Gov. Ned Lamont chats with a resident waiting to receive a vaccine at the East Hartford site Monday morning. (Hugh McQuaid/CTNewsJunkie)

EAST HARTFORD, CT– Patients booking COVID-19 vaccination appointments should soon see closer-to-home scheduling options as a result of changes planned to the state’s phone and web-based appointment systems, public health officials said Monday. 

The Public Health Department expects to offer more vaccination sites, acting Commissioner Deidre Gifford said at a mass vaccination site in East Hartford. 

Connecticut has opened up vaccination eligibility to residents who are 75 years old or older, in addition to the health care providers and nursing home residents who were already eligible under the first wave of the state’s rollout. As of Monday, Connecticut had vaccinated nearly 266,000 people. More than 42,000 had received both of the required doses. 

Residents making appointments by phone have been scheduled to be vaccinated at the East Hartford site, a massive operation stretching 10 lanes across the decommissioned Pratt & Whitney runway. Meanwhile, the state’s online scheduling program offers a shifting list of vaccination sites, which can sometimes change while users are trying to book an appointment. 

The state is planning to add three additional locations to the phone booking system in the next few days. The phone-based appointments are coordinated through the United Way of Connecticut. Lisa Tepper Bates, the group’s president, said one of the new locations is Bristol Hospital. The others will be announced soon. Online users will soon be able to navigate a map of Connecticut, clicking on locations to check availability, Gifford said.

“We understand that there have been some challenges in the appointment making. We hear it and I want everyone to know that our team is on it. We’ve been on it pretty much 24/7,” Gifford told reporters while dozens of cars idled to her right, their occupants waiting to be vaccinated.

Tepper Bates said the United Way has been inundated with calls — around 97,000 have been specific to COVID-19. “There is a high volume coming in but we’re doing our very best,” she said on a Zoom conference Monday afternoon.

Gov. Ned Lamont holds a press conference at the East Hartford vaccine site. (Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Lamont confirmed at the afternoon briefing that he will seek an extension of his emergency powers as he had expected, seeking that extension until April 20. He made the announcement as he confirmed the presence of eight cases of highly-infectious variants of the COVID-19 virus in the state. The additional cases increase the urgency of vaccinating the state’s population, Lamont said. 

“This is a race. We are racing to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we can ahead of what could be this super-contagious strain,” he said.

The morning event at the decommissioned runway served as a sort of pep rally for the state’s largest vaccination site, where Mark Masselli, founder and CEO of Community Health Center, said organizers expected to vaccinate 1,600 people before the day was through. When the site launched last week, the place felt almost empty at times. Cars navigated the lanes of road cones at a slow dribble. This week the lines stretched from the vaccination trailers well past the press staging area. Forty National Guard members were on site to help direct the traffic. 

On arriving, Gov. Ned Lamont bypassed the media, elected officials and the president of Pratt & Whitney, instead moving across a lane of waiting traffic to chat with the driver of a sedan who was waiting to be vaccinated.

Later, in front of a podium, Lamont tried to frame the massive vaccination operation in football terms: an offensive rush after 11 months of careful defense. 

“Today we’re going on offense. Today we’re going to make sure that we have as many of our people vaccinated as quickly as we can, safely as we can. Look at these lines of hope right here. This is what this means,” he said, pointing at the cars. 

As much as officials praised the East Hartford operation, it remained unclear who would foot the bill for the site. Masselli said Community Health Center was paying the upfront costs, which he hoped would ultimately be paid by the federal government. Masselli sidestepped questions about exactly what the price tag looked like. But he noted that significant effort had to be made in a short period of time to get the site operational. 

“Two and half weeks ago, the governor said to his folks ‘Rev up your engines, we need some of these larger facilities.’ So on Jan. 11 for the first time we came out to a very long runway with no power or electricity and one week later we were able to vaccinate our first Connecticut resident. We’re so proud of that,” he said. 

Asked about paying for the site, Lamont suggested funding could come from the feds. He looked over at U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and said “Step up, Dick.” Blumenthal laughed and offered the governor a salute. “Yes, sir.” 

“This kind of logistics is not cost-free. We need to pay for it. It’s the federal government that has to step up,” Blumenthal said.