Race to vaccine continues as struggles persist for many with demand far outweighing supply

When the COVID-19 pandemic began last March, Sarah Christ transitioned from her office to home to complete her seasonal work as a tax preparer. Having been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2016, Ms. Christ took extra precautions to safeguard herself from the respiratory disease.

With a new tax season approaching, and a return to work on the horizon, Ms. Christ began weighing the options of working from home again or traveling back to the office as a boost for her mental health.

“Every day I go back and forth a bit,” she said.

One factor she had assumed might make the decision easier was the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine, which was approved in December. While currently in good health considering her diagnosis, the 54-year-old Riverhead woman still undergoes cancer treatment, traveling to New York University Medical Center in Manhattan every three months for scans.

When the vaccine rollout began, she saw that, based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she would likely fall under the 1c group. She knew New York State planned to prioritize health care workers and then elderly populations such as nursing home residents. She was hopeful people in her condition would then follow as a priority.

“I feel sort of betrayed because I don’t think that’s what happened,” she said.

She’s seen others around her already receive the vaccine based on their occupations. And she wonders about the logic behind the blanket categories that give of people working in medical offices, for example, priority for inoculation over someone in her condition with cancer.

With the state now distributing to New Yorkers in Phases 1a and 1b — a group of about 7.1 million eligible people — Ms. Christ remains in limbo about when she’ll receive the coveted doses. Based on the current supply the state receives from the federal government, it could still be months away.

“I’ve just distanced myself from it and every morning I take a deep breath and I think, maybe today is the day I hear from NYU that I’m on a list to get it in the near future. But now that I hear about shortages and the federal government releasing fewer doses to New York this week than last week, it all sort of makes my head spin.”

Even for those now eligible, which includes anyone over the age of 65, receiving the vaccine can still prove problematic as demand far outweighs supply.

Cars enter the COVID-19 vaccination site at Stony Brook University Monday. (Credit: Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo)

In a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone last Thursday, more than a dozen lawmakers, including all five East End supervisors, several village mayors and state representatives voiced concerns about vaccine accessibility on the twin forks.

“We recognize the difficulties inherent in implementing such a massive endeavor,” the lawmakers wrote, adding that distribution of the vaccine on the East End is “virtually nonexistent.” 

Some North Fork residents who are over 65 have reported traveling to New York City to receive the vaccine. On Monday, the state opened a COVID-19 vaccination site at Stony Brook University, similar to the site that opened for testing when the pandemic began. 

More information: COVID-19 vaccine

Mr. Cuomo addressed growing frustration with the vaccine rollout process last Friday and a breach that allowed hundreds of Long Islanders to make appointments at the Stony Brook vaccination site before it was set to go live.

Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, said that those appointments had all been voided and the state Inspector General’s Office is investigating how the link was released.

“The hypothesis is either it was hacked or there was someone who leaked the link,” she said.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Friday that a mix of poor communication and an unreliable registration system is creating frustration. He said it’s currently not clear which health care facilities get the vaccine and when. “Usually, the notice is last minute and we get calls from the public wanting to know how to sign up. That raises hopes that get dashed quickly,” he said.

County spokesperson Derek Poppe said Friday that while supply remains an issue, the county has plans in place to administer at least 10,000 doses a week. 

“In addition to the vaccine POD in Brentwood, we have identified locations across the County and already have agreements in place to quickly stand up PODs at Suffolk County Community College’s Ammerman Campus and Eastern Campus [in Northampton] once the vaccines become available,” Mr. Poppe said.

Mr. Russell said that each of the East End towns is prepared to organize vaccination centers. “We are ready to go when they are, but the vaccines need to be delivered here, not Jones Beach,” he said.

In addition to state- and county-run vaccine hubs, Northwell Health is also offering appointments for those in eligible categories, which currently include health care workers, first responders, teachers and those over 65.

In a message on their website, Northwell notes that vaccine doses are “very limited” but additional appointments are added regularly. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Peconic Bay Medical Center location did not have appointment times available, and said: “We will open more appointment times at this site as vaccine inventory becomes available.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo provides a coronavirus update from the Red Room at the State Capitol Monday. (Credit: Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo)

“We are in a footrace to get the vaccine into the arms of eligible New Yorkers as quickly and equitably as possible,” Mr. Cuomo said.

The next phase that has yet to start, Phase 1c, will expand eligible residents to those ages 16-64 with high-risk health conditions. Phase 2 would then expand the list of eligible essential workers such as grocery store workers, food service, construction, media and those with health conditions such as asthma or high blood pressure. Phase 3 would ultimately open it to the entire population of those 16 or older.

“Our residents, particularly senior citizens, cannot be expected to drive an hour or more to places such as Brentwood, Jones Beach or Stony Brook to get the vaccine,” officials said in their letter last week. “While we have submitted many locations in our communities for consideration for the distribution of the vaccine, those suggestions have been ignored.”

Mr. Cuomo on Monday expressed concern over the speed at which health care workers are being vaccinated, saying the combination of low levels of vaccinated staff and the possibility of an increase in hospitalizations could lead to capacity issues at hospitals across the state.

Long Island is of particular concern, the governor said.

“Long Island has taken a relative jump [in hospitalizations],” Mr. Cuomo said at a media briefing Monday, noting that there are currently 1,649 COVID-19 patients in hospitals in Suffolk and Nassau counties. “It’s concerning and we’re watching that.”

Mr. Cuomo said the greatest threat comes from new, more easily transmissible strains of the virus that have originated in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. He said a possible surge from those strains arriving and spreading quickly in New York before more health care workers are vaccinated could lead to a “nightmare” scenario.

“That should keep us all up at night,” the governor said.

Some of the data shared during Monday’s press conference showed poor performance and a high rate of opt-outs from receiving the vaccine at Long Island long-term care facilities.

Mr. Cuomo said the state will soon release a daily database that shows the totals and percentage of vaccinations among long-term care residents and staff across the state. The sample slide shared during the governor’s presentation showed that 46% of staff on Long Island, about 8,500 long-term care workers, have declined the vaccine — the most of any region in the state. Sixteen percent of long-term care residents in Suffolk and Nassau have also opted out, second only to New York City, according to the slide.

As far as hospitals are concerned, data shared by the governor Monday cast both Peconic Bay Medical Center and Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in a favorable light in terms of vaccinations. ELIH has vaccinated 70% of its eligible workers, according to the state, fourth most of any hospital on Long Island. PBMC, meanwhile, has administered 100% of its allocated first doses.

While vaccinating health care workers and others eligible under the first phase of the plan has become an urgent priority, the governor said receiving more doses from the federal government to accommodate first responders and residents over 65 years of age newly eligible to receive the vaccine is also important. He said Monday that New York has actually received fewer doses in the past two weeks, extending the timeline for completion of Phase 1B to seven months from now, up from the six months initially projected, unless the state can begin to receive more doses in the coming weeks.

New York received just 239,625 of its anticipated 300,000doses last week, which the governor had already said was too low a number.

As the rush to vaccinate continues, the painful effects of the pandemic continue be felt as the United States surpassed 400,000 total fatalities. More than 100 fatalities per day have been recorded in New York this month. In Suffolk County, 123 deaths occurred from Jan. 12-18.

Total hospitalizations in the state climbed to 9,236 on Tuesday, a figure on par with May.

“As we continue to limit gatherings, practice social distancing and wear masks, our focus remains getting the vaccine in as many arms as possible, as fast as possible,” Mr. Bellone said last week. “Suffolk County is poised and ready to go. We have an actionable plan and the infrastructure in place to vaccinate at least 6,500 individuals a day — we just simply need the vaccines.”