
Barrow and other city residents are the very people officials are struggling to reach with vaccines — for while the state remains among the best in the country in terms of overall vaccinations, it hasn’t been as successful getting shots to the people who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID — those who are Black and Hispanic.
In fact, concerns about vaccine equity are so strong that the state Department of Public Health plainly spelled out in a recent memo to its vaccinators that, “A disproportionate share of COVID-19 vaccine has gone to wealthier and whiter residents.”
At the epicenter of the racial disparity issue is Bridgeport, the state’s largest city and the place where state officials are now concentrating their efforts.
Bridgeport: A case in point
Bridgeport, where non-Hispanic whites make up about 20 percent of the population, has ranked near the bottom in terms of percentage of the population that has received a shot, according to data released by the state Department of Public Health.
Since those number were released two weeks ago, the state has assigned two DPH employees, including a former local health director, to work with city officials. Interim DPH Commissioner Deidre Gifford has held multiple meetings, including one over the weekend, with both city officials and vaccinators to determine what can be done to increase the number of vaccination clinics in the city.
City officials have balked at the state’s numbers, arguing that the percentage of people vaccinated will naturally be lower because of the city’s larger population. But when measured by the number of doses administered, Bridgeport compares favorably with other cities such as Hartford, New Haven and Norwalk.
At a City Council meeting last week, Bridgeport Director of Emergency Services Scott Appleby said the state wasn’t giving the city enough vaccine doses.
“Give me 3,500 doses, and we’ll get it done in five weeks,” he said, adding that part of the problem is that the vaccines were going to hospitals, which were vaccinating non-Bridgeport residents.
The blame-the-state mantra has angered some state officials, who believe the city fell behind because its health director quit in mid-January and because the city was slow to roll out a vaccine plan with only one large clinic, at Central High School, two days a week. The city held its first mobile vaccine clinic Tuesday, vaccinating about 38 residents at the Grant Street apartments.
By contrast, New Haven has held numerous mobile clinics at senior centers and apartment complexes across that city.
The obstacles in Bridgeport don’t stop there. One of two federally qualified health centers, Optimus Health Care, which was instrumental in conducting mobile COVID-19 testing clinics last spring, has been hamstrung by staff shortages and has been running vaccine clinics for only two weeks at one senior center.
In addition, several religious leaders whose churches hosted testing sites in the spring said they are surprised no one has reached out about doing the same with vaccines.
Meanwhile, the state has given large hospital systems most of its vaccine allotment for mass vaccination clinics — a good way to vaccinate lots of people quickly, but not necessarily the way to reach the minority populations in inner cities who have less access to computers and transportation.
In an interview Tuesday, Appleby said “the state is not running the city’s health department” — in fact, an interim director, Terron Jones, was named over the weekend. He added, “We know our community and its needs better than anyone.”
Appleby acknowledged that Health Director Lisa Morrissey’s resignation on Jan. 15 was a setback.
“We finalized our vaccine plan on Jan. 16,” Appleby said. “The problem we had was getting everybody to sit back down at the table and talk about getting vaccine to Bridgeport residents. Every entity at that time was working on their own individual plans, and that doesn’t necessarily cover only Bridgeport residents.”
Appleby said that in many instances, clinics run by St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, which is owned by Hartford HealthCare, and Bridgeport Hospital, owned by Yale New Haven Health, were drawing people from outside of the city because they serve the surrounding communities as well.
“We understand that the state wants to give vaccine to a provider with a larger patient base and that can do large numbers of shots, and I’m not saying that 75-year-olds from Shelton or Milford shouldn’t get shots — but some of those doses should be earmarked for Bridgeport residents,” Appleby said.
“A lot of ‘I’m gonnas’”
Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, wrote a letter to Gifford a few weeks ago asking the state to step in and help the city figure out how to develop and implement a comprehensive vaccine plan.
Moore said the whole vaccine rollout reminds her of when Bridgeport lagged behind in testing while other cities already had functioning mass testing sites. While she is encouraged the city has hired someone with a public health degree to oversee the health department, Moore wants to see more than just talk.
“Everyone says they are gonna do something. ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do a mass clinic,’” Moore said. “There’s a lot of ‘I’m gonnas,’ and nothing is getting done to vaccinate the people that need it.”
But help is on the way.
In the past week, state and city officials, community leaders and vaccination partners have been meeting to discuss how to get shots into the arms of Bridgeport residents.
Besides Yale New Haven Health’s mass vaccination clinic at the University of Bridgeport, Hartford Hospital is planning to open one on March 8 at Sacred Heart University. Hartford Hospital also is taking over the clinic at Central High School as of Monday, Feb. 22.
But Dr. James P. Cardon, chief clinical integration officer at Hartford HealthCare, said it will take more than mass clinics to solve the problem.
“We recognize the mass vaccination sites will work for some people, but they aren’t going to solve the issues that we have in our cities,” Cardon said. “Mass vaccinations are not going to address a lot of these communities — that’s where we need to spend our time and attention. We need to go find and hold people’s hands and help them get vaccinated.”
With the hospitals taking over the larger vaccination clinics, the city can focus on holding more mobile pop-up clinics targeting certain areas, Appleby said.
The city held its first mobile clinic Tuesday at the Grant Street apartments, where about 38 people were signed up for shots. By contrast, New Haven officials have already conducted about half a dozen mobile clinics at senior centers and apartment complexes across that city.
Bridgeport officials have scheduled mobile clinics at Washington Heights and the Barnum House that already have at least 50 residents signed up for vaccinations.
“All of our plans are linked now. We’re not doing this in our own little silos anymore,” Appleby said. “Everyone is now focused on getting shots to everyone.”
Cardon said Hartford HealthCare plans to work with city officials to run mobile clinics as well. He said hospital officials have reached out to the Bridgeport Diocese about using some of its churches.
“We have to work with trusted leadership, which are faith-based communities, or the social services that are already there who touch these people every day,” Cardon said. “We are asking what do we need to do to help reach people. We aren’t going to tell you what to do, but mold ourselves into what would work for you.”
Cardon said reaching the most vulnerable populations in the big cities is the biggest challenge vaccinators face.
“It is going to be completely unacceptable to get to the other side of this and realize that we missed it,” Cardon said. “There’s no reason we can’t do it. We know where our problems are, we know what the challenges are to do it. We’ve got to educate, reassure and create a sense of real trust and then make sure we are providing real access to the vaccine.”
In the spring, Optimus Health Care played a key role in expanding COVID testing, bringing its mobile van to several church parking lots, but it has been underused so far in the vaccine rollout.
As one of two federally qualified health centers in the city, Optimus will soon be getting vaccine doses directly through a federal government program, although how much it will receive is unknown at this point.
The center just started doing clinics at the Hall Neighborhood Senior Center a couple of weeks ago because it has had a hard time hiring staff, according to its director, Dr. Catherine Rivera.
“We have a big need because we have a high population of clients that are underserved,” Rivera said.
At the senior center, the staff helps the residents fill out the paperwork and sign up for the clinics. Rivera said she runs two vaccination teams at each clinic, serving 16 to 20 people.
“We all want to do more, but right now we are limited by staff constraints,” Rivera said.
Appleby said he learned of Optimus’ staffing issues in a call earlier this week with Rivera and DPH officials.
“We can get them personnel, if you let us know,” Appleby said. “We have a medical reserve corps as well as a Sacred Heart medical reserve corps that we can activate if we need to.”
Appleby said Optimus is a key partner in reaching people the city needs to vaccinate, since many of them are their clients. He said there are plans to have Optimus open a mass vaccination site at Harding High School.
No pleasure in all these funerals
Mount Aery Baptist Church on Frank Street, in the center of “The Hollow” neighborhood, was one of the first churches in the state last spring to host a COVID-19 testing site in its parking lot, but Pastor Anthony L. Bennett said no one has approached church officials about doing something similar with vaccinations.
“It seems as though the numbers of people getting tested went up when they used the churches, and if it was true then, it would probably be true with the vaccine now,” Bennett said.
Mount Aery has between 1,500 and 2,000 members, and Bennett said the discussions about the vaccine are mixed.
“There are some people who are clearly hesitant to get vaccinated, and then there are members who are eager to get it because it is one step closer to bringing some normality to their lives,” Bennett said.
But Bennett said right now there isn’t much access in The Hollow, as he doesn’t know of one clinic that has been held there. Bennett has started telling people to go the Walgreens on nearby North Avenue, which just started vaccinations last week.
Bennett said mass vaccination sites at the other end of the city won’t help people near his church and more outreach needs to be done in the community, whether it is through Optimus or other mobile clinics.
“A lot of us take for granted our mobility, but there are many people who don’t have transportation, and it is a challenge to think they will go to the University of Bridgeport or to Central High School to get a shot,” Bennett said.
Mount Aery just suffered a COVID-19 death that was close to home. A longtime church deacon, Primus Jackson III, recently died of COVID. He was 68. There have been others.
“There is no pleasure in doing all of these funerals,” Bennett said.
The pastor did have some good news. He recently spoke to a longtime parishioner who got vaccinated when a team from the city came to her house to give her the shot.
But she lives in New Haven.