CDC director breaks ground on expansion to historic Fair Haven community clinic
During a press conference with Connecticut’s elected officials, Director of the Centers for Disease Control Mandy Cohen MED ’05 urged residents to get updated COVID-19 boosters.
Giri Viswanathan, Senior Photographer
The Fair Haven Community Health Center was born in a classroom 52 years ago, caring for low-income patients twice a week. Now, the Center is slated for a large renovation — one that will double the center’s size and increase the number of patients it can treat.
Almost to the day of its 52nd anniversary, Mandy Cohen MED ’05, the new director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many of Connecticut’s top elected officials attended a groundbreaking celebrating the center’s expansion.
The center now has over 300 staff members who treat patients regardless of their ability to pay. More than 90 percent of the center’s 32,000 patients are Black or Hispanic, and the vast majority are at less than half the federal poverty line.
Joining Cohen, Governor Ned Lamont, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Manisha Juthani, commissioner of the state’s Department of Public Health, urged Connecticut residents to get updated COVID-19 booster shots — asking for patience following reports of vaccine shortages across the nation. Lamont and DeLauro also received their vaccines during the press conference.
“With today’s groundbreaking we are poised to face the next 52 years of providing high-quality care,” Suzanne Lagarde, the CEO of Fair Haven Community Health Care, said. “We know that the task is a big one, but we stand on the shoulders of our predecessors. They were the true giants and we are emboldened by their energy and their mission.”
Center plans for significant expansion
The center’s expansion is its first capital project since its founding. In preparation for the project, the clinic bought and tore down adjacent properties in late 2022, including three Woolsey Street houses, five apartments and a pizza shop.
In their place, the center plans to build a new neighborhood clinic and community space, which will merge existing exam rooms and build 18 new ones to create a total of 27 more spacious patient rooms. The center will also add a pharmacy and laboratory to the space.
After the new building opens in 2025, the clinic hopes to expand the number of patients it sees from 32,000 to more than 65,000 per year.
Thursday’s groundbreaking was also attended by state attorney general William Tong, state senator Martin Looney, state comptroller Sean Scanlon and New Haven mayor Justin Elicker. The officials lauded Lagarde for her ability to secure funding and approval to expand the site.
“A lot of busy people are here today and only Christine Lagarde can gather people like this,” Elicker said.
Center touts long history of care for vulnerable populations
The center was founded after a group of Fair Haven activists came together to provide culturally sensitive health care for Fair Haven’s historically underserved population.
Growing from a school room with an original budget of $5,000, the center moved into its current buildings in the 1980s, after hiring their first staff. Now, the clinic is a Federally Qualified Health Center that receives federal funding and has been heralded as a national model by Xavier Bercerra, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Maria Melendez, one of the center’s founding members and a speaker at Thursday’s groundbreaking, described the clinic’s early days to attendees.
“Day after day we worked with many agencies and groups and community representatives to achieve the goal we had of treating people in a new way,” Melendez said.
Cohen, the CDC director, also spoke about the national importance of federally qualified health centers like the Fair Haven clinic. Since the nation’s first Community Health Center opened in 1965, these federally-funded health centers now serve more than 30 million people across 1,400 centers.
Cohen added that the center was an important resource during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to be an important location for people to receive their COVID-19 boosters.
Lamont, DeLauro receive booster
Four million people have received the updated COVID-19 vaccine, Cohen said, following a surge of cases in August and September. Even after a previous COVID-19 infection or vaccine, the body’s protection against the virus wanes. Getting the booster, Cohen said, is important to keep the body’s defenses up-to-date.
She also emphasized the importance of receiving routine flu shots. And after the FDA’s and CDC’s green-light earlier this year, she highlighted the importance of new vaccines for respiratory syncytial virus — known also as RSV — for older adults above the age of 60.
“This fall and winter, we’re going to have three viruses circulating, if not more — respiratory viruses that we didn’t know we’d be dealing with,” Cohen said. “By getting this updated vaccine, it allows your body to be in the best fighting shape it possibly can be.”
To boost confidence in the vaccine, Lamont and DeLauro received their booster shots during the press conference. They also emphasized that the vaccine is now free for all, regardless of insurance status.
Cohen, Lamont and Juthani acknowledge booster rollout hiccups in the state
In the past, the federal government purchased and distributed vaccines in bulk, making them free for everyone. Now, that is no longer the case: vaccine coverage is handled through the private sector, much like doses of other immunizations.
Even without government buyouts, however, the vaccines will still be free for everyone. According to Blumenthal, private insurance companies are required to cover COVID-19 boosters for individuals not on government healthcare plans like Medicare and Medicaid. Out of pocket, the shots can cost over $100.
“Insurance companies should be reaching out to people who were denied coverage, because they’re entitled to reimbursement,” Blumenthal said. “If you got the shot, and you’ve had to pay anything for it, you should go back to your insurance company and get reimbursed.”
For those without private insurance, Cohen highlighted the CDC’s Bridge Access Program, which covers free vaccines at retail pharmacies, such as CVS or Walgreens, and at health centers for uninsured or underinsured individuals.
The state also covers vaccinations for children.
“There is a vaccine for free with your name on it,” Cohen said. “Go out and get it today to protect yourself.”
The officials also addressed reports of vaccine shortages and canceled appointments. Juthani said that she had her booster appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine canceled before it was rescheduled a few days later.
DeLauro and Cohen cited the transition from government to private healthcare providers for the current set of boosters as a potential cause for delays.
“They are learning a lot of lessons about the challenges of distribution,” Cohen said.
However, Juthani clarified that the situation should be improving as “kinks get worked out.”
Juthani said that supply is increasing daily and estimated that the state should have adequate supply and distribution by the end of October.
The first COVID-19 vaccines were released on Dec. 11, 2020 through an FDA emergency-use authorization.