The past year has slammed us with the unpredictability of unique events, many of them unspeakably horrible. An out-of-control pandemic, a tsunami of mail-in ballots, violently contested election results, domestic terrorism in the form of a mob assault Jan. 6 on the U.S. Capitol — all have tested the capacity and limits of government to keep Americans safe while protecting our democratic systems.
Put aside, for the moment, the failure of the federal government to contain COVID-19, which is now taking about 4,000 Americans’ lives each day, more than the body counts of the Pearl Harbor attack in World War II or the Battle of Antietam, one of the Civil War’s bloodiest. That is tragic enough. Now vaccines — developed at record speed with essential government help — are being rolled out in a mass inoculation program that promises later this year to tamp down the virus spread. Judging from how the first month of the vaccine program is going in New York, our state leaders, for their part, are off to a lousy start.
Their record on managing the health crisis has, by and large, been one of transparency and competence — notwithstanding the possibly avoidable spike in nursing home deaths early in the pandemic. But New York’s vaccine rollout has been littered with problems. Sure, hands have been tied by shortcomings in federal policy, particularly the insufficient federal allocations of doses and the lack of additional resources for local implementation. Still, as of Monday, Jan. 11, more than a third of the available doses in New York remained on the shelves. It’s not a leap to assume that lives are being lost as a result. Across the state on Wednesday, Jan. 13, there were 202 deaths resulting from COVID.
The gap between the amount of available vaccine doses and the number of people eligible for them has become a yawning gulf. The week started with New York expanding the vaccine program to millions more New Yorkers, including teachers and, following federal guidance, people 75 and older. Then, that number ballooned again when Health and Human Services widened eligibility for anyone 65 and over. Suddenly, about 7 million New Yorkers could sign up to get inoculated.
“This is unquestionably making things harder and will cause considerable confusion among the public,” Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, told NPR a few days ago.
According to The Times-Union, county executives and other local officials on a conference call Monday, Jan. 11, with members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration accused the state’s vaccine program managers of causing “chaos” and “bedlam.” They reported phone banks inundated by calls from confused residents wanting to know when and where they can receive the shots.
This information vacuum was probably inevitable, given the swift-changing rules on vaccine eligibility as well as questions surrounding the mechanics of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. So, we’re not surprised to see local officials pleading with residents to call health officials at the state level, rather than their respective town or village hall, for information.
Complicating matters even further, just as counties were permitted to activate their vaccine dispensing sites, the Cuomo administration announced it was opening state-run sites at places like the Westchester County Center in White Plains (see article on page 1). Some county leaders are worried the state-run site will cannibalize the vaccine doses they have been promised.
“Our phone lines are melting down; we have people walking in, senior citizens coming in off the street, [asking] ‘How do I sign up?’” one upstate county executive reportedly said on the call. Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus was quoted as saying that many vaccination appointments at a hospital in his county were taken up Monday by teachers from Westchester County, whose union “took care of their people.” That was the first day teachers were eligible under state guidelines.
With the mad rush to line up for vaccine appointments, thankfully the state has now set up hotlines and websites to help New Yorkers navigate the current eligibility rules and logistics of securing a date and time to get the shots. New Yorkers can utilize the state’s “Am I Eligible” app or website (am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov) or call the New York state vaccination hotline at 1-833-NYS-4VAX (1-833-697-4829). Appointments to receive the second dose are scheduled in person after receiving the first dose. For now, the state warned, these are the only authorized scheduling channels.
Remember all the confusion and questions around COVID-19 testing protocols when the first sites opened up last spring? We’ve been at a similar point in this pandemic response before. The next weeks and months will tell how much the officials leading the response have learned along the way.