West Haven's COVID-19 vaccination rate lags behind its neighbors, but why?

Photo of Brian Zahn

WEST HAVEN — Kelley Rose knew what she had to do in order to see her father.

Rose, whose father is 71 with diabetes and heart issues, made sure her family got vaccinated against COVID-19. In her family of four, two received the Moderna vaccine, one received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and one received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“We decided as a family to do what we could do to protect ourselves and our families,” she said.

But according to state data, Rose and her family are among the 49.54 percent of West Haven residents who had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of May 19; most available vaccines must be received in two doses, roughly one month apart. Amid that number, officials are looking for ways to reach those who still might be convinced to get the vaccine.

The vaccine — which in Connecticut had an age-based rollout in several phases since February — has been available to residents as young as 12 since May 13. Although roughly half of West Haven’s total population of residents has received at least one dose of the vaccine, it lags behind many of its neighbors.

Milford, Orange, Woodbridge, Hamden, North Haven and East Haven all have a higher percentage of residents who have received a first dose. Along Connecticut’s coast, Bridgeport, New Haven, New London and Groton are the only municipalities with lower rates of vaccination than West Haven, and are the only other communities with fewer than half of their total population with at least one dose of the vaccine so far.

Rose said she also has a 5-year-old grandchild not currently eligible for a vaccine who she and her family hope to protect through vaccinating themselves, which reduces their odds of transmitting the coronavirus.

Addressing hesitancy

Maureen Lillis, West Haven’s health director, said those in West Haven who are eligible and eager for the vaccine already have received it.

“Anyone who was interested and eager to receive the COVID-19 vaccine has been vaccinated,” she said.

“Those who are firm about not receiving it simply won’t. The challenge will be to identify those ‘on the fence,’ finding ways to help them work through their fears and concerns,” Lillis said. “Some feel that the vaccine was not tested long enough, and others simply have no trust in government, implicating compliance with public health guidelines.”

So far, West Haven has held four mobile clinics at community sites such as churches and a food pantry. Four others are scheduled through June 19. The city also holds a regular walk-in vaccination clinic at 201 Noble St. on Fridays from noon to 3 p.m.

To further reach that “on the fence” population, West Haven’s health department is planning a virtual town hall meeting with a panel that can address residents’ concerns directly.

However, a longtime community activist believes the city has neglected to make some obvious efforts to reach the city’s minority communities.

“They have to be told (about clinics),” said Carroll E. Brown of the city’s outreach to Black and brown residents.

Brown said that when she and her husband became eligible for the vaccine, there were no sites available in her neighborhood in the city’s Allingtown district. Ultimately, they sought out the vaccine where it was available in New Haven.

“They need to go to every church, but they don’t always ask,” Brown said.

According to the city health department, mobile clinics were held at Good Shepherd Ministries and House of Jacob Church on April 24 and 25, respectively. Another clinic was scheduled for House of Jacob Church May 23 as well as a clinic at Brent Watt Park June 19.

Mayor Nancy Rossi, who lives in the Allingtown section, said she was visited by outreach workers knocking on doors to reach people directly.

“We’re all trying to get as close to herd immunity as we can,” she said. “I’d like to see 100 percent, but unfortunately that isn’t going to happen. But I think we’ve done good.”

City Council President Ron Quagliani, D-At Large, has been part of the city’s vaccination clinic volunteer corps since January. He said he believes reaching people now is more challenging than it was when the demand for the vaccine outpaced the supply.

“There clearly is vaccine hesitancy here and it is my opinion that continued expansion of our faith-based partnerships is critical as our community members already have an established trust relationship with them,” he said.

“While my whole family chose to be vaccinated, I have spoken with others that are still hesitant as they feel the science is too new,” Quagliani said. “My hope is as time passes and vaccine efficacy is strong, hesitancy will dissipate.”

Disparity

Benjamin Bechtolsheim, COVID-19 vaccine director for the state Department of Public Health, said the map for vaccination rates initially favored areas in the state where there are nursing homes — a reflection of the first people who were made eligible for the vaccine when it began to arrive in the state. Since then, however, a pattern reflecting statewide health disparities has emerged.

“The uneven coverage that is starkly seen on that map is something we’ve observed from the moment we started in the general population phases of the rollout,” he said.

“We do see lower rates of coverage among communities of color, among younger people than older people and in rural, more conservative areas,” Bechtolsheim said.

Bechtolsheim said the current COVID-19 vaccine coverage in the state closely reflects that of annual flu vaccine coverage.

“It’s something the department has been working on for several years but has by no means cracked. We’re dealing with years of inherited systemic racism and continued systemic racism in the system,” he said. “We absolutely do want to see equal levels of high coverage across the state of Connecticut.”

Bechtolsheim said all data and evidence reflect that the easiest way to influence populations to receive the vaccine is ease of access and “getting a nudge from a trusted messenger, which is often someone in the local community.”

Dave Reyes, the department’s director of state and local outreach, said his team is mindful of making targeted approaches in every community.

“We understand access can be an issue to certain demographics,” he said. In the early days of vaccine rollout, for example, the state’s vaccine management website was exclusively in English. Also, many vaccination clinics take place during regular business hours — something that presents difficulties for working families that don’t have flexibility in their working schedules.

He said West Haven is one of the communities in the state that will be visited by DPH vans, which can bring mobile vaccination clinics to housing complexes and convenient, centralized locations such as the city Green.

Outreach

Summer McGee, dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences, said West Haven is a diverse community that includes a significant number of college students.

“We need the state Department of Public Health to double-down in diverse communities like West Haven, New Haven and Bridgeport to educate and give greater access to vaccination,” she said. “The state should set up vaccination sites on the West Haven beaches this summer and get shots in arms as people hit the sand.”

Several of the city’s residents who work in public-facing jobs said getting vaccinated was an obvious choice for them.

“I’m a nurse and I've had my second dose since Jan. 6,” said Karla Boutin. She said she intends on having her 15-year-old daughter receive a vaccine as soon as possible.

City Councilwoman Colleen O’Connor, R-At Large, said as a front-line worker she already received both doses of the vaccine.

“Better to be safe than sorry,” she said.

Former Mayor Ed O’Brien, who currently is running for mayor, said he believes the city requires a unique approach to surrounding towns and cities.

“West Haven is a larger and more diverse city compared to surrounding cities and towns, what works for our neighboring communities is certainly not working for us,” he said. He noted that, if it were a test, the current rate of people who received at least a first dose would be a failing grade.

Mayoral candiate and City Councilman Barry Lee Cohen, R-10, said he is a proponent of the vaccine and he hopes the city can better communicate with its population that it hasn’t reached yet.

There’s no such thing as too much communication or too much outreach, he said.

brian.zahn@hearstmediact.com