Frustration at the hurdles to securing a COVID-19 vaccination appointment, even one months down the road, reached fever pitch this week as New York State struggles to match a trickle of vaccine supply to the flood of demand.
With more than 7 million New Yorkers eligible to receive the vaccine, and the state having received only slightly more than 1 million doses from the federal government thus far, the crush of people seeking the shots has bogged down the state’s appointments system. For hours at a time during the day, those trying to access the state website are met with only the blank screen of an overloaded web portal.
But some residents have found avenues to getting themselves in the vaccination queue, with persistence, with savvy or, most commonly, with simple luck.
Stephanie Forsberg, a science teacher at Hampton Bays High School, landed in the eligibility pool on Monday, January 11. She woke up well before dawn that morning and spent hours before her virtual teaching sessions with students began at her home in East Hampton trying to get through on the state portal to make an appointment — to no avail. But she heard that appointments for the massive new vaccination center at Jones Beach would be going live at 4 p.m. and when her classes were over for the day, she headed back to her computer. She clicked through the ‘Am I Eligible’ link on the state site right at 4 p.m. and got an appointment for January 17 at 8 a.m.
“It took a bit of patience, but [the site] updates a couple times a day, so new appointments are being released, and you just have to check it often,” Ms. Forsberg said. “I’ve been going back on it and it does seem to be getting better.”
After days of trying to get appointments for his elderly mother and 72-year old sister — neither of whom drive or use computers — North Haven resident Jon Diat woke one night at 1:30 a.m. and logged into the state system, hoping the wee hours would be less of a traffic jam. Sure enough, the site loaded for the first time and he was able to book two appointments — on separate days, in early March, in Stony Brook.
“I will have to drive up there twice, but at least I’ve got something in the book for them,” said Mr. Diat, who is 59 and is not yet eligible for the vaccine himself. A friend “went on a few hours later and couldn’t get an appointment until three weeks after that, which just goes to show you how many people are trying to book them.”
Dr. Joe O’Connell, a retired physician from Amagansett, thought he had struck the luck of the draw and landed an appointment nearby and in the near future, when the Stony Brook Southampton Hospital website directed him to the Northwell Health appointments website and up popped an appointment for January 29 in Riverhead. But barely 24 hours later, he got a notice saying the appointment was cancelled because of lack of supply.
Pat Cartino and her family took the bull-nosed perseverance approach. She, her husband and her daughter, who lives in California, spent nine hours one day last week bombarding the state site with attempts to get two appointments for the elder Cartinos — one for late February and one for mid March, both at Stony Brook. The relief, she said, was quickly replaced by another emotion.
“Once you get the appointment, you feel so guilty because you think about my friend’s mother who is older, or who is more sick, or those who are not computer literate and don’t have the help I did,” she said. “And Stony Brook, that’s a long way for an elderly person to travel. What if it snows on the day you are supposed to go? There need to be sites closer to us.”
That sentiment was on the lips of many East End officials this week.
Frustrated by the lack of vaccine availability almost anywhere on the East End since Stony Brook Southampton Hospital completed its first allotment of doses for medical workers earlier this month (the hospital is still administering scheduled second doses), East Hampton Town officials began setting up a would-be mass vaccination site in a vacant former school building — in the hope that “If you build it, they will come,” as Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc put it.
Mr. Van Scoyoc said that the town has taken it upon itself to begin putting the logistics in place so that if and when more vaccines become available, the town will be able to say it is ready.
“We don’t know if will speed things up, but if we build it and they don’t come, then it’s not on us and we’re not playing catch up if it does come,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said Thursday. “If we don’t get something in place, then the county might be the only one to get the vaccine and set up a site, and I doubt it will be anywhere east of Riverhead.”
The town’s move came on the same day state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. penned a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo saying: “We wish to focus your attention specifically on the East End of Long Island,” where the official population may seem small but large numbers of metro-area residents have taken refuge since the start of the pandemic last winter.
“The vaccine distribution system on the East End, with the new, expanded eligibility categories, is virtually non-existent,” Mr. Thiele wrote on behalf of the five East End towns and nine villages. “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. While we have submitted many locations in our communities for consideration for the distribution of the vaccine, those suggestions have been ignored.”
Mr. Thiele said he hopes the East End will receive its “fair share” of the vaccine, when it becomes available, and pointed out that the region generates some 45 percent of property taxes to Suffolk County.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said last week that the county has the logistics in place to be able to administer 6,500 doses of vaccine per day — if the doses are made available.
State officials have pledged since early in the rollout that vaccine supply would be apportioned to different regions according to the proportion of eligible residents among their population — though the state reservation system does not segregate appointments by residence and some East End residents have managed to secure vaccination appointments at locations in the city or other metro-area locations that would presumably have doses apportioned to their resident populations.
The state says it has only actually received just over 1 million first doses and 136,500 second doses from the federal distribution system and has administered about 77 percent of the total thus far. According to the state Department of Health website, Long Island had received about 144,000 of the state’s allotment thus far and had administered more than 114,000 of those as of Tuesday night.
Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday said he has asked the drug company Pfizer — which is headquartered in the state — if it would be willing to sell COVID-19 vaccine doses directly to the state, bypassing the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed program.
Mr. Cuomo blasted the federal recommendation that eligibility be expanded so quickly, which has led to the logjams in New York’s electronic appointments system and long lines of senior citizens waiting for hours outside pharmacies in Florida, where the rollout has been more of a free-for-all.
Suffolk County has the lowest ratios of open ICU beds in the state, with just 19 percent as of Tuesday, and Long Island has one of the highest numbers of total population currently hospitalized in the state with COVID-19, at about 0.06 percent. Long Island on Monday had the highest seven-day-average positivity rate in the state, at 7.84 percent — more than double the rate in Manhattan.
Stony Brook Southampton Hospital reported 32 COVID-19 patients on Tuesday — down from 38 on January 13 —with seven in ICU. Peconic Bay Medical Center reported 49 admissions and a spokesperson said she did not know the exact number of ICU patients but said the ICU was only at 54 percent of its capacity.
Positivity rates around the state have declined slightly in the last several days, prompting hopes that the holiday surge — driven almost entirely by what Mr. Cuomo called “community behavior patterns” — was lessening, and were 7.8 percent on Tuesday.
But Governor Cuomo, echoing the warnings of health officials around the country, said the most concerning unknown now is how the spread of new more contagious strains of the virus that have been identified in the United Kingdom, South African and Brazil, could spark a new wave of infections. Mr. Cuomo, who had demanded testing for international travelers weeks before the federal government imposed the requirement last week, this week called on Washington to ban international travel from some countries.
“Why are you still allowing people to just fly into this country?” the governor said, speaking of federal officials. “Once someone comes from Brazil with the Brazilian strain, then you are off to the races.”