COVID-19 Mobile Vaccine Clinics Aim To Reach Connecticut's Underserved, Vulnerable Populations | Connecticut Public Radio

COVID-19 Mobile Vaccine Clinics Aim To Reach Connecticut's Underserved, Vulnerable Populations

Jan 25, 2021

A small team of nurses and support staff set up tables and medical supplies inside the Open Hearth homeless shelter for men in Hartford.

Shelter clients and employees, all masked, lined up to register at a check-in table. Geriann Gallagher, an advanced practice registered nurse, brought clients over one at a time to her vaccination station. Austin Anglin, 67, sat down. 

“Have you ever had to use an epinephrine pen for a swollen tongue or shortness of breath?” Gallagher asked.

“No,” Anglin replied.

“I’m going to use your left arm today, right?” Gallagher confirmed, before cleaning the area with an alcohol wipe and using a syringe to inject a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine into Anglin’s arm.

Gallagher and her team were prepared to vaccinate more than 130 people at the shelter Friday morning as Hartford HealthCare launched its first COVID-19 mobile clinic. In coordination with state distribution plans, the mobile clinics are designed to get vaccines to high-risk and underserved populations that may otherwise be unable to access vaccines in other ways.

Keith Grant, senior director of infection prevention at Hartford HealthCare, said it’s also a way to ensure the vaccine is being distributed equitably, especially to Black and brown neighborhoods that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“When we look at the health disparities that existed, that definitely contributed to the disparities and the mortality rate, we do have a significant opportunity,” he said.

Congregate living sites are the top priority right now for Hartford HealthCare’s mobile program, officials said. This is in accordance with the state’s Phase 1B of vaccine distribution, which is also open to residents 75 years and older.

State vaccine advisory experts agreed that the virus could more easily spread from person to person in places like homeless shelters, group homes, prisons, psychiatric and substance use treatment facilities -- many of which house people at risk of severe COVID-19 illness.

Marilyn Rossetti, executive director at Open Hearth, said homeless shelters can often fall into a community that is overlooked.

“This is something that millions of people are trying to get, and we’re getting it,” she said. “And it’s not something that’s being done to us. It’s something that’s being done for us.”

David Knighton, supervisor at Open Hearth and former client who experienced homelessness, says he and others are grateful to get a COVID-19 vaccine at Hartford HealthCare’s first COVID-19 mobile vaccine clinic on Friday, Jan. 22, 2020. 
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public

David Knighton, a former client at the shelter and now a supervisor there, likened the opportunity to Willy Wonka’s golden ticket into the chocolate factory.

“It was rough, the last couple months here,” he said. “But we managed to maintain and keep going, and we’re looking for a little bit of normalcy now with this vaccine.”

Connecticut has administered 258,267 COVID-19 vaccine doses to date, according to state data released Thursday. A majority of people are getting vaccinated at mass vaccination venues, health provider sites, pop-up clinics and local health departments.

However, some people continue to face barriers to accessing the vaccines at these locations, including limited transportation options, mobility difficulties and a lack of awareness due to language differences or technology shortfalls.

Hartford HealthCare officials said for now, congregate living sites will remain the immediate priority for its mobile clinic program as it follows along with state eligibility guidelines. Health providers will return to Open Hearth and other sites to administer second doses of vaccines, which are required to reach full immunity.