Map: As COVID restrictions ease, CT vaccine disparities persist

Photo of Peter Yankowski

As Connecticut took its largest step this week toward returning to life before the pandemic, the state’s data shows COVID vaccinations are lagging in towns on the eastern side of the state as well as underserved neighborhoods.

In the northeastern corner of the state, a patchwork of towns along the Rhode Island border from Thompson south to the Plainfield area report less than half of people age 16 and up have received at least one shot of a vaccine.

“In some of our smaller towns, vaccinations are lagging,” Gov. Ned Lamont said Friday following an event in Ridgefield. “I think they weren’t hit as hard by COVID as we were (here) ... So I think they maybe don’t feel quite the same sense of urgency.”

Lamont also attributed the lower vaccination rates to hesitancy in younger adults, the 25- to 35-year-old demographic he has referred to as the “invincibles.”

“But overall, we’re one of the most vaccinated states in the country,” Lamont added.

More than 60 percent of Connecticut’s total population of around 3.6 million have received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 49.8 percent of the population considered fully vaccinated as of Thursday.

That comes as the state on Wednesday began allowing fully vaccinated people to go without a mask indoors in most public settings, although businesses and events can still require visitors to wear face coverings. Those who are not fully vaccinated are still required to wear a mask indoors. The state’s outdoor mask mandate ended on May 1.

Some public settings will still require fully vaccinated people to wear a mask, including inside public transit and transportation hubs, health care offices, congregate settings like jails and nursing homes, and inside school buildings.

The state’s COVID-19 metrics have also remained low in recent weeks. On Friday, the state recorded a 0.93 percent positivity rate for the second day in a row with 171 new infections found out of 18,425 tests. There was one fewer person hospitalized, dropping the statewide total to 140. Four more deaths increased the state’s total to 8,212.

The loosening mask restrictions came as Connecticut also rolled back its remaining COVID-19 restrictions on public life, allowing bars that did not serve food to fully reopen for the first time in 14 months. New York and New Jersey planned similar reopenings for the same day as part of a regional reopening.

But how far the vaccines reach can vary wildly by ZIP code.

The latest census district data, which was published by the state Department of Public Health on May 11, also shows significant disparities in vaccination for communities on the social-vulnerability index, a term used by demographers to track communities that are considered underserved.

In Bridgeport, for example, the state data shows underserved neighborhoods in the city’s east and west sides have only around a quarter to half of residents 16 and older at least partially vaccinated.

In eight blocks between Madison Avenue and Pequonnock Street in The Hollow, a neighborhood just west of downtown Bridgeport, only about 22 percent of residents 16 and older have started vaccination.

A six-minute drive west and over the border into Fairfield, the data shows more than 85 percent have received a first dose.

“We’re trying to have some fun with this,” Lamont said, “but we’re also taking the vaccine vans to the most underserved communities in our state — many of them in our cities — getting the vaccine right to them, actually doing house calls.”

Lamont said Friday he believes allowing fully vaccinated people to go without a mask indoors will incentivize those who are on the fence about getting the shot. He also touted the state’s program that allows vaccinated people to get a free drink with the purchase of a meal at a restaurant.

Similar disparities by neighborhood also appear in the state’s other major metropolitan areas.

In New Haven, areas of the Elm City’s East Rock neighborhood report vaccination rates as high as 93 percent among the 16 and older population. A few blocks west, the number drops to 33 percent. The city’s outskirts also show lower vaccination rates. Farther out into surrounding towns, vaccination rates rise again.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said the city has held more than 80 pop-up clinics through Griffin Health. Other clinics are planned for schools to help vaccinate children 12 and over, including in areas with low vaccination coverage. The city is also working on a plan to offer evening vaccination clinics.

Elicker said he doesn’t have hard data on what’s causing vaccine hesitancy, but said in his anecdotal conversations, none seem motivated by conspiracy theories or politics.

“I think there’s just a lot of hesitancy,” the mayor said. Some have simply told him, “I just haven’t gotten it yet,” but plan to soon.

“There’s not like a really rigid rejection of the idea,” he added.

In Hartford, neighborhoods bordering West Hartford and the city center show higher vaccination rates, while areas on the outskirts show lower uptake.

Groton and New London, on the state’s eastern shoreline, also show similar disparities. While New London neighborhoods report vaccination rates among those 16 and up below 25 percent, in neighboring shoreline areas of Groton and Waterford the number is above 75 percent.

The state is offering walk-up vaccinations through the mobile clinics it runs with Griffin Health, and has promised drinks and other freebies to try to convince people to get a shot.

“We want to make it as easy as possible — we’re coming to you,” said David Reyes, the state Department of Public Health’s director of state and local outreach. “We’re coming to you because we know access is an issue.”

Maura Fitzgerald, a spokesperson for the agency, said DPH has set up a website where organizers of large outdoor events can request a vaccination van. Reyes said the agency plans to send a van to a Juneteenth celebration. They also received a request to send the van to a cosmetology school.

During a recent outing in Hartford, Reyes said he canvassed hoping to convince people to get their shot. One woman he spoke with in Spanish asked questions, and said she wished there were more Spanish doctors explaining the vaccines on TV.

“They want someone who can talk to them,” Reyes said.

“I was there for two hours and six peoples got vaccinated — to me, that was a success,” he added.

Staff editor Alyssa Seidman contributed to this story.