By Paul Hughes, Republican-American
EAST HARTFORD — State officials are making changes to respond to complaints about difficulties in scheduling appointments for COVID-19 vaccine shots.
Gov. Ned Lamont and his top public health adviser acknowledged problems that have arisen since vaccinations for state residents age 75 and older started last week during a news conference Monday morning at the state’s first mass vaccination clinic in East Hartford.
“We understand that there have been challenges in the appointment making. We hear it, and I want everyone to know that our team is on it. We’ve been on it pretty much 24/7,” said Dr. Deidre S. Gifford, the acting public health commissioner.
The estimated 277,000 residents age 75 and older are the first group outside of front line health care workers, medical first responders and residents and staff of long-term care facilities to be vaccinated. Appointments are being scheduled through health care providers, a state web portal, or a dedicated telephone line.
There have been widespread complaints from senior citizens and advocates about long wait times for the appointment line and long response times for the automated call-back system.
In response, Gifford said staffing for the 211 call center at the United Way that is booking appointments was doubled last Friday, and this week more personnel will be added. The number of the COVID Vaccine Appointment Assistance Line is 877-918-2224.
As of Monday, there were 97 workers fielding calls on the vaccine appointment line, said Lisa Tepper Bates, president and CEO of the United Way of Connecticut.
Initially, the 211 call center has been booking appointments only for the vaccination clinic set up in a parking lot at Rentschler Field in East Hartford where Lamont and Gifford spoke to reporters on Monday morning.
Gifford said the state Department of Public Health was working on establishing other locations in addition to East Hartford.
“We understand this may not be an ideal location for everybody so we are adding new providers,” she said. “We should have about three additional coming on in the next couple of days, and then we are working with additional providers around the state to make sure the phone line can provide appointments for other sites, as well.”
Gifford said improvements have also been made to assist people booking appointments through the web-based Vaccine Administration Management System. A form to schedule an appointment can be accessed online at ct.gov/covidvaccine
She said DPH is working to make the state portal multilingual. She said the 211 call center offers assistance in multiple languages, including Spanish.
Gifford said DPH officials have also been reaching out to health care providers to help identify and overcome barriers to vaccine distribution.
“We’re continuing to work on those things every single day. You’re going to start to see improvements every single day,” she said.
Gifford continued to caution that the pace of vaccination administration will depend on the supply of vaccine from the federal government. At this time, the state is receiving 46,900 doses a week.
“We don’t have enough vaccine to vaccinate everyone who wants it right now,” she said. “We’re all going to have to be a little bit patient, but keep trying to get that appointment, and, if you’re 75 and older, we want you to be vaccinated, and we’ll get you a vaccine, and it may just take a little bit of time.”
Generally, Gifford said the state is receiving 46,900 doses of the currently available Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, but the amount can vary. Last week, the state received an extra 50,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.
“It varies from week to week, but we know several days in advance how much vaccine to expect in Connecticut for the following week,” Gifford said. “We then work with our providers. They ask for the vaccine they’d like for the following week, and we divide up what we are getting to the providers based on what they can administer, and that system has been working fine so far. The big problem with it is we don’t have enough.”
Lamont said more Moderna vaccines may become available soon, and Pfizer officials have advised him that they could double production in the next 30 to 40 days.
“So, I think there is a trend line that is in the right direction,” he said.
Gifford also reported that vaccinations have started in congregate settings, such as homeless shelters, group homes and state prisons. The first mobile vaccination clinic was set up last Friday at the Open Hearth homeless shelter for men in Hartford.
She said DPH officials are working to set up private agencies that have state contracts for providing housing and other services with vaccination providers to schedule vaccination clinics. She said there was no timetable yet for vaccinating the state’s prison population.