Devon Diaz, 14, of Meriden, is administered the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by Associate Health Director Stephanie Denya during a vaccination clinic at the Meriden Senior Center on West Main Street in Meriden on June 10. Diaz wears his Wilcox Technical High School exploratory T-shirt during the clinic. Diaz’s twin sister Delaney, 14, also received the first dose of the vaccine during the clinic. Photos by Dave Zajac, Record-Journal

Effort to expand vaccine access continues in Meriden amid challenges

A special report by Michael Gagne, Record-Journal staff, July 02, 2021

Effort to expand vaccine access continues in Meriden amid challenges

Effort to expand vaccine access continues in Meriden amid challenges

reporter photo

MERIDEN — City health officials have zeroed in on Meriden’s most socially vulnerable neighborhoods and residents as their push to deliver more COVID-19 vaccines into people’s arms continues amid slowed public demand.

More than 56% of all COVID-19 vaccine-eligible residents in Meriden have now received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state health data. 

It’s a slight improvement over the week prior. At that time, the percentage of city residents who were eligible to receive a vaccine and had gotten at least one dose was close to 55%.

The latest calculations fall short of the 70% vaccination rate goal health officials had set for achieving herd immunity against the coronavirus and its variants. They are slightly higher than rates reported in other cities across Connecticut. Still, they are lower than in surrounding suburbs, which have reported significantly higher rates of vaccination.

The latest data also show disparities among different demographic groups within the city, although some gaps have narrowed. 

For example, across Meriden, just over 42% of Black residents eligible for the vaccine have received a shot, according to state estimates. That vaccination rate is higher than that for Native American city residents, which was around 33%. Meanwhile, just over 51% of eligible Latino residents have received a dose. Close to 52% of eligible white residents have started the vaccination process. 

Those estimates are preliminary and incomplete, as they do not include residents of multiracial backgrounds and whose race is not known.     

Locally, the gaps in vaccination rates for different racial and ethnic groups are less pronounced than statewide estimates. According to the latest figures, more than 61% of white residents eligible for the vaccine had received an initial dose. By comparison, less than 48% of the state’s Latino residents and less than 40% of its Black residents had done so. 

By the end of June, 34,047 Meriden residents out of a population of 59,395 had been at least partially vaccinated. Within that group, 30,551 residents were fully inoculated. According to estimates, 50.7% of city residents were considered fully vaccinated. 

A deeper look at vaccination rates across Meriden shows the rates of vaccination vary based on where residents live. Within the city there are pockets where vaccine rates are significantly lower than in others.

The disparities appear to correlate with the characteristics of neighborhoods and surrounding areas. Those characteristics include household makeup, income, race and ethnic background and the numbers of residents who do not have motor vehicle access.

An example is the neighborhood near downtown in an area just south of Interstate 691 that spans eastward from Chamberlain Highway to Lewis Avenue and stretches to West Main Street.

That stretch, where an estimated 1,774 residents live, and the area just east of it, are sections of the city considered to have high social vulnerability. Both areas have ethnically diverse populations, with significant percentages of residents whose incomes fall below federal poverty levels. 

Across that second area — surrounded by Lewis Avenue, I-691, Colony and West Main streets and marked on city census maps as Tract 1702 — state Department of Public Health data show 85% of vaccine eligible residents have received an initial COVID vaccine shot. Within its neighboring tract, 1703, the area including Chamberlain Highway, the vaccination rate is just over 65%. 

Within a span of about six weeks, the vaccination rates in both areas had seen double-digit improvement.

The two locations are among those targeted by local health officials in an effort to increase vaccine distribution, as local health officials shift from a strategy that for several months had focused on large vaccination sites to more localized efforts. State public health data show the switch has come with some success. 

Need to expand access

Lea Crown, Meriden health and human services director, acknowledged the need to improve vaccine access. Crown shared documents that detailed how her agency had planned to expand that access, in emails exchanged with the Record-Journal.

Crown explained it has been through community conversations and other discussions with partnering agencies that her department has learned of three key factors to describe those who have decided not to receive the vaccine. 

Lea Crown, Meriden’s director of Health and Human Services, Tues., June 22, 2021. Dave Zajac, Record-Journal

Through those conversations local health officials learned that “persons who have not yet received the vaccine have stated they do not want to get sick after their shot, they want to wait until more people have gotten it, or that they do not believe in the vaccine and have no plans on receiving the vaccine,” Crown wrote. 

The Meriden Health Department has attempted to reduce barriers to vaccination, including eliminating the need to set up an appointment or to provide identification or medical insurance information at any of its clinics. 

“Bilingual staff are at each clinic, and we provide the vaccine information sheet in the person's preferred language,” Crown wrote. 

Meanwhile, the city’s push to achieve that 70% vaccinated benchmark continues. So officials are targeting parts of the city considered vulnerable. 

Using census tracts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measure characteristics to determine whether they “may weaken a community’s ability to prevent human suffering and financial loss in a disaster” through what is called the Social Vulnerability Index. 

According to CDC data and a map that shows each separate census tract’s social vulnerability index ranking, seven of Meriden’s 17 tracts rank high in social vulnerability based on one or more of the measured characteristics.  Another four tracts rank moderate to high on that index. Meanwhile the remaining six tracts rate as either low vulnerability or low to moderate. 

Census data show some of the most vulnerable stretches of Meriden are also among its least vaccinated.

In one such area, around where Old Colony Road meets the lower stretches of Cook Avenue and South Colony Street, one in five residents lives below the federal poverty line. Single parent households make up close to 12% of overall households. Around 48% of the 6,700 total residents are non-white.

In that area, just over 52% of residents over the age of 16 had received their first COVID vaccine shot as of late-June. Vaccination data showed roughly one-third of residents there between the ages of 16 and 44 had received one vaccine dose. 

Vaccination data show the distribution of vaccines in this area has been slow compared to other parts of the city. 

By contrast, in another area, the southeast corner of Meriden surrounding Research Parkway, a little more than 5% of residents live below the poverty level. Nearly 73% of the area’s population over 16 years old is at least partially vaccinated. 

Local health officials at this point did not identify specific characteristics of neighborhoods with the city’s lowest vaccination rates that could be factors impacting those rates. 

The city has utilized state grant funding, through DPH’s Vaccine Equity Partnership Funding Program, to increase vaccine access. The city received a nearly $321,000 grant intended to increase vaccine access for medically underserved populations, which include communities of color, those with limited English skills, single-parent households and low income residents. 

DPH advised local officials using the vaccine equity funds to target such areas and to take “into consideration communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic, in terms of infection rates, hospitalization, and mortality.”

City health officials sought those funds to address disparities in vaccination rates they observed early in the spring. 

In the city’s application for the state vaccine grant, officials referenced the local health department’s own vaccine distribution figures. By the second week of April, the Meriden Department of Health and Human Services had administered 9,046 vaccines. The recipients included 5,974 Meriden residents. The vast majority of recipients — 89% — identified as white, while 11% identified as Latino, 3.5% identified as Black and less than 1% as Asian. Roughly 8% of vaccine recipients did not report a race or ethnicity at the time. 

Local health officials also described an inability to provide vaccines for homebound residents. 

Officials observed national research that showed Black, Latino and Native American people were “[four] times more likely to be hospitalized and nearly [three] times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people.” 

Yet, officials noted, nationwide, African Americans had “nearly the lowest rates of vaccination among any ethnic group. In fact, white Americans are being vaccinated at a rate [three] times higher than Black Americans.” 

Local officials promised to improve outreach to Black and Latino communities “to address myths and misconceptions about the vaccine and reduce any barriers individuals have to accessing vaccination appointments. Having trusted messengers in the community is key,” officials stated in the application narrative.

In an April 30 notification to the city, state officials wrote, the grant funding came with a stipulation: “the funded activities should be designed and delivered to the medically underserved communities and disproportionately affected populations, in places where they live, work, and socialize and by the people they know and trust.”

So city health officials have partnered with the Community Health Center, the Salvation Army, Casa Boricua, New Opportunities Inc., and Hartford Healthcare, which operates MidState Medical Center, to boost vaccination outreach efforts.  

Persuading the vaccine-hesitant

Anabel Beltrán Román, Casa Boricua’s executive director, is familiar with the challenges of persuading hesitant people to get vaccinated. 

Román’s agency serves a largely Spanish speaking clientele. Generally she’s encountered individuals who are hesitant to receive a vaccine because they’re awaiting more information or they’re unsure whether the benefits of being vaccinated outweigh the risks. 

On the day she spoke with the Record-Journal, she was able to convince three vaccine-hesitant people to get inoculated. 

Anabel Beltran Roman, executive director of Casa Boricua De Meriden at 204 Colony St., Meriden, Mar. 23, 2021. Casa Boricua De Meriden is a non-profit community working to improve the education, health and well-being of Puerto Rican/Latino people in the greater Meriden area. Dave Zajac, Record-Journal
“That’s a win for me,” Román said, adding she prefers to use the word educate in describing her conversations with hesitant individuals.

“I want to educate people so they make an educated decision on their own. It’s not because ‘ Anabel told me. It’s because I believe in this and I want to do the right thing — the right thing for myself and for my family,’” Román said of the outcome she hopes those conversations produce. 

Román found that one of the most effective strategies she can employ is to use herself as an example. Almost everyone in her family is vaccinated. She chose to be vaccinated less for her own health than that of family members — particularly her father. She sees vaccination as a way to protect him.

“The main reason is I don’t want my dad to get sick,” Román said. “My dad is 90….  If a person has elderly family members, they can relate.”

Health officials are hoping messages about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines delivered by those who individuals trust will lead to increased inoculations. Crown acknowledged that messaging may not necessarily come from organizations, like hers. 

“Friends and family are trusted messengers and can help encourage those who have not yet been vaccinated to do so,” Crown wrote.

Reaching a tipping point

Deploying large-scale vaccination efforts where vaccine rates are low requires enlisting the support and backing of community leaders, religious leaders, political leaders and local celebrities, according to Yale University School of Public Health dean and epidemiologist Dr. Sten Vermund.

Vermund started his decades-long medical career as a pediatrician. His work expanded to include infectious disease study ever since the HIV/AIDS pandemic began in the early 1980s. His work, in the United States and overseas, has also included treating ebola, Zika virus and tuberculosis patients. 

He explained how the CDC uses census tracts to prioritize areas and populations that may have difficulty recovering from a disease outbreak or natural disaster, by analyzing them as smaller units. 

“Think about New Haven County. It’s hugely diverse,” Vermund said. “In terms of COVID vaccination coverage, we are seeing tremendous variation by social vulnerability index.” 

By engaging with local leaders, “you can sometimes achieve a tipping point in attitude,” Vermund said. 

Meriden Health and Human Services alone has conducted more than 70 vaccination clinics and administered more than 12,000 vaccinations since last December, Crown said. 

“Due to our limited staffing, and our focus on vaccinating our residents according to the Governor's tiered system, we have not done any targeted clinics to specific populations,” Crown explained. 

Meanwhile, other vaccine providers have, including Community Health Center and Hartford HealthCare.

Crown noted Community Health Center’s ability to provide multilingual staff who are able to assist homebound residents who cannot attend a vaccine clinic. 

In addition to outreach through local media, the Meriden Health Department has deployed mobile vaccination vans in areas like the neighborhoods just south of downtown, which are considered highly susceptible. The health department, through its mobile efforts, is now able to offer day, evening and weekend clinics, according to Crown.  

“The challenge is now trying to reach persons who have not yet been vaccinated and provide opportunities to do so. It's putting 80% of our work to outreach to smaller populations while maintaining full public health and human services to our community,” Crown wrote. “This is when partnerships like the ones we have with other vaccine providers and community agencies is so important.”

Amy Taylor, regional vice president for Community Health Center, said her agency will be conducting more mobile vaccination clinics as a result of the grant. 

CHC, like other providers, is undertaking a dual effort: educating patients about the vaccine and addressing other concerns people have. Chief among those concerns is vaccine side effects and missing out on work. 

“That is a real issue for people,” Taylor said. 

Conversations with primary care doctors and community leaders have also been an important part of local outreach efforts. St. Rose of Lima Church and Mount Hebron Baptist Church both hosted vaccine clinics earlier this spring. 

Taylor said the churches validated for their community members “this is a safe thing to do.”

It was also in an environment where people feel safe and protected. 

Accessibility and convenience are other issues CHC is hoping to tackle. On Friday, the center held a pop-up clinic at Hubbard Park. 

Pastor Willie Young walks through a worship room at Mount Hebron Baptist Church at 84 Franklin St., Meriden, Mar. 5, 2021 ahead of a COVID-19 vaccination clinic. Dave Zajac, Record-Journal
The Rev. Willie Young, pastor of Mount Hebron, said after his church hosted vaccine clinics in the spring he was encouraged by the number of people he saw walk through the doors to receive a shot.

Young acknowledged and said he understood the skepticism some individuals may have, especially those who have certain medical conditions. When people have questions about medical conditions, he recommends they consult with their doctors. 

He pointed to himself as an example that the vaccine is safe. 

“I tell them, ‘I took it. I’m still living,’” Young said.

Sonya Jelks, the majority leader of the Meriden City Council, is familiar with the discussions around Meriden’s previously stagnant, but improving, vaccination rates. Jelks, who is Black, also knows well the apprehension many individuals and families such as hers have struggled with in deciding whether to get vaccinated. 

“We are battling co-morbidity. We also still have historical context of there being some distrust of the medical profession,” Jelks said, noting the bloodclot issues that had been connected to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine early on “scared some folks into reconsidering” whether to get vaccinated. Other anecdotes suggesting potential heart-related complications from other vaccines have not made decisions easier for the hesitant, Jelks said. 

They’ve also seen the impact of the coronavirus on people they know. A close neighbor died from COVID-19. Others have recovered from the virus, but have experienced lingering complications from it. 

The conversation around whether to get vaccinated now, or to wait, played out within Jelks’ family. Jelks has been vaccinated. But her children’s father hasn’t. And he wanted to wait before their daughters got vaccinated. 

Their father’s argument was the data and studies around youth vaccines were not as comprehensive as those around adult vaccines, Jelks explained. 

“My kids really wanted to try to be back in school in the fall,” Jelks said, noting that fact is what eventually led to her daughters’ receiving the vaccines. “What you juggle is the risk of them being ill from the vaccine, or potentially having to sit out another school year and risking them getting COVID.”

Jelks said because she and her daughters are vaccinated, they “feel more protected.”

“We do that, not only to protect ourselves, but to protect the general public so it doesn’t continue to spread,” Jelks said. 

Of Meriden itself, Jelks said its vaccination rates are finally going up. But, then she references the number of city residents who died from COVID. That number as of late June stood at 156. 

“That’s 156 people, who had this vaccine came out sooner, they would still be alive,” Jelks said. 

mgagne@record-journal.com

203-317-2231

Twitter:@MikeGagneRJ


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