'I just hope it's a smooth, quick process': Danbury mall vaccine clinic set to open, here's how it will work

DANBURY — In 10 days, Mary Gilbert will be among the first big group of residents to roll up to Danbury’s first mass vaccination site, pull her car into one of the six lanes, and get a COVID vaccine.

“I just hope it’s a smooth, quick process,” said Gilbert, a 58-year-old Brookfield resident.

The Community Health Center’s site at the Danbury Fair Mall opens Thursday and could eventually vaccinate 1,000 people a day.

That will be a big help after an estimated 610,000 Connecticut residents became eligible for the vaccine on Monday, Mayor Joe Cavo said.

The city health department’s clinic is booked through the end of the month, he said.

“The system currently has no ability to handle that many people in a short span of time,” Cavo said. “The vaccine will be distributed to everyone who wants one, but it’s a time thing, it’s a numbers thing.”

When Gilbert became eligible on Monday, she knew from experience that she’d have to log on late at night on Sunday to get a good appointment. She’d already been through the process twice: once with her mother, who was eligible in the first phase, and then with her husband, who was eligible in the 65+ group.

Instead of signing up through the town, she wanted to save time by going straight to the Vaccine Administration Management System, known as VAMS, and plugged her information in. At midnight, she got the email from the Department of Health and the forms to fill out for VAMS. When she logged in, she expanded her search to 20 miles to improve her chances of getting an appointment.

The first few places she scrolled past were completely booked. She started to feel a little daunted, knowing around 610,000 other residents had recently become eligible. Then, she saw an opening at the mall.

“It showed me the mall location and I thought, ‘Oh, there!’” Gilbert said.

Gilbert quickly selected an appointment on a Saturday — March 13 — so she’d be able to stay home from her job as an administrative assistant the following day in case she felt under the weather. Gilbert also said that she hoped that after a few days up and running, the site would have sorted out any kinks in the system by the time she arrived.

Overall, Gilbert said that her family’s experience getting signed up for vaccines has been “perfect” so far.

She is, however, slightly concerned about how how the six-lane drive through will actually work.

“I’m hoping that it’s not one of those things that even if you have an appointment time you’re waiting an hour,” she said.

But Gilbert has had experience going to the health center’s COVID testing sites in the past, and said their workers are “super sweet, really nice people.”

With the mall site providing another 600 appointments a day to the Danbury area, Gilbert said she knows of people who already booked appointments much further out who might now be able to secure an earlier appointment at the mall, including a friend in Ridgefield who works in education and couldn’t find an appointment until April.

“Honestly, they do need to take the leap of faith and cancel their existing appointment if it’s in late April or May,” she said. “I know a lot of people who have done it and you just have to keep checking back.”

Cavo, meanwhile, is already vaccinated, getting his second dose last week.

He became eligible with the 55 to 64 age group on Monday, but said he got his vaccine early because the city health department had two extra doses that were at risk of being thrown away.

He got a call around 6:30 p.m. six to seven weeks ago asking if he could come to the clinic, he said.

“One thing Kara [Prunty, the acting health director] has been very mindful of is not throwing away any doses ever,” Cavo said.

The health department has a list of people to call if there are doses at the end of the day, he said. This practice is allowed and typical across the state.

The state plans to open eligibility to residents 45 to 54 beginning March 22.

“It’s going to keep dumping more and more people into the system that is already sort of overloaded,” Cavo said.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which could arrive in the city next week, will speed up distribution in part because that type only requires one dose, he said.

“Now you don’t have to schedule a second appointment for the second dose,” Cavo said. “But it all hinges on how many doses come to Danbury.”