Local officials and medical professionals say that the East End’s aggressive COVID-19 vaccination drive efforts and a population that largely embraced vaccinations in general can be credited with pushing the region’s rates well above the statewide averages.
The New York State Department of Health said that both Southampton and East Hampton towns are at or near 80 percent of adults fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — although the data does not indicate what measure of the total population the state is using for its assessment or whether it accounts for the population swell of formerly part-time residents during the pandemic.
The state data shows some of the smaller hamlets — Wainscott, Water Mill, Bridgehampton, Sagaponack — as having greater than 99-percent vaccination rates.
Statewide, about 72 percent of adults have received at least a partial vaccination and about 64 percent have completed the full vaccination course. Suffolk County as a whole has reported similar statistics. Much smaller percentages of eligible minors, between the ages of 12 and 18, have gotten either shot. The vast majority of seniors over the age of 60 — about 87 percent — have been vaccinated.
The state has reached its lowest positivity rates since the start of the pandemic, though new cases are still occurring daily and more than 350 New Yorkers remain in hospitals around the state with severe cases of COVID-19.
Those watching the statistics evolve over time and the numbers of vaccinations administered say that the region does appear to have benefited from high levels of participation and a robust effort to make vaccines available to those who wanted them.
“I think this has been a great success and the numbers reflect that we are in a really good place,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who has kept meticulous track of new cases in each East End community since last summer, said. “We’re at a new low positivity rate of about one case per day or fewer. I was hoping we’d be pretty much at zero by now, but there are still people testing positive — and it’s largely people who are not vaccinated.”
In East Hampton Town, where the town set up its own vaccination site, more than 8,600 doses of vaccine were administered, almost exclusively to East Hampton Town residents.
“That could be a third of the year-round population,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. “It was most of our seniors, who were the ones having the hardest time with getting vaccines elsewhere. We think that had a huge impact on our residents.”
The bulk of the vaccination drive on the South Fork was led by Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.
The hospital staffed the state-funded mass vaccination site at the Stony Brook University Southampton college campus, conducted dozens of pop-up vaccination PODs, including several at the East Hampton Town site and churches before the college site was operating.
The hospital’s staff have administered more than 80,000 vaccination shots.
“It is our belief, based on the numbers we’ve seen, that adults in our area are certainly approaching 80 percent fully vaccinated,” Dr. Fredric Weinbaum, the chief medical officer at SBSH, said. “We are still vaccinating every day.”
The hospital also spearheaded efforts to get vaccines into at-risk and disadvantaged communities by hosting vaccination PODs in churches following Sunday mass, organizing distributions with minority advocates like OLA and Black community leaders and even taking their public effort to large employers like grocery stores to explain the vaccination availability to workers.
“I’ve gone to stores to just drop off information and talk to people — explain to them that it’s free, you don’t need an appointment or a prescription,” said Barbara Jo Howard, the director of communications and marketing at the hospital. “That made a huge difference in reaching populations that we can’t reach by advertising, PSAs or social media.”
Mr. Schneiderman said there was evidence during the infection wave over the winter that minority communities, especially Latino immigrants, were contracting the virus at higher rates. Neighborhoods like Hampton Bays and Flanders, which have large minority and immigrant populations, saw disproportionately higher infection rates.
But, the supervisor said, he hopes that the low numbers now coming in from those neighborhoods reflect a vaccination effort that found success in reaching into the deepest corners of the community.
The hospital has continued to host remote pop-up PODs in isolated regions. Dr. Weinbaum said that a recent POD conducted in Montauk was well attended, which he surmised was driven by newly-arrived summer workers, many of them likely immigrants on seasonal work visas who do not have cars to travel to other vaccination sites. The POD offered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, because it requires only one shot to be effective.
There has been a marked slowing in the number of people coming to vaccination PODs and to the mass vaccination site in recent weeks, Dr. Weinbaum said, a product of the vast majority of those who want to be vaccinated having now sought out the shots.
The hours of operation at the college mass vaccination site were adjusted last week to keep the facility open later into the evening — until 9:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays — because the facility was seeing a late “rush” toward the end of the usual closing hours at 6:30 p.m. of people coming in after long work days, Dr. Weinbaum said.
The mass vaccination site at the college is offering both single-shot and the slightly more protective double-shot vaccines.
Like other medical professional nationwide, Dr. Weinbaum lamented that while it may be comparatively small in our area, there remains a segment of the population that is resistant to getting vaccinated.
New variants of the coronavirus, like the one now called Delta, are increasing the risks to those who are not vaccinated he said, and the risk to those unvaccinated people will rise quickly as the summer progresses and the more dangerous forms of the virus become dominant.
“The Delta variant is more threatening because it is more transmissible and more virulent,” he said. “So anyone who gets it is more likely to transmit it to more people and anyone who gets it is more likely to get very ill.”
Resistance to the vaccine, he surmised, was likely a product of over-active imaginations in a stressful situation combined with people believing false information and misleading claims about health concerns from the vaccines.
“Some are laboring under the impression that the vaccine changes their DNA,” he said with a sigh, saying that an MRNA has no such capability. “People’s imaginations run away when they are anxious and they project, ‘Oh, well, this must be a risk.’ They see that 70-plus percent of people around them have gotten the shot and are perfectly fine, but they think something terrible is going to happen to them in the years to come.”
Combating the push-back against the vaccine, at this point, is simply an effort of resolution, the veteran hospitalist said.
“We are doing our best to explain the facts,” he said. “We just keep telling the truth.”