Regina Sung, Contributing Photographer

The first mobile vaccination unit in the nation, supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, will arrive in New Haven on April 8, following a 10-day stay in Bridgeport. This FEMA unit — which will vaccinate state residents with the one-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine — will stay in the Elm City for two days and return for two days in May.

The mobile vaccination unit is part of a federal effort to “support jurisdictions in providing COVID-19 vaccinations” and increase accessibility to the shots, according to a March 26 FEMA press release. Following its Monday launch in Bridgeport, the unit, which travels through a van, is scheduled to make its way across the Nutmeg State, stopping twice in New Haven and visiting 17 municipalities over the course of two months. Other vans will be deployed to other states across the country according to FEMA.

The press release outlines that destinations were selected based on the CDC’s social vulnerability index, the U.S. census bureau’s community resilience estimates and other metrics that indicate low vaccine coverage or other barriers to vaccine access.

“FEMA has supplied the [mobile vaccination unit] and the state is providing everything else,” Harry Leo Skinner, external affairs officer for FEMA, wrote in an email to the News. “FEMA’s focus is to ensure equity [in] distribution of the vaccine to those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”

FEMA’s mobile unit is expected to administer a minimum of 250 vaccinations per day, with the capacity to vaccinate up to twice that amount, according to a press release from Gov. Ned Lamont’s office. In New Haven, this could mean as many as 2,000 vaccinations over the four days the van will be in the city this spring.

The unit comes at a time when vaccination eligibility in Connecticut is about to expand dramatically to the approximately 1.3 million state residents between the ages of 16 and 44 on April 1.

In Connecticut, the mobile vaccine unit will be staffed by UConn Health, Griffin Health, Hartford HealthCare and Trinity Health of New England. The Yale New Haven Health System will not be directly involved with FEMA’s operations.

According to WTNH News 8, the mobile vaccination unit first set up shop at Bridgeport’s Beardsley Zoo and has since moved to the city’s Department of Public Health building, where it will stay until April 1. Anne Horbatuck, vice president of Ambulatory Operations at UConn Health, told NBC Connecticut that the Bridgeport vaccine site consists of a large tent, where vaccine administration services will be provided, and the van itself, where the actual doses will be stored. Horbatuck added that the tent also includes a waiting area and six socially-distanced sections for medical professionals to administer shots.

Following the Bridgeport launch, Lamont held a press conference in which he expressed excitement about seeing so many people at the van when it opened.

“It just shows that we are going to make an extra effort, especially in those communities where it’s not easy for them to get vaccinated,” Lamont said of the mobile vaccination unit project. “We’re making it easy for them.”

FEMA has said its mobile vaccine units will only administer the Johnson & Johnson shot in an effort to enhance the program’s efficiency — for the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, individuals are encouraged to get both doses at the same clinic, which is difficult to do in a moving vaccination van. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the only currently FDA-authorized candidate that requires just one dose to confer immunity.

In early March, Lamont released a list of 50 Connecticut zip codes that will receive priority vaccine access, according to their Social Vulnerability Index. This list included much of Bridgeport, along with zip codes in New Haven’s Dixwell, Westville, Fair Haven, Dwight, The Hill and Newhallville neighborhoods. The FEMA van will be targeting areas on this list, Lamont said.

Jeffrey Flaks, CEO of Hartford HealthCare, also attended the Bridgeport launch, and added emphasis to the importance of providing vaccines to the communities on Lamont’s list. Hartford Health, Flaks said, has noted that the proportion of vaccines given to residents of these 50 zip codes has risen in recent weeks — from 34 percent three weeks ago to 39 percent this week. Flaks added that he hopes the percentage will rise above 40.

“The race is to get this vaccine to as many residents within our state as quickly and as safely as possible,” Flaks said. “We have made a commitment, and our commitment is to ensure that no community will be left behind.”

As part of efforts to improve vaccine accessibility, the state also plans to distribute $33 million in federal funds to local health departments and community organizations meant to “establish outreach, education and services for minority and traditionally underserved communities,” according to the press release from the governor’s office.

According to Lamont and Connecticut Public Health Acting Commissioner Deidre Gifford, the effort will include an expanded outreach campaign, including phone banking, canvassing and more mobile vaccine units like the one coming to the Elm City.

“Early on, we recognized we need to do better in underserved and minority communities who have been hard hit by COVID-19,” Gifford wrote in the press release. “By providing funding and support to local equity partnerships, we are empowering the people and organizations on the ground who know the residents of these communities best to reach out and ensure they have the information and access necessary to receive the vaccine.”

Local health departments, Lamont and Gifford said, can apply for funding by April 15, and grants will be distributed around April 23. Application information is being communicated by the state this week.

As of Monday, around 700,000 Connecticut residents are fully vaccinated.

Maria Fernanda Pacheco |
Owen Tucker-Smith |

Maria Fernanda Pacheco is a staff reporter for the Science & Technology desk of the Yale Daily News. Originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she is a sophomore in Grace Hopper College majoring in Neuroscience and participating in the Global Health Studies program.
Owen Tucker-Smith was managing editor of the Board of 2023. Before that, he covered the mayor as a City Hall reporter.