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Teachers, school staff will be able to get COVID vaccine at special March clinics

In a significant course correction, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Monday that teachers, school staff and child care providers will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations at special, dedicated clinics next week and that the state’s vaccine rollout will continue by age group.

Residents 55 to 64 years of age will be able to schedule a vaccination appointment next Monday, followed by those 45 to 54, March 22; those 35 to 44, April 12; and those 16 to 34, May 3.

The announcement, released shortly before Lamont’s press briefing on the state’s coronavirus response, came as parents across the state whose children have engaged in virtual or hybrid learning since last year have pushed school officials to resume full in-person instruction.

Classroom educators and staff working in prekindergarten through grade 12 and child care professionals will soon receive information from school administrators and employers on when the vaccination clinics will be available, in some cases starting as soon as next week, the governor said.

Food-service workers, janitors and bus drivers will be eligible for vaccinations, he said, advising that those who can telecommute or have tested positive for COVID-19 and have developed antibodies delay scheduling a shot.

"School board members, wait your turn," he said.

As recently as last Thursday, Lamont had indicated he would be announcing that the state’s phased vaccine rollout soon would be extended to essential workers as well as those with underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk for severe COVID-19 illness or death. The rollout began in December with health care providers and medical first responders the first to be vaccinated. In January, those 75 and older and those living in nursing homes and other congregate settings became eligible for the vaccine followed in mid-February by those 65 and older.

Lamont and his advisers determined that devising guidelines for a rollout to essential workers and those with underlying conditions was too complicated and could exacerbate inequities in vaccine distribution and slow down the process. The age-based rollout stands to significantly accelerate things, he said, provided supplies of the vaccine keep up with demand.

Lamont said he and other governors he spoke to had difficulty defining essential workers and deciding which underlying health conditions should make a person eligible for the vaccine.

“If you say grocery store workers, is it other food-service workers, too? What about people working at the convenience store where they sell doughnuts and coffee?” he said. “If it’s agriculture, is that landscapers ... arborists?”

The Connecticut Food Association responded promptly, calling Lamont’s change in course “unfortunate.”

“Despite the heartrending impacts of COVID-19, our state's residents have been able to count on a safe, stable supply of food to sustain them over the last year,” the association said in a statement. “That would not have been possible without the selfless individuals who came to work every day so that others could feed their families. We will be having difficult conversations with our associates who believed they would be eligible for a vaccination in the next phase. 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.”

Regarding underlying conditions, Lamont said questions arose about whether the category should include conditions that weren’t currently being treated and about whether the conditions should be limited to those listed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, he said, How would you go about verifying an underlying condition? Would a person have to provide a doctor’s note? What if the person didn’t have a doctor?

“Our goal is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we can,” Lamont said of the impetus for prioritizing vaccinations by age.

In administering more than 826,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, Connecticut has vaccinated about 70% of state residents 75 and older and 37% of those 65 and older, he said.

Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, said the group of those 55 to 64 and teachers, school staff and child care providers is estimated at 650,000 people, and that the groups of those 45 to 54 and 35 to 44 each totals another 400,000. He said the state’s supply of the vaccine from the federal government was increasing from 59,000 doses last week to 95,000 doses this week.

People of color are more likely than other groups to suffer complications and death — and are about half as likely to get vaccinated, Lamont said, requiring “a concentrated effort to reach out to underserved communities.” He said he was directing the state Department of Public Health to set numerical targets and work with vaccine providers to ensure that vaccines are administered to those living in the highest-risk communities in proportion to their population.

Questioned about the COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group’s involvement in developing the age-based vaccine rollout plan, Dr. Deidre Gifford, acting commissioner of the Department of Public Health, and Dr. Reginald Eadie, president and chief executive officer of Trinity Health, said the group provided ample input. Gifford and Eadie co-chair the group.

Gifford said there was no plan to allow younger people with underlying conditions to get vaccinated ahead of their age group.

During Monday’s briefing, Lamont reported that since Friday, 2,233 new cases of the coronavirus disease had been detected among 86,401 new tests, yielding a positivity rate of 2.58%. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients dropped by 35 to 500, including 23 in New London County, while 39 additional deaths pushed the state’s toll since last March to 7,562.

Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London reported it had 12 COVID-19 patients while Westerly Hospital had two.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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