Opinion: State is leaving most vulnerable out in the cold on vaccine

Chip's Restaurant

Chip’s Restaurant

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For many months, going back almost to the very beginning of the pandemic, states have been planning how they would theoretically distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, were one to be developed. Most, including Connecticut, put together advisory committees comprised of doctors, scientists, health care providers, academics and business leaders, whose job it was to come up with the best, most equitable way to get a vaccine to those who need it most.

Connecticut’s team did just that. Going back to October, Gov. Ned Lamont’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group met continually to decide how best the state should distribute vaccinations. They said from the beginning that their focus would be on the risk level of various populations, and they made recommendations that were in step with those from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In January, they recommended the state prioritize those 65 and older along with anyone with at least one health condition that puts them at greater risk.

Now, that’s all been thrown out the window. Lamont announced Connecticut would instead forgo any consideration of underlying health conditions whatsoever, relying only on age. As a result, thousands of state residents suffering from underlying health conditions are now being left out in the cold.

I am one of them. In January, I was diagnosed with cancer, and then quickly underwent surgery from which I am still recovering. Myself and so many others with serious, high-risk health issues thought we would be among those next in line for a vaccine, but now will have to wait behind thousands of others, many of whom are perfectly healthy. It makes no sense, and the governor should reverse this decision immediately.

To understand more clearly why this matters, I’ll use myself as an example. After my surgery, I began mapping out a treatment plan that would include beginning chemotherapy in the weeks ahead. According to my doctors, I should not take the vaccine while undergoing that treatment. While I had hoped to get vaccinated before starting, I am now left with a terrible choice — do I wait to get vaccinated, or wait to begin treatment for cancer? And the complications only multiply from there, as I work with my family to coordinate help with care, and also with the many people I employ as a local business owner here in Connecticut.

It’s important to remember that under the recently changed rules, even those 55 and older who began signing up on March 1 are not getting their shots immediately; they are simply able to begin the scheduling process. As hundreds of thousands of people tried at once to begin scheduling their appointments this week, there were media reports about online scheduling systems going down, and many of those who got through are scheduling appointments weeks or even months out. As a local UConn professor put it on Twitter: “600,000 people can now register for the vaccine in Connecticut. Which means no one can.”

It makes no sense, and here’s something that shouldn’t surprise anyone: the CDC agrees. The chairman of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, Dr. José Romero, said this week that “I’m not in favor of any part of an age eligibility bracket under 65.” He and his committee members agreed that distribution based on age is unfair and inequitable.

This is not a simple process, and I don’t envy those in charge of making these decisions. However, there are thousands more people like me across Connecticut whose lives, quite literally, depend on the choices our government is now making. National experts have been clear for months that those choices should be driven by who is most at risk of dying from COVID-19. Until recently, it seemed Connecticut would follow that same, common sense principle.

It’s not too late. This is about public health, so let’s put health first. Let’s distribute the vaccine first to those who need it most.

George Chatzopoulos, of Orange, is the owner of Chip’s Restaurants.