Volunteers slowly filed into the main lobby of Fair Haven Community Health Center on Grand Avenue in New Haven. They checked in at the door and then moved along to different stations for supplies.
In this case, that would be clipboards, bags of new surgical masks, hand sanitizer and T-shirts that say Vaccinate Fair Haven or Vacunate Fair Haven.
“So the masks are to hand out as they’re knocking on doors, the hand sanitizer is for the volunteers to sort of keep up on that front,” said Rose Pudlin, who oversees the health center’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Wilbur Cross High School.
About 265 people offered to walk door-to-door throughout Fair Haven, a low-income neighborhood with a majority Black and Latino population, and register age-eligible residents for COVID-19 vaccine appointments.
Organizers launched the canvassing initiative Saturday with the goal of covering 70 blocks in order to reach residents in 5,648 households, including a significant portion of the city’s undocumented immigrant community.
Connecticut is vaccinating residents for COVID-19 at one of the fastest rates in the country. But state data show that people of color have fallen behind in the state’s rollout, even as they experience disproportionate rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
The situation prompted a coalition of health providers, activists, community leaders and local organizations to take on vaccine equity themselves.
“Connecticut has failed Black and brown communities when it comes to COVID,” said Kica Matos, who lives in Fair Haven. “We’re going to move, we’re going to fight and we’re going to make sure that we protect our communities.”
Matos is a community organizer, activist and vice president of initiatives at the national Vera Institute of Justice. She said when the health center began offering COVID-19 vaccines, appointments were being taken by white, wealthier residents who were driving in from the suburbs.
That left fewer options for the people who live in Fair Haven. Coalition members came up with a door-to-door outreach solution and modeled it after the national Get Out the Vote campaign that registers people to vote in person.
“We come to you. We give you an appointment. We will offer you a free ride, if you need a ride. If you are homebound, we will come to you,” Matos said. “So we were just thinking about how do we clear the road and how do we make sure that everybody in our neighborhood gets vaccinated.”
Volunteers will revisit households over the next couple of weeks to reach residents they may have missed the first time around and others who become eligible for vaccines once the state opens them up to more age groups.
People 55 years and older can make appointments. Gov. Ned Lamont announced Monday that as the state anticipates an increased supply of COVID-19 vaccine doses, it will open up eligibility to residents 45 years and older beginning March 19, ahead of schedule.
Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith joined volunteers Saturday. She’s a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Yale School of Medicine and recently became co-chair of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force.
“I think this is a model in the country,” she said. “People have to get the information they need to get vaccinated, but we have to also address those structural barriers.”
Those barriers include language differences. The state’s main online registration portal, Vaccine Administration Management System, or VAMS, is mostly offered in English, which can be difficult to navigate for Spanish speakers.
Some households lack internet access, and residents may not have cars, so they can’t attend drive-thru sites.
“Before we have any other conversations about things like vaccine acceptance or confidence, we have to make sure we have taken care of all the things that keep people from connecting with vaccine,” Nunez-Smith said.
That’s what Abbie Storch and Armando Ghinaglia volunteered to do. The couple live in Fair Haven and both speak Spanish. Ghinaglia is originally from Venezuela and is involved in immigration advocacy. He’s a third-year law student and works with EMS to administer COVID-19 vaccines.
“Common questions like, ‘Do I need insurance to get the vaccine? Do I need an ID to get the vaccine?’ and so on and so forth. Just to be able to address those concerns for folks, and to address them for clinics as well,” he said, “because I think there is some misunderstanding among clinics that they need to require an ID in order to verify date of birth and things like that when the state guidelines make it pretty clear that you don’t need an ID in order to be able to get the vaccine.”
Storch anticipated that people may have questions about the actual vaccines, which were covered in a volunteer training session prior to Saturday’s campaign launch.
“I think the hope is to assure people and reassure them that it’s safe, it’s been vetted, you know, it’s good, it’s effective, it’s a good thing to do,” she said.
The couple signed up to cover two blocks of houses on Lombard Street. Not everyone was home that Saturday, but some people came to the door when Storch knocked.
They were able to register a group of people living in a single household. Some other residents told them that they had already gotten a vaccine due to their age or profession.
Campaign organizers said volunteers knocked on 1,038 doors Saturday and logged 84 new vaccine appointments into an online system. Volunteers also made appointments by paper, so organizers said appointment totals will ultimately be higher for that first day of canvassing.
“We will not stop until we have knocked on every single door and gotten as many people vaccinated as possible,” Matos said.