Gov. Ned Lamont announced Monday the state will expand COVID-19 vaccination eligibility next month through defined age groupsand to teachers, shifting priority away from essential workers and those with underlying medical conditions.
While state officials touted the new plan as a more efficient way to ramp up vaccinations, the approach deviates from guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the CT Food Association and seceral labor unions criticized the governor for leaving behind frontline essential workers and those with preexisting conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID complications.
Under the new plan, people age 55 to 64 will next be eligible to receive the vaccine as of March 1. The state plans to make an exception for teachers, school workers and child care professionals, who will also be eligible to receive the vaccine next month at separate clinics, in schools wherever possible.
Lamont and other state officials stressed Monday this new plan simplifies the vaccination effort and speeds up the process as they redouble their focus on equitable distribution in cities and to people of color. Breaking from federal recommendations, state officials said this approach reflects the fact that age remains one of the strongest contributing factors to COVID-19-related deaths.
They also said it would avoid the logistical nightmare of sorting out who is, and who is not eligible under complex workplace and health guidelines that other states are using.
“In a perfect world, we would have enough doses of the vaccine to get it to all 3.6 million people in Connecticut right now, however, each state is being given a very limited supply, which is why we must take this phased approach,” Lamont said in a written statement before announcing the plan at his regularly scheduled Monday briefing.
“Connecticut’s health care providers have been doing an amazing job getting the vaccine to people as quickly as they can,” Lamont said, “and using age as the only qualifying factor is one of the reasons why they’ve had success so far.”
This new vaccination plan came as the state recorded a 2.58 percent positive test rate through the weekend with 2,233 confirmed cases in 86,401 tests. The number of people in hospitals with COVID-19 dropped to 500 statewide.
As the United States recorded 500,000 pandemic deaths since March — whch Lamont called a chilling fact — Connecticut reported another 39 fatalities since Friday, bringing the state’s total to 7,562.
Lamont’s announcement represents a substantial shift from the state’s phased vaccination plan. Previously under Phase 1B of the plan, essential workers and those with preexisiting medical conditions that put them at greater risk of COVID-19 complications were supposed to be next in line for vaccines.
Some people in those groups will now have to wait longer for vaccines than they anticipated, but they believe focusing on speed and simplicity will get the largest number of people vaccinated in the coming months.
“This is the fastest way to get the most residents in the state of Connecticut vaccinated as possible,” said Dr. Reginald Eadie, president & CEO of Trinity Health New England and co-chair of the governor’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group.
Under the new state plan, vaccination eligibility would start for those age 55 to 64 on March 1, those age 45 to 54 on March 22, those between 34 and 45 on April 12, and those 16 to 34 on May 3. The new plan does not discuss vaccinating children and the dates could change based on vaccine availability.
Census data shows about 515,000 state residents are age 55 to 64; 477,000 are age 45 to 54; 433,000 are between 34 and 45; and 880,000 are age 16 to 34. Hundreds of thousands of those people have already been been vaccinated in other phases — health care workers, for example — or will receive a vaccine through the state’s plan to inoculate 160,000 teachers other school workers.
When asked if there are concerns about vaccine supply meeting demand in the new plan, Lamont and others were confident the federal government could provide the doses.
“I’m not naive, I know there’s supply chain issues. We will see how fast they actually get delivered to us so we can get the shot in the arm,” Lamont said. “If I had to guess though right now, I think that we are going to be erring on the side of more vaccines coming sooner.”
This week, Connecticut was expected to receive 72,000 first doses of the two federally approved vaccines, coupled with 23,000 first doses going directly to pharmacies in the state — up from 62,000 first doses last week.
With the new plan launching next week, Lamont asked certain residents to use restraint when seeking vaccination appointments.
“If you can telecommute, please don’t make a call in that first week or two. Give us a little bit of time to catch up. If you have tested positive, and you probably have those antibodies … hold back,” Lamont said.
Lamont reiterated Monday that his administration remains committed to vaccinating underserved communities at the same rate as everyone else. The governor said he has instructed the state Department of Public Health to set numeric targets and work with providers to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine.
Officials have not disclosed those benchmarks, but said they will take the vaccine directly to communities if needed and will assign allotments of the vaccine to meet their goals.
“The Department of Public Health is committed to an equitable vaccination program. Sticking with an age-based vaccine rollout allows our vaccine providers to get as many shots as possible as quickly and equitably as possible into the arms of Connecticut residents, and vaccinating our education and childcare workforce will get our children back in the classroom this school year,” Acting DPH Commissioner Dr. Deidre Gifford said.
Despite officials saying they are pushing an equitable vaccination process, some say the new plan does the opposite.
“We agree with and are in solidarity with those calling out this plan as inequitable. It is. Disability rights, racial justice, and workers' rights groups, we see you, and all the ways Gov. Lamont is leaving marginalized people behind,” the ACLU of Connecticut said in a statement on Twitter.
Unions including the United Food and Commercial Workers and SEIU Local 32BJ issued statements criticizing the change as unfair to younger front-line workers and people with underlying medical conditions. SEBAC, the giant state employees’ bargaining coalition, issued a statement supporting the priority on educators but saying all essential, front-line workers — many of them state employees — should have also received priority.
According to figures from the state, front-line workers and those with an underlying condition exacerbating COVID-9 total about 675,000 people.
The state had yet to clearly define which essential workers, aside from those health care workers who received vaccines in Phase 1A of the rollout, would have been eligible and in which orer. The state was expected to weigh federal guidelines that define workers in this group to include grocery store workers, public transportation workers, manufacturing workers and others.
It was also unclear what medical conditions would have given someone priority to receive the vaccine. Lamont’s administration had said it would rely heavily on doctors to help determine those eligible based on medical conditions.
As officials approached plans on vaccinating those groups, they were flooded with questions about who fell in each group, which they said only heightened complications with vaccination efforts.
The CDC has outlined a number of conditions, including cancer, smoking, obesity, immunosuppression from transplants, as causing greater COVID-19-related risks.
Lamont made a point of raising questions that showed how difficult it would have been sorting out these groups.
Health experts largely supported Lamont's decision, saying it could speed up the vaccination process. Many of the underlying conditions designated as COVID risk factors by the CDC could be hard to prove, said Dr. Gregory Buller, associate chief medical officer and chairman of the department of medicine at Bridgeport Hospital.
“Take smoking, which is one of the conditions listed by the CDC. How do you prove that?” Buller said. “I have no idea.”
Going by age eliminates that concern. “I think it's a really good approach, as long as you can roll it out quickly,” he said.
“We support the state’s decision to focus largely on age as the criterion for the vaccine,” said Dr. Michael Parry, director of infectious disease at Stamford Hospital. “This has benefits both for mortality reduction as well as operational expediency for vaccine clinics such as ours.”
Lamont’s announcement that teachers would soon receive vaccines comes amid mounting pressure from educators, who largely returned to in-school classes in September, despite concerns over infections.
Unlike some other states, Connecticut had not previously prioritized teacher vaccinations, despite being focused on getting teachers and students back into the classrooms amid the pandemic.
But Monday’s announcement sets back plans for other essential workers, who have also remained on the job during the pandemic. The head of the union representing thousands of building maintenance workers issued a statement saying the unin was “dismayed and deeply disappointed” that Lamont had “abandoned the needs of essential workers.”
“We fully expected the Governor to follow the recommendations of the CDC and his own Vaccine Advisory Group and prioritize those whose risk is now greatest,” said Rochelle Palache, 32BJ SEIU vice president and head of the union in Connecticut. “Our union’s 5,000 janitors and security officers in Connecticut are among the thousands of essential workers who have kept our state running by chancing death every single workday. While many workers 55 and over can still do their jobs from home, most Black and Latinx workers can’t, which in part explains why they face Covid mortality rates far higher than white workers do.”
Chris DiPentima, CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said he understood the governor’s need to shift.
“We cannot rebuild our economy and recover from the pandemic without first addressing the public health crisis,” DiPentima said in a statement released with Lamont’s announcement. “This new approach allows for more workers across Connecticut to get vaccinated in a short period of time, and it eliminates potentially complicated rules.”
In a statement released by the Unitd Food and Commercial Workers Union, local 371, Jason Laviana, a supermarket employee in Torrington, described his situation.
“I’ve been working on the front lines serving my customers nearly every day since this started in March. I’m proud of the work I have done to keep my community healthy and fed. I never once demanded to stay home for my own safety. However, I have a preexisting condition, that I was born with, and I didn’t sign up to be exposed to a deadly virus at work. I was counting on this vaccine.”
Leadership in Laviana’s union said hundreds of grocery workers in Connecticut have contracted COVID-19.
In this issue, the workers and supermarket owners took the same side.
“We will be having difficult conversations with our associates who believed they would be eligible for a vaccination in the next phase,” the CT Food Association said in a written release. “It is important to ensure these workers receive the vaccination as soon as possible to keep them safe and to keep the supply chain operating efficiently.”
Staff Writers Amanda Cuda and Ken Dixon contributed to this story.