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Vaccine rollout expands, causes frustration

Residents urged to be patient, keep hitting refresh

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Walgreens vaccine photo 1

COVID-19 vaccinations are available at Walgreens.

Sunday, Feb. 14, was a big day, not just for lovers. On Valentine’s Day, New York State opened up well over 200,000 appointment slots at state-run mass vaccination centers, in addition to introducing the under-65 comorbidity or underlying health issue group to those eligible to start scheduling appointments.

It was a record-setting day with 250,924 appointments made.

For millions of the now estimated 10 million New Yorkers eligible for the COVID-19 Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, securing appointments online (https://am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov/) and over the phone (1-833-697-4829) remains a struggle. Despite the new wave of appointments released, the problem remains supply and demand.

According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, Sunday amounted to “nearly 10,000 [appointments] per hour.” The state’s hotline also fielded 30,543 calls that day, with an average wait time of nearly 25 minutes and then an average scheduling time of just under 14 minutes.

The two closest local venues, the Westchester County Center in White Plains and the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, are both now booked through April 16; the next closest, SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island, through April 13.

The state has been getting 300,000 doses each week from the federal government, though Cuomo said that number would increase by 20% over the coming weeks.

“We’re working hard to expand eligibility, make it easier for New Yorkers to get appointments and get shots in arms throughout the state, and the system is working,” Cuomo said this week. “250,000 appointments in a single day is a milestone, and we can do more — we just need more vaccine supply. We're seeing the system work — more New Yorkers are finding out if they’re eligible, making appointments and getting vaccinated. But we need more supply from the federal government to push our vaccination effort into overdrive.”

He said the issue with vaccine rollout continues to be “lack of supply,” calling it “the single limiting factor.”

County Center vaccine photo 1

Lines outside the Westchester County Center Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Feb. 16, Cuomo said the state’s seven-day average positivity rate was down to 3.71%, which was the lowest since Nov. 28, and noted the “post-holiday” number is down significantly from 7.9%. He said, “New Yorkers should be commended for that.”

Cuomo announced that as of 11 a.m. that day, the state had administered 2,024,225 first doses (92% of those received) and 900,303 second doses at state-run facilities, not counting the Long Term Care Facility program, which puts the fully inoculated number over 1 million. With the vaccination numbers increasing daily along with the dropping rate of positives, Cuomo said, “We’re now beginning to ease restrictions across the state.”

Much of the frustration among residents comes from the fact that those in groups 1a and 1b, which can largely be summed up as essential workers and those 65 and over, were still having trouble getting appointments and now had to compete with a new group the day the new appointments were released.

According to a press release from Cuomo’s office, “Due to limited supply and the addition of approximately 3 million New Yorkers to the eligibility pool, New Yorkers were, and continue to be, encouraged to remain patient when trying to schedule appointments.”

2019 Scarsdale High School graduate Alexis Daniel knows this all too well. The Muhlenberg College sophomore has donated her time to help 71 people secure vaccine appointments online over the past six weeks. She agrees that patience, along with knowledge of the system and quick typing fingers, are the key to getting appointments.

Daniel was remote for college last semester and was working with her mom, Anne, as a preschool teacher at Westchester Reform Temple. In January, Daniel was able to secure vaccine appointments for herself, her mom and her grandmother as part of group 1b. She got to know the system and she became a point person for the rest of the preschool and then for others who were having issues getting appointments.

“Back then in the middle of January it was definitely easier,” Daniel said. “Now that more groups are able to get the vaccine it’s definitely harder, but also now these websites are launching a large group of appointments on certain dates and times, so if you’re on it then you can bang out appointments.”

On Sunday some people were trapped in virtual waiting lines for upward of an hour if they could even get that far. Some people got in and still couldn’t get appointments as they would click and it would be gone. Same with the next slot. And so on. And if they crashed or got kicked out of the system they had to start over.

That evening either people gave up or even more appointments were released and more people began to get appointments for late March and April with relative ease. Others didn’t realize they could start signing up in the comorbidity group and were waiting for midnight the 15th.

Those with comorbidities must be able to present a doctor’s letter, medical information evidencing comorbidity or a signed certification as proof when they show up to get vaccinated.

There is a level of trust if someone else is scheduling an appointment for you as people did have to give personal information such as address, phone number, birthdate and more recently insurance information. There is also a short health screening component and it helps to know the person’s availability to receive the vaccine.

“I’ll make them for anybody who reaches out for me obviously, but a lot of them happen to be people that I know or my mom knows or someone in my family knows,” Daniel said. “They may be strangers to me, but it’s someone my family knows or knows of.”

On Sunday, Daniel made 20 of those 250,000-plus appointments. She hasn’t made many since then as the local appointment pool has mostly dried up for a bit. If you’re lucky and you have the time you can keep refreshing and secure a canceled appointment, but those disappear as quickly as they appear.

Daniel has all the links saved and the Am I Eligible? link shows where there are appointments available. “I check there and the only place right now is SUNY Potsdam, which is very far from us,” Daniel said.

There are extremely helpful Facebook groups like Helping Westchester County (NY) Get Vaccinated (COVID-19) where people are there to help others by posting links, offering tips, giving updates and answering questions.

“Some people have inside scoops on when links are going out and what time exactly and that’s how I was able to get so many at once,” Daniel said. “They send out the links and you have to be on it at the right time. I think the biggest thing is don’t give up because they will come around. You have to just keep refreshing and refreshing. You have to have patience.” She said sometimes it’s at “the randomest times.”

County Center vaccine photo 2

The county center is busy every day.

More vaccine sites

On Wednesday, Feb. 17, Cuomo announced four more state-run centers would open up in Buffalo, Rochester, Albany and Yonkers on March 3. The Yonkers location will be at the New York National Guard Armory at 2 Quincy Place.

Each location, currently under development, is expected to administer about 1,000 vaccines per day beginning March 3 with appointments “initially reserved for members of the community in which the sites are located.” The sites were chosen in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control targeting “socially vulnerable communities … that were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19” in an effort to align with President Joe Biden’s initiative to be equitable in distribution and access.

Information on scheduling appointments is forthcoming. Cuomo said there will be “extended hours” at the sites.

“I live in Yonkers and know firsthand the impact COVID-19 has had on our communities,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who represents the 35th Senate District, which includes Scarsdale, said in a press release. “I’ve lost so many friends, and I hear residents call my office, close to tears, almost every day because they cannot get a vaccine appointment. While my staff works to connect as many residents as possible with pharmacies who offer the vaccine, there are still not enough appointments to meet the need.

“I have been strongly advocating for more mass vaccine sites in communities hit hardest by the pandemic. I am pleased a vaccine site is opening at the Armory in Southwest Yonkers because it will help to make vaccine distribution more equitable and save lives. I thank our local, state, and federal partners for their efforts to help make this happen.”

State Congressman Jamaal Bowman said in a statement, “We’re proud that our team was able to work with the Governor to bring a mass vaccination site to our district. We will act urgently to ensure an equitable vaccination rollout to all of our constituents. Our district was the state's original epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak and is still dealing with the devastating effects today, which have disproportionately impacted seniors as well as Black and Latino communities. In Westchester County, 171 out of 100,000 Black residents have died, compared to 89 out of every 100,000 across the county as a whole. The Bronx saw the highest deaths in seniors at 3,726 seniors lives lost. Today's announcement is one of many crucial steps to defeating the virus.”

Other city-based vaccination centers announced they will open soon and will target residents of those areas only, and the state set up nearly 100 “pop up” sites in underserved communities. Approximately 43,000 New Yorkers were given their first vaccine dose and then the sites reopened three weeks later for the second doses. More similar sites will be established as time goes on.

Walgreen’s has been another source of vaccines, though not on a large scale, typically every day or every few days introducing online appointments for the next few days, with one appointment being made per location in 15-minute timeslots. Many have had trouble securing a second dose through the site, though anyone who signs up now selects first and second dose.

Walgreens vaccine photo 2

Walgreens is a COVID-19 vaccination site.

Walgreens in Eastchester and Yonkers are offering vaccinations. Visit walgreens.com/schedulevacccine.

Beginning Monday, Jan. 25, Walgreens was involved in the federal government’s long-term care facilities vaccination rollout. As of Feb. 11 they reported having administered nearly 2.5 million of these vaccinations in places “including skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, and other vulnerable populations identified as part of state and local jurisdiction distribution plans.”

The CDC and DOH chose Walgreens to provide in-store vaccinations in Chicago, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, New York City, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Vermont, Wisconsin, and West Virginia as part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which began Feb. 12. Walgreens has not yet opened up to the comorbidity group.

CVS does not yet have access to the vaccine as per signs up at their pharmacy counters.

Other pharmacies are handling their allotment in different ways, so residents are encouraged to call, email and check websites to find out about their procedures. Some pharmacies are compiling waiting lists.

CVS covid info.jpg

A sign at a local CVS.

Westchester and beyond

Westchester County Executive George Latimer has been holding two weekly briefings, the latest Tuesday the 16th. Like Cuomo, he was encouraged by the local trend as infections, hospitalizations and deaths were all on a downward trend over the last month in the post-holiday era.

Looking at active cases in the county from Jan. 26 to Feb. 16, that number dropped significantly weekly from 11,259 to 6,894. Hospitalizations on Jan. 24 were 566 and as of Sunday, Feb. 14, they were at 412. The county has seen 2,031 deaths credited to coronavirus, with 47 in the past week, 57 the week before.

“The numbers on both the COVID infection side of the equation and on the COVID vaccination side are both encouraging,” Latimer said Tuesday. “In neither case that we reached the goals that we set for ourselves to accomplish everything needed to put the pandemic behind us, but we’ve certainly made some very significant progress in the last few days, continuing a trend that started a few weeks ago.”

As of Monday the 15th, the county center, which began vaccinations on Jan. 13, has given out 47,212 doses, counting first and second doses. If you add in the White Plains Health Clinic and Westchester Community College, that’s another 9,573 doses.

Latimer has also been working with school districts to get more staff vaccinated in a timely manner. His request for 4,000 doses landed 1,100 doses so far. He hopes the AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines receive emergency use authorizations soon to help in the effort.

P1 Vaccine story Lattimer.jpg

Westchester County Executive George Latimer with a display of some of the messages one can find on the Am I Eligible? state website.

Weather has been an issue this winter with parts of the country shutting down completely, impacting delivery of vaccines, and when weather forces a venue to close, those appointments are rescheduled within a week, which causes longer lines and wait times. Some people are also showing up well before their appointment times, creating more of an unnecessary backlog as venues are only checking the date, not the time of the appointment.

Latimer urged residents not to come early: “This is not first come, first served … It is not structured to be a long wait, but it can become a long wait if you come outside of your scheduled appointment.”

He said that when more vaccines become available, more vaccination sites will open up.

This week, Cuomo also talked about what he called “variants of interest,” which he said “goes in the new dictionary of new COVID terms.” He was referring to the virus variants first identified in South Africa and the UK.

“There is a patient in New York City who has tested positive for the South African variant,” he said. “The South African variant is the variant that they're watching most closely. The UK variant is very transmissible, transmittable, but the South African variant they worry about how lethal it is and how it relates to the vaccine. But, but, and this is an important but, the patient was transferred from Connecticut directly to a New York City hospital. It was not a New York resident. It was a person in Connecticut who was transferred to a New York City hospital for a procedure. We have no evidence of any spread in New York State to date.”

As of mid-week, New York had 82 known cases of the UK variant.

According to a Poynter Institute report, “The World Health Organization says three-quarters of all vaccinations have been given in just 10 countries that account for 60% of global gross domestic product. In other words, the richest countries have the vaccines, the poorest have none.” Poynter said, “130 countries with a combined 2.5 billion people have not yet [been] given a single COVID-19 shot.”

Puts things in perspective. Keep hitting refresh and once you’ve gotten both doses of the vaccine, the CDC said not to let down your guard just yet.

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