New guidelines for COVID-19 vaccine welcome surprise in Westport

Photo of Katrina Koerting
A tray of syringes filled with doses of COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination clinic set up in the gymnasium of the Bigelow Center for Senior Activities, in Fairfield in Jan.

A tray of syringes filled with doses of COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination clinic set up in the gymnasium of the Bigelow Center for Senior Activities, in Fairfield in Jan.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — Ellen Johnston was surprised on Monday when she learned she would be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine beginning March 1.

“I didn’t think it was probably going to be until May,” said Johnston, the head coach and director of competitive swimming for the Westport Weston Family YMCA.

She said she doesn’t expect the vaccine to change her behavior or plans at all. She will still follow all of the state’s COVID guidelines, and coaching doesn’t give her much time for plans outside of the pool.

“It’s more of an ease of mind,” said Johnston, who lives in Fairfield.

School officials also said the new plan was a welcome surprise as it now meant teachers and school staff were at the front of the vaccination rollout.

“We’re really excited,” Superintendent Thomas Scarice said. “Overall, it’s just been great news.”

He said K-8 already returning and the plan to bring Staples students to three days a week on March 1 is great timing with the vaccine, as well as the town and state’s declining positivity rate.

Essential workers and people with pre-existing conditions had been considered as part of the next group, but on Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont announced those two categories presented a lot of challenges and questions about who would qualify.

Instead, the state expanded vaccine eligibility to the schools and child care, as well as those 55 to 64 years old beginning March 1.

Lamont said 96 percent of the COVID-related deaths occurred in those over the age of 50.

“Age is a key determinant in terms of risk of fatalities, complications, hospitalizations — all of the things we’re desperately trying to avoid,” he said.

He also said it was important to vaccinate teachers and school staff so they could keep the schools open and get students in the classroom.

Suzanne Levasseur, Westport schools’ health services supervisor, said they were still awaiting more information from the state, which has asked the districts to be patient with the specifics on how to deliver the vaccine.

“While we are being patient, we’re advocating for our staff to get this done as quickly as possible,” she said.

Westport is already working on setting up a clinic for the eligible employees at the public and private schools in Westport, Weston and Easton, since the three towns share a health district. Westport’s school health staff is already being trained to help with the intake, as well as possibly delivering the shots.

“I’m blown away by how quickly our team mobilized,” Scarice said.

He said the clinic could happen as soon as March 4.

“Future clinics will largely be dependent on supply,” he said, adding Connecticut had been getting about 45,000 doses a week and has been told that might increase to 100,000 a week.

Officials are considering posting the percentage of staff who are vaccinated on the school website since parents have said it would make them more comfortable to send their children again, but are hesitant because it might not be an accurate representation of what’s happening. The district would only have the numbers for people who visit their clinic. Some staff are already vaccinated because they qualified under previous eligible groups while other employees’ health care providers may have told them not to get vaccinated yet.

Levasseur cautioned the state wasn’t in the clear for the more contagious COVID variations, but she was “cautiously optimistic” about preventing the spread because of the district’s mitigation methods and the quicker vaccine rollout.

The state’s new plan is expected to expand to those 45 and older on March 22, those at least 35 on April 12 and those at least 16 on May 3.

The new age change meant Johnston and thousands of others across the state were now next in line.

She said she plans to register and sign up for the vaccine beginning next week, though she expects many others will also be doing the same thing.

Johnston said she doesn’t usually get sick. She has never had the flu shot and never gotten the flu, but knew she wanted to get the COVID vaccine when it was available.

She oversees 220 competitive swimmers between the ages of 6 and 23 and said the vaccine is good news for them too, especially the older ones because it could mean the chance for swimming to become more social again.

“It will make things more comfortable,” Johnston said.

She said the team has continued to have meets in-house following the state guidelines. Parents have been sending her emails expressing gratitude at seeing their children smile as they get out of the pool.

“Swimming has been important for physical and mental well-being,” Johnston said. “Our attendance has been great.”