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Connecticut Breaks Federal Guidelines By Vaccinating People Based On Age

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Several states are starting to vaccinate people by age, which is a break from federal guidelines. In Connecticut, educators are still prioritized, but essential workers like grocers, security officers, janitors who would have been next, they will have to wait until their age group comes up. As Connecticut Public Radio's Brenda Leon reports, the state says it is trying to balance equity with speed to increase vaccines.

BRENDA LEON, BYLINE: Educators like Missy Giandurco, who teaches eighth-grade special education, are now at the front of the line for a vaccine.

MISSY GIANDURCO: I'm very excited. Honestly, it's been a very stressful year, and the governor made the right choice by moving it forward a little faster.

LEON: Someone who's not excited is DeShawn Brownell. His job as a security guard doesn't allow him to social distance. Under the previous plan, he would have been in the next group to be vaccinated, but he's 46 years old, and he'll have to wait.

DESHAWN BROWNELL: I'm a little bit younger, but at the same time, I have epilepsy. I have high blood pressure. What if something happens to me? I'm one of the main incomes in my house. Like, it's going to affect my kids. It's going to affect my wife, my outside family, like my mom, my dad. It's a domino effect.

LEON: Under the new roll-out plan, comorbidities or medical conditions like Brownell has will not be determining factors for eligibility. Brownell is a member of a union that represents doormen, janitors and other property service workers, and they are predominantly Black and brown. The Union, SEIU 32BJ, has lost seven of its members to COVID in Connecticut.

According to the state, essential workers and those with high-risk medical conditions comprise a third of Connecticut's population. Josh Geballe works in Governor Ned Lamont's administration. He says it was too complicated to verify who was in these groups.

JOSH GEBALLE: You need proof. Do you need a doctor's note? Because if you do, you may make it harder actually for people who don't have good access to health care or maybe are unemployed or undocumented.

LEON: So they decided to simplify. Geballe says state data shows age is one of the strongest factors contributing to COVID-19 deaths. Ninety-six percent of all COVID-related deaths in Connecticut are of people 55 and older.

Critics say the new age-based system discriminates against younger people with disabilities and underlying medical conditions. A nonprofit organization advocating disability rights is suing the state to prioritize at-risk people in younger age brackets. Gregg Gonsalves is a professor of epidemiology at Yale University. He says the state's simplified distribution system isn't designed to ensure equity.

GREGG GONSALVES: If you have access to resources, you're computer literate, you have some savvy in working your way through the system to signing up for vaccines, you're going to be first in line no matter what age class you're in.

LEON: And Gonsalves says an age-based rollout disregards existing racial disparities in health.

GONSALVES: The risk of death for somebody who is African American and between 55 and 65 may be higher than somebody who's over 65, for instance, right? And so in that way, it doesn't solve some of the issues that we need to discuss.

LEON: The federal guidelines that Connecticut is dropping are meant to relieve the burden of the pandemic on frontline workers like DeShawn Brownell and other high-risk groups. Connecticut officials expect the quicker rollout enabled by the new age-based plan will ensure that vaccines reach those hard-hit communities.

For NPR News, I'm Brenda Leon in Hartford.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMIE XX'S "OBVS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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