Connecticut became the first state in the country Monday to open a COVID-19 mobile vaccination unit in collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
The new state-federal partnership is part of a nationwide effort to broaden access to COVID-19 vaccines, especially in vulnerable communities and for residents who may face barriers to getting a shot.
“For some people, limited access to medical providers, vaccine clinics, lack of mass transportation, mobility issues, work, family care -- those are all things that they have to consider when we put these sites in place,” said Paul Ford, acting regional administrator for FEMA’s New England states.
FEMA’s mobile unit kicked off its 60-day Connecticut tour at Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport where about 200 people got Johnson & Johnson vaccines on the first day.
Connecticut is vaccinating people at one of the fastest rates in the country overall, but some individual cities and towns have been slower to reach coverage milestones.
In Bridgeport, the state’s largest city with a majority Black and Hispanic population, about 16% of all adults have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the most recent data.
That coverage is as high as 49% in some towns, and 41% of all adults statewide as of Monday. Vaccine eligibility opens to everyone 16 years and older on Thursday.
“From the beginning, my district has really struggled,” said Rep. Andre Baker, who represents parts of the North Bridgeport, Boston Ave.-Mill Hill, and East End neighborhoods. “First we had issues where we didn’t have enough testing sights in my district, and now we were at the point where there weren’t enough vaccine sites.”
Baker said he hopes this mobile unit will reach more people who have not been able to make it to a vaccination site.
“We have a lot of elderly people, and they just can’t get out,” he said. “We need to be assured that they’re going to be treated properly and they’re going to get the care that they need.”
The FEMA medical trailer is equipped with enough freezers, refrigerators and backup power to store hundreds of doses of any kind of COVID-19 vaccine. Members of the Connecticut National Guard will assist in running the mobile sites.
The unit will travel to 17 towns and cities that have scored high on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index. Different medical organizations will take turns administering the vaccines.
The trailer will be in Bridgeport for 10 days and offer pop-up clinics at five locations within the city. Officials from Hartford HealthCare, the medical provider administering the vaccines, said they hope to give out 3,400 shots during this time.
City residents Janette Pagan and Linda Lucas had been holding out to get the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“Do you know how many appointments I made to get Pfizer, and I was too nervous to take it?” Lucas said as the women walked back to their car after getting vaccinated. “I just double-checked [this clinic] this morning and we came out. It’s like, this is great.”
Pagan added “it felt good” to finally get the shot she was confident in.
Individual states had to apply to the federal government for a chance to get a FEMA mobile vaccination unit. U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes said the process was competitive, but Connecticut was quick in putting together an appealing grant request.
“Because of the partnerships that were already intact here in Connecticut and what was already being done, we were able to put forth an application for consideration to make sure this happened here,” she said.
“From the very beginning of this pandemic, we saw how Black and brown communities were disproportionately affected and marginalized, we saw how our rural communities did not have the same level of access, and these are all of the things we took into these conversations,” Hayes said.
The FEMA clinics with Hartford HealthCare encourage people to pre-register for appointments, but they also accept a small percentage of walk-ins until all vaccine doses for the day are assigned.
“If we have more walk-ups than we have vaccines, we will register them and have them come back again tomorrow when we can bring more vaccines to meet them,” said Dr. Jim Cardon, chief clinical integration officer at Hartford HealthCare.
The mobile unit’s next destination after Bridgeport is New Haven. It will also appear in the following cities: Danbury, East Hartford, Hartford, Killingly, Meriden, Middletown, New Britain, New London, North Canaan, Norwalk, Norwich, Stamford, Waterbury, Windham and Winsted.
Other partnering health organizations include UConn Health, Griffin Health and Trinity Health of New England.