Here's how Danbury area towns are handling COVID vaccinations as eligibility expands

Photo of Currie Engel

COVID vaccine eligibility opens up Monday to Connecticut residents aged 55 to 64, as well as to school employees and child care workers. Yet, even with more than half a million newly eligible residents signing up for appointments, several local officials plan to continue “business as usual” with their vaccination strategies.

The move, a surprising pivot from Gov. Ned Lamont last week that skipped essential workers and people with comorbidities, was followed by an announcement a few days later that the state expects to receive an additional 30,000 doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week.

A newly eligible batch of residents seems to suggest an increase in vaccinations per day, but this is not necessarily the case yet. As towns in the area prepared for this next phase, officials in four local communities said there wasn’t a lot they could control, aside from increasing call-line volunteer capacity and getting the word out to residents.

Officials in New Milford, Brookfield, Ridgefield and Bethel are still relying on vaccine allotments from the state, and can only vaccinate as many people as they are given doses for. Often, they don’t know if their complete dose request will be fulfilled, and have to place orders a week in advance. As such, they plan to continue with regularly scheduled clinics until more vaccine is made available. The appointment waitlists will just be longer, officials said.

Still, state officials are optimistic that this next phase could be a smoother one. With 887,325 residents having received a vaccine in the first phases, the hope is to keep increasing vaccination rates with clearly outlined and timed-out eligibility phases.

From an enrollment perspective, health officials, nurses, and volunteers now have a simpler eligbility template. Laura Cordeira, director of community health and wellness at RVNAhealth, said her team won’t have to parse through occupational groups and other eligibility guidelines in earlier groups, which was often very difficult. For that reason, she was happy about the simpler age-based eligibility criteria and said she hoped the clear timeline would “cut out gray area and anxiety” for those waiting and wondering when they’ll get the jab.

None of the towns will even be able to give out doses at their own clinics on Monday, as they generally receive shipments from the state on Monday or Tuesday after submitting an order the week before. Clinics then take place later in the week.

“We can’t do much planning ahead, unfortunately,” said Cordeira. “It’s very limited what we can do regardless of who is eligible.”

Cordeira said its been over a month since RVNAhealth got the full quantity of doses they requested, and she doesn’t anticipate that changing much in the near future.

Several towns have said they have the capacity to vaccinate at a greater rate if they received more doses. Brookfield has even said they’d move to a larger location.

“There’s really nothing stopping us except the supply chain,” Knickerbocker said.

Officials are also hopeful that this next age group will be able to more easily navigate through the federal Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS), where they register and make appointments.

One of the biggest challenges in earlier phases was computer and registration accessibility for seniors. At that time, towns began to set up tutorial videos and hotlines to answer questions. Now, most have their own phone lines functioning and are ready for calls on Monday.

“I think most of the people 55 to 65 have been in the workforce and working with computers for many years at this point,” said Brookfield First Selectman Steve Dunn. “I think it will be a much smaller problem navigating the intricacies of registering.”

Even so, RVNAhealth is increasing their volunteer capacity to help field calls from newly eligible residents. Volunteer numbers at United Way 211, a call line that helps residents make appointments, are expected to double, according to FOX61.

In preparation, New Milford is setting up a call center and just got approval for their own vaccine clinics which will open in March, increasing potential dosage, according to Mayor Pete Bass. He has also encouraged residents to volunteer their time to aid the vaccination process. In Bethel, First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker has been sending out frequent community bulletins.

Since the federal, state and local governments have had a few months of vaccine rollout under their belts already, they’ve already adjusted certain approaches, whether that be in outreach, appointment registration, or with the VAMS site itself.

“We’re really trying to make sure we can get a shot in everybody’s arm as soon as we can,” said Bass.