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The Day – Regional health center network receives $3.3 million for vaccination efforts, COVID expenses

Norwich — United Community and Family Services, which recently received $3.3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, is now determining how it will use the money for vaccine distribution and other pandemic-related initiatives over the next two years. 

UCFS, which has health centers in Norwich, Griswold, Plainfield, Colchester and New London, is a nonprofit health care provider that uses federal funding to provide primary care services to underserved areas.

On Monday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal toured the UCFS vaccination site on Town Street and asked Jennifer Granger, the president and CEO of UCFS, how she saw UCFS using the federal money.

Granger told him that she sees one priority as implementing some sort of mobile health unit much like the mobile vaccination vans beginning to pop up across the state and the country.

While no decisions have been made, she said UCFS “just had a meeting where we talked about the benefit of mobile units and how that could really help us get into areas in our service area throughout New London and reach those not just with vaccine but with other services, to bring a more equitable approach to the vaccine and to our health care system in general.”

“We think that would be helpful in this area where public transportation is challenging. We are on a bus line, but sometimes it takes two hours to get from one end of Norwich to the other on a public bus, and that’s not even available in a lot of other communities we serve here in eastern Connecticut,” she added.

During his visit, Blumenthal met with other UCFS staff, including Nancy Holte, the director of nursing, and Mary-Jane Zocco, the lead pediatric nurse. Monday’s visit was part of Blumenthal’s ongoing effort to urge Connecticut residents to get vaccinated.

“All the talk about hesitancy for vaccines I think is misplaced,” Blumenthal said. “I don’t think there’s hesitancy or reluctance that can’t be overcome.”

Holte, Zocco and Granger took Blumenthal through the vaccination process from walking through the door and into the room where people get their shots and then into the observation room where those who have been vaccinated wait. Granger highlighted a kitchen that had been converted into a medication room, where the vaccine is kept and refrigerated. 

The work of getting people vaccinated carried on around Blumenthal’s tour. At one point, he stopped to talk and extol the vaccine with a man in the observation area who’d just received his second shot.

Visits from state and national politicians to UCFS have become normal as of late, Granger said, as Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz recently traveled to the Norwich site, and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney went to another UCFS site. 

Blumenthal said he went to the FEMA mobile vaccination van in Bridgeport on Easter. The importance of having mobile health clinics has been underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, as groups such as college students or homebound seniors are more likely to get vaccinated if the vaccines come to them, he noted. The FEMA van is coming to Norwich in early May.

UCFS staff answered questions from Blumenthal, including whether walk-ins were allowed at the center. If there are extra vaccines at the end of the day, UCFS consults a list and makes calls by age group to let people know. 

Holte said, and her colleagues agreed, that health care workers are as excited to give the vaccine as people are to get it — distributing vaccines is one of the few areas of health care consisting almost strictly of good news. 

Blumenthal said multiple times on Monday that vaccines are going to go “from scarcity to abundance” in the coming months.

“We’re likely to have, by the end of May, enough vaccinations for every man, woman and child in the United States,” he said. 

The problem, he said, will soon be with vaccine delivery rather than shortage.

“That’s where what you do is important,” Blumenthal said, addressing the health care personnel, “because you’re the boots on the ground, or the syringes on the ground.”

He said people should not be complacent because the danger of coronavirus variants remains. 

Granger said the funding will also be used to solidify staffing for COVID-19-focused work, such as testing or vaccinating.

“We’re pulling staff from our primary care clinic to perform this duty, and we’d really like to get them back to serving our patients, because there’s been a lot of patients who’ve been reluctant to come in for care,” Granger said. “We want to ramp up our vaccine and COVID testing programs by bringing in dedicated staff, funding more of a public health approach that’s a permanent approach at UCFS, instead of pulling people for some hours here, some hours there to run the clinic. We think we’ll get about triple the number of vaccinations that we give if we’re able to expand our hours and our staffing.”

Zocco is a case in point. She said children have been coming to the health center throughout the pandemic. She is coordinating UCFS’s vaccine program for children, which led to her coordinating the overall vaccination program. She said her new COVID-related responsibilities have pulled her from her usual child health care duties.

With more robust staffing, Granger said, vaccination sites could open on weekends and expand hours past the typical 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Blumenthal and UCFS officials also touched on getting vaccines to minors, as clinical tests on people as young as 12 are currently being conducted. No determinations have been made yet, as a vaccine hasn’t been approved for people younger than 16, but they recognized it as the next step in an effort to vaccinate as many people as possible.

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