In what is believed to be a first in the country, Vernon officials have a made a deal with Uber to bring people to vaccine clinics.

Town officials, using COVID relief funding provided by the state, have contracted with Uber Health, based in New York City, to provide drivers for home-bound vaccine-eligible people on days when the town runs vaccination clinics.

“We know there are people who are housebound and have no family support, and we needed a way to reach them,” Vernon Emergency Services Director Michael Purcaro said. “There are people out there who are truly alone and need help, and we thought this could be a way to get them vaccinated.”

The town has set up its own call center to reach out to seniors about getting vaccinated, and they are asking — among other things — if they need transportation, Purcaro said.

In the small number of instances where people are unable to get to a clinic, the call center volunteers will arrange for them to get an Uber to the vaccine site, have the driver wait while they are vaccinated and sit through a 15-minute post-shot wait period, and then take them back home.

Purcaro said the Uber option is not available to all town residents.

“We obviously can’t afford to do it for everyone, but there are people out there who are truly alone and need help, and if getting them a ride will convince them to get vaccinated now, we can do that,” Purcaro said.

Hayley Prim, Uber’s policy manager for Connecticut, said the company believes Vernon is the first town to use its transportation service for vaccine clinics. Uber does a lot of work with hospitals, transporting people to doctor’s appointments, and it has drivers in every corner of the country that could participate.

“We are proud to partner with the town of Vernon to ensure transportation is not a barrier for our most vulnerable populations to access the COVID-19 vaccine,” Prim said. “We hope our technology can continue to be utilized as local towns and counties ramp up their efforts around immunization.”

Other grassroots efforts

Gov. Ned Lamont has prioritized the vaccinations of 75-and-older residents, but as state officials, hospitals and local health districts have rolled out that plan, they have found it is not going to be easy to reach this population.

Many don’t have computers, cell phones or e-mail addresses, while others have transportation issues.

While no other towns have yet turned to Uber, officials across the state are trying to be creative — from the Senior Center director in Norwich, who keeps a list of names of seniors in his back pocket in case an opening occurs at a clinic, to an initiative in West Hartford and Bloomfield to have paramedics give homebound elderly people vaccines in their own living rooms.

“I know a number of our municipal partners are also taking the initiative to look at providing transportation for people who don’t have it, or if … they’re living alone or they’re not in a congregate facility where the vaccines may be brought to them,” the state’s Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe said during a recent press conference.

Geballe said that state officials have heard of “a lot of grassroots work going on.”

“I’ve heard of churches who are adopting members of their community and helping ensure that they’re getting enrolled and they are aware of what’s available and giving them rides, so it’s a tremendous community effort across the state that’s going on right now.”

Filling open slots

In the Norwich area, Uncas Health District Director Patrick McCormack has been relying on Rose City Senior Center Director Michael Wolek to help him fill sudden openings at clinics.

“Mike keeps a file on every person he’s helped sign up for a vaccine that includes everything from their e-mail address to their passwords to VAMS [the federal Vaccine Administration Reporting system run by the Centers for Disease Control] because many elderly people who aren’t used to the technology don’t remember their passwords,” McCormack said.

At a clinic last week, McCormack said, they had four extra doses of vaccine, and “Mike pulled out his list of names and found four people who were scheduled for a different clinic and brought them in.”

Wolek said he has helped about 50 seniors sign up for their vaccinations so far. The Rose City Senior Center is an active facility where 100-150 people a day visited before the pandemic. Knowing the audience, Wolek realized pretty quickly that it was going to be frustrating for many of them to schedule appointments.

“Not a lot of 85-year-olds have e-mail addresses,” Wolek said. “Many of them just got frustrated with the process and tried the phone system, and that wasn’t working for them either.”

Wolek said he has helped many of them navigate the VAMS system and get appointments.

“My biggest concern is people who aren’t going to get vaccinated because they are housebound,” Wolek said.

Door-to-door vaccines

West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District Director Aimee Krause, along with West Hartford Fire Chief Gregory Priest, have a plan to reach the housebound seniors in her communities: administering vaccines door-to-door.

They have trained 11 paramedics in West Hartford and Bloomfield to be certified vaccinators. They will go to people’s homes, accompanied by a registered nurse, and give them their shots there. Under DPH regulations, a nurse or doctor is required to be with a paramedic administering vaccines.

Krause said the department is working with the social services departments in both towns to create lists of people who might need to be vaccinated at home.

“It’s not going to happen quickly, but I hope to start scheduling them soon, depending on amount of vaccine that we get,” Krause said. She is already doing regular weekly clinics with 200 shots per clinic in West Hartford and Bloomfield.

Krause said she doesn’t know yet how many people are in the position of needing home visits, but she said it’s likely more than people realize.

*By Dave Altimari, CT Mirror*