Hartford HealthCare expanding 'mega' vaccine clinics

A file photo of a nurse delivering a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine outside Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2020.

A file photo of a nurse delivering a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine outside Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2020.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

NEW BRITAIN —With a new massive vaccination clinic in downtown New Britain set to open in the next few weeks, health care officials made it clear that they are committed to vaccinating everyone.

During a news conference Wednesday morning, Hartford HealthCare officials announced the opening of a “mega” vaccine clinic at the Hospital of Central Connecticut in downtown New Britain that they hope will ramp up vaccination distribution to city residents.

The announcement from HHC comes as the state opens vaccination appointments for people age 65-74. But health care workers are still trying to raise the number of people age 75 and older to get vaccinated.

Of New Britain’s roughly 4,935 residents age 75 and older, only 17.9 percent — or 882 people — have received their first vaccine dose, according to data released by the state on Feb. 3.

“No community left behind,” Jeff Flaks, president and CEO of Hartford HealthCare, said repeatedly during the news conference.

The new clinic is on track to open sometime between Feb. 22 and March 1, according to officials.

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The announcement of the vaccination site comes as Gov. Ned Lamont delivered his state budget address on Wednesday, vowing to make defeating COVID-19 the top priority “because if we don’t, nothing else matters.”

But Lamont has also said in recent weeks that capacity to administer shots far exceeds the number of doses the state currently receives from the federal government. The administration has also expressed optimism that the supply of doses could increase as Pfizer and Moderna increase production, and if the Food and Drug Administration approves an emergency use authorization for the single-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson submitted last week.

In Connecticut, the number of people hospitalized for the virus declined again on Wednesday, after a previous small increase. A net drop of 56 patients around the state brought the total COVID-19 hospitalizations down to 770 — the lowest since mid-November.

Another 888 cases were reported out of 28,662 tests, for a daily positivity rate of 3.1 percent. State officials reported 28 more deaths attributed to the disease brought Connecticut’s death toll to 7,326.

As the state opens vaccinations up to more people, Flaks said HHC is working to open a network of vaccination centers statewide to try to get vaccine dosages into residents.

HHC already operates massive clinics at the Torrington Armory and the Hartford Convention Center. Flaks said the health network secured rights to open additional clinics at the Xfinity Theatre in Hartford, Foxwoods Casino and the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford.

A clinic has been established at Central High School in Bridgeport and another in Norwich will be expanding, Flaks said.

Flaks added that a team is scanning major metropolitan areas and communities statewide, putting out inquiries for sites that meet a series of requirements needed for additional vaccine clinics.

Bridgeport Hospital and Yale New Haven Health are set to open a mass vaccination site at the University of Bridgeport on Friday. The site can administer more than 1,700 vaccine doses per week and will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily while supplies are available.

Flaks said HHC’s system is built to handle about 35,000 vaccines weekly, but it is prepared to ramp up distribution.

“We have a plan in place, we’re ready to pivot on a dime to move to do more than 75,000 vaccines a week,” Flaks said, adding that the new clinic can help drastically increase these numbers.

New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart praised the collaborative efforts that led up to this point, but stressed that the work isn’t over. She said getting vaccines to residents comes with concerns regarding transportation, technology and trust.

Stewart said the clinic’s location downtown should help with some transportation concerns. She said volunteers and staff are working to help those having technology issues.

The trust barriers continue to be addressed as officials work to get the word out that the vaccine is safe and effective, Stewart said.

Henry Anyimadu and Sarah Banks, both infectious disease specialists working on the front lines, urged community members to get vaccinated as they are eligible.

Anyimadu stressed how the virus has disproportionately impacted people of color, but people of color were still hesitant to get the vaccine.

“It breaks my heart to think that those most impacted are the most reluctant to accept” the vaccine, Anyimadu said, adding that he hopes the new vaccine center will be a step forward in getting more people of color vaccinated.

He reminded residents that any information saying the vaccines are unsafe, ineffective or were developed too quickly are simply “myths.” He urged anyone with concerns to reach out to the health care system to talk to a medical professional.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday said double masking — wearing a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask — can reduce the wearer’s risk of exposure to COVID-19. The announcement, part of two studies the federal agency conducted using dummies, also recommends knotting the ear loops of a mask and then folding and flattening the extra material close to the face to improve fit.