Connecticut became the first state Monday to fully vaccinate at least half its adult population against the novel coronavirus, pushing down the rates of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths, Gov. Ned Lamont said.
“That’s an extraordinary achievement that allows the reopening to continue in a prudent way. [It] makes such a big difference,” said Lamont, who is eliminating all limits on businesses other than wearing masks indoors as of May 19.
But the success comes as the demand for vaccinations is slowing here and nationally, suggesting that further advances in community immunity via inoculations may require more aggressive marketing and outreach.
Lamont was wary of speculating as to when or whether Connecticut would reach herd immunity, the point at which enough residents would have immunity from immunization or past infections to effectively halt transmission of the disease.
“It’s not an on-off,” Lamont said. “It’s not like, ‘Ah, finally, we’re at herd immunity, and we’ve stopped COVID dead in the tracks.’ You know, 50% fully vaccinated makes an enormous difference.”
Many experts estimate about 80% of Americans would have to be vaccinated for herd immunity, though new cases in Israel dropped to 75 a day once its vaccination rate hit the mid-50s.
Nationally, 40.6% of adults age 18 or older were fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Connecticut’s vaccination rate was 50.3%, trailed by New Mexico (49.9%), South Dakota (49.8%), Maine (49.3%), and Vermont (48%).
The five states with the lowest vaccination rates were in the south: Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Arkansas, with rates ranging from 30.5% in Alabama to 33.9% in Arkansas.
Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, noted that health experts, including Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and informal Lamont adviser, say it is unlikely the world will achieve herd immunity.
“We’re not in a position as a nation or world where there’s a plan to mandate vaccination for everyone out there,” Geballe said. “And therefore, there will be pockets of people who choose not to get vaccinated, and those pockets will provide opportunity for COVID to continue to lurk.”
Connecticut reported 1,312 new infections among the 73,821 tests administered since Friday, a positivity rate of 1.78%. Hospitalizations fell by 41 to 342. There were 15 deaths, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 8,112.
“Last year’s experience suggests that the summer should be a period — in Connecticut, at least — of extremely low transmission, even at the vaccination rates we’re at currently,” Geballe said. “But we’re thinking ahead, we’re thinking for the fall. And so we want to stay focused on getting everyone vaccinated.”
With the demand for vaccinations slowing, Lamont administration officials acknowledged that outreach to those who have yet to seek appointments would be necessary to push the numbers significantly higher.
Earlier Monday, the administration announced $13 million in federal grants to 27 local health districts to promote vaccinations through everything from door-to-door canvassing to phone calls and texting, as well increasing access to vaccines for the homebound and homeless alike.
The grants are intended to encourage “vaccine equity partnerships” with community organizations and vaccine providers in populations with lower vaccination rates.
“We are hopeful that through this program we are going to see the equity gap close as we strive toward our goal of a statewide vaccination rate of 80 to 85% or better,” said Dr. Deidre Gifford, the acting commissioner of public health.
Sixty-nine percent of adults in Connecticut have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 56.3% nationally. Two of the three approved vaccines require two doses to be fully effective.
Public health officials are promoting the vaccines as not only protection against COVID for the recipients but also a crucial element of halting community transmission.
“Because that’s how we break the back of COVID,” Lamont said.
Officials are anticipating a harder sell for younger adults.
As a group, they are statistically less likely to die or suffer serious complications. Joe Rogan, a comedian with a popular podcast, recently told young listeners they should skip the vaccine unless they had specific risks, prompting widespread criticism from health experts.
“I think right now people are getting a little bit casual, especially younger people are getting casual, which is why it could take a bit of peer pressure to get people there,” Lamont said.
The state does not have a micro-targeted campaign to address the diverse pockets of people with low vaccination rates, but Geballe said officials here are reviewing the growing body of research on the factors behind the hesitancy to get one of the vaccines, each of which were approved by an emergency process.
“A significant amount of research is getting done by the federal government and other groups on the national level looking at motivations or reasons that some different populations have decided not to get vaccinated, different messages that may resonate, different messengers that can be helpful,” Geballe said.
That governor seemed most concerned about reaching younger adults.
“I’m not sure a really sophisticated targeted marketing campaign is necessarily what it takes to get a 23-year-old out of bed and down to the vaccination site,” Lamont said. “And that’s often, you know, the target market.”
The state has ordered 158,000 doses for next week, Geballe said.