CT prison inmates expected in next wave of COVID-19 vaccinations

Photo of Peter Yankowski
RN Valerie Massaro administers the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to health care workers, Twenty-one days after they received their first shot from Hartford HealthCare at the Hartford Convention Center in Hartford, Connecticut on January 4, 2021.

RN Valerie Massaro administers the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to health care workers, Twenty-one days after they received their first shot from Hartford HealthCare at the Hartford Convention Center in Hartford, Connecticut on January 4, 2021.

Joseph Prezioso / Getty Images

Connecticut prison inmates and residents of other congregate settings should be included in the next wave of COVID-19 vaccinations, a key subcommittee of the vaccine group advising Gov. Ned Lamont decided Tuesday.

The subcommittee plans to recommend moving food service workers into the next phase — including those who work in charitable services such as food banks or who deliver meals to older adults, as well as health inspectors. Wastewater and sanitation workers will also be in the next wave of vaccinations.

Including inmates in the same wave of vaccinations as prison staff caps a long debate after the American Civil Liberties Union called for medically vulnerable inmates to be vaccinated in the first wave along with doctors, nurses and nursing homes.

But it remained unclear Tuesday where those with intellectual or developmental disabilities will fall on the state’s vaccine distribution timeline.

That came as the state recorded 2,332 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday and the daily positivity rate bounced back up to 7.66 percent. There were 38 more hospitalizations, bringing the statewide total to 1,149.

Another 24 fatalities attributed to the illness were also reported, pushing the Connecticut death toll to 6,192.

The discussion over who gets the vaccine next follows broad guidelines released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

The guidelines are not binding — states can adjust the vaccination order for their residents.

In Connecticut, Lamont has said he will make the final decisions on how the vaccine is doled out to different groups. But the governor has also said he plans to follow the recommendations of his vaccine advisory group, which is working with the CDC guidelines.

But on Tuesday, members of the advisory group’s allocations subcommittee appeared to be less clear on whether and how to move up people with conditions that put them more at risk from the disease — including those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“The part that we have been talking about that has been the most difficult to tease out is what to do with individuals between 16 and 75 with and without comorbidities,” said Zita Lazzarini, the subcommittee’s co-chairwoman, who summarized the discussion at the end of the two-hour meeting.

“In other words — how to define who is vulnerable within that group, and therefore, how we would address racial and ethnic equity better and address other underlying health disparities often involving people with disabilities,” she said.

The subcommittee plans to meet again soon to discuss those questions in greater depth before determining where those people would fall on the state’s vaccination plan.

Connecticut has received about 170,000 first doses of vaccine, with 44,000 more doses expected this week, said Benjamin Bechtolsheim, director of the COVID-19 vaccination program for the state Department of Public Health.

The guidelines divide those to be vaccinated into four phases.

In Phase 1A, front-line health care workers, such as hospital staff, are vaccinated along with staff and residents of long-term care facilities, starting with nursing homes before moving to other settings, including assisted living facilities.

First responders “at risk of exposure to COVID-19 through their response to medical emergencies” are also included in the first phase, according to Connecticut’s vaccine guidelines.

The state expects Phase 1A to include some 320,000 people and up to about 260,000 of them willing to take the vaccine.

Phase 1B includes essential workers like firefighters and police, corrections staff, food and agricultural workers, postal workers, those who work in manufacturing, grocery store workers, public transit employees, and those who work in education and child care, according to the CDC’s recommendations. The group also includes people aged 75 and older, due to their high morbidity if they contract the disease.

State health officials believe people in that group will begin to get the vaccine later this month.

“We’re likely still going to have some folks in 1A who are receiving first doses either because they’ve been waiting to see their peers go first or things of that sort,” Bechtolsheim said.

In Phase 1C, people between the ages of 65 and 74 would be offered the vaccine along with people between the ages of 16 and 64 “with medical conditions that increase the risk for severe COVID-19,” according to the CDC’s recommendations. The group also includes any other essential workers not included in the first two phases.

But with some states reporting long lines and confusion as people get vaccinated, the Surgeon General Tuesday urged state leaders to not adhere too strictly to those guidelines if it means getting the vaccine out to those who want it.

“Your headline today really should be ‘Surgeon General tells states and governors to move quickly to other priority groups,” Dr. Jerome Adams said during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show. “If the demand isn’t there in 1A, go to 1B and continue on down.”

During Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting, the acting head of the state Department of Public Health said the phases would be “flexible” if demand for the vaccine wanes in one group.

“We don’t have a fixed period of time that Phase 1B will last 12 weeks, for example,” Acting Commissioner Deidre Gifford said.