Registered Nurse Kristen Hansen gives Peconic Bay Medical Center’s first dose of the COVId-19 vaccine to Dr. Nicholas Palamidessi in December. STEVE WICK
New York State broadened the eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccines to all senior citizens and most essential workers this week — a population of more than 7 million people — opening a floodgate of hope for many that was quickly dashed by the realities of the paltry supply of doses statewide and the complications of administering it.
Most attempts by senior citizens, teachers and other essential workers who became eligible to receive the vaccine in the past week were met with frustration at online and telephone reservation systems that were only offering appointments months away or were inaccessible because of overloaded telephone and data lines.
State officials said that will simply be the reality for some time to come because supply is still lagging far behind demand.
With criticism reining down from those who had heard that they were now eligible and that local pharmacies and doctors offices were allowed to administer the vaccine but don’t have doses available, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state’s COVID-19 task force said that the launching of the reservation system and the opening of more than 3,000 vaccination sites in communities across the state is necessary now in order to be prepared for when vaccine doses become more readily available — regardless of the frustrations that has engendered.
With the average nationwide daily death rate from COVID-19 now exceeding the number of people who died on 9/11, the state is still receiving just 300,000 doses of the vaccine per week from the federally-run distribution network, meaning the time frame for all the people currently on the eligibility list to receive their first dose of the vaccine would be more than five months away. Both of the currently available vaccines require a second booster shot two to three weeks after the first to be fully effective.
“Everyone wants the vaccine tomorrow and that’s not realistic,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a webinar on the vaccination program on Monday evening. “The [senior citizen] population will call for an appointment and be told there is no availability for three months. Expect frustration. But this is a planning and scheduling operation so that New York can be the most prepared when the supply increases to meet demand.”
Mr. Cuomo said that distributions from the federal government is expected to increase — the Trump administration said this week it would be increasing distributions and President-elect Joseph Biden has said he will release millions of additional doses as soon as his administration takes power next week — and new vaccines by other companies are expected to win FDA approval soon, adding to the production base.
The state began opening three mass vaccination centers, at Jones Beach, the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan at the SUNY Albany campus this week and plans to have 15 others open statewide by the end of the week.
The state has set up a COVID-19 hotline at 1-833-4VAX and an online reservation portal at covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov that will have updated information on eligibility and reservations.
Additionally, Northwell Health launched it’s own vaccination portal today at northwell.edu/coronavirus-covid-19/vaccine that will be updated daily with information on vaccination locations, appointments and eligibility.
When doses become available, senior citizens will get priority at pharmacies and private practitioners, while healthcare workers and front line essential workers will continue to get priority at hospitals.
But supply continues to be the giant wrinkle in the system. As of Monday, the state had administered about 650,000 doses in total, though many more have been distributed to vaccination sites.
The only location with doses of the vaccine on the East End as of Wednesday morning was Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, which is still administering doses to healthcare workers. Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, which had received an allotment of vaccines last month to administer only to healthcare workers in the region, exhausted its supply of first doses on Friday and a spokesperson said they have not been told when they will get a second allotment.
The two South Fork towns both reached grim milestones this week. Southampton Town eclipsed 3,000 confirmed cases of the disease and East Hampton Town passed 1,000. Both have now nearly quadrupled their total number of cases since Halloween as dozens or hundreds of new cases are reported almost daily. Officials have continued to say that contact tracing of new cases is showing the spread to mainly be coming from close, inter-personal contact with friends and relatives that health officials have dubbed “living room spread.”
The governor warned that the current trends in the expansion of cases since the holiday season is on a trajectory to push hospital capacity limits beyond the thresholds that will require renewed lockdowns of non-essential businesses and that the failure to wear masks and practice smart social distancing by the public is to blame.
Over the weekend, Long Island was reported to have one of the lowest percentages of intensive care unit beds available, with just 18 percent of its ICU beds open, though the region had one of the higher total availabilities of hospital beds.
Stony Brook Southampton Hospital has had a peak of 35 cases in its COVID-19 unit in recent days — still well below the more than 50 patients it had admitted at one time in the spring — the hospital told local officials in one of its regular updates.
“Across the four hospitals in [the Stony Brook Medicine network], in response to the surge, we have currently increased bed capacity by more than 25 percent,” a statement from the hospital said. “If the surge continues, we are fully prepared to ramp up and reopen additional vacant units as necessary. Across our healthcare system, we have designated additional surge spaces that would allow us to continue to expand capacity. Since the spring, we have created additional negative pressure and isolation rooms that help to keep both our patients and staff safe.”
The fist doses of the vaccine were administered at SBSH just before Christmas, putting those recipients into the window for receiving their second dose this week. Health officials said that the vaccine guidelines call for the second dose to come not sooner than two or three weeks after the first, depending on which vaccine was administered, but that waiting longer would still be effective. A single dose is also believed to provide substantial levels of immunity for at least several months. A hospital spokesperson said on Wednesday that anyone who received the first dose of the vaccine at the hospital will be notified regarding their second dose, but did not say whether the hospital has vaccine doses in reserve.
The governor said that the state will be monitoring closely for incidents of violations of the vaccine prioritization guidelines and said that those allotted doses must be fastidious about who and how the determine eligibility and priority for the doses they are given.
“The vaccine is valuable,” he said. “There will be people who want priority. The law is clear. Innocent mistakes are made and I understand there are people who will try to defraud the system. We must be vigilant.”
But those sites with the vaccine have also been instructed to not let a single dose go to waste. All sites have been told to have both a reservation list and a backup list of people who can be called if someone with reservations does not show up for an appointment. Once doses have been defrosted, they must be used quickly and the governor’s task force told pharmacies and other vaccination sites that if there are no prioritized people available to be given a dose that is going to expire, it should be administered to anyone who can take it.
“It’s critical that we work as fast as possible to put a shot in every New Yorker’s arm, [so] we don’t want to see any vaccine on shelves,” said Larry Schwartz, a member of the state’s task force. “We don’t want one single dose to go to waste.”
The state Department of Health has said the state ultimately needs to get to 80 percent vaccinations to reach the “herd immunity” level that will provide ample protection from the spread of the disease and allow society and businesses to return to pre-coronavirus “normal.”
The governor said on Friday that all the vaccine doses the state does get will be allotted to each region of the state according to the proportion of the people in each priority group that live there.
The limited supply and the lack of availability at local pharmacies and doctors’ offices will not be enough to be of much relief to those who are eager to get their shots.
“First prediction: everyone is going to say ‘I need more,’” the governor quipped. “My mother is going to say, ‘I don’t want to wait three months for an appointment,’ and she’s going to be unhappy and she’s going to think she should go first because she is 75-plus. That’s the way it’s going to be.”
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