Officials Warn That Vaccine May Not Be Available To General Public For Months

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The COVID-19 testing pod in the parking lot behind East Hampton Town Hall, photographed on Wednesday, January 6th, 2021

New York State is administering the COVID-19 vaccine to a gradually widening segment of the population and making preparations for distributing it to the general population — including launching a public web portal this week that allows residents to sign up for notifications about when they will be eligible to be vaccinated — but distribution is still limited only to healthcare workers or EMS personnel and is unlikely to be available to the broader public for several months.

The state is currently only receiving 300,000 doses of vaccine per week through the federally-run distribution program, and the two-dose requirements for the 1.4 million healthcare and EMS personnel statewide and then the 2.5 million people in front-line essential jobs — from police officers to grocery store employees —in New York will consume all of the state’s supply of vaccine doses for many more weeks, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday.

All state residents can now go to www.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov to access the state’s “Am I Eligible” app, which allows people to sign up to receive text or email updates on the vaccine rollout as they pertain to the eligibility of different segments of the population. Currently, the app is only taking prioritizing information about age and whether someone is a nursing home employee or resident, but the state says that as the rollout evolves residents will be able to use the app to determine eligibility, locate vaccination centers and schedule appointments to receive a vaccine shot.

Currently on the East End, only hospitals are administering the vaccine to healthcare and EMS workers and no local doctors or pharmacies have doses yet — so don’t go expecting to be like two Virginia men who were randomly offered the vaccine at a CVS last weekend because shots intended for healthcare workers who didn’t show up were going to be thrown away unused.

Public officials have expressed frustration at the lack of specificity in the state’s guidance on what to expect from the timing of the vaccine roll-out —while being bombarded by inquiries from residents.

“I get several calls a day saying ‘do you know when we will get vaccinated,’” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. “I ask the state and they say we’re doing the healthcare workers now and I say ‘That’s great, when?’ and they say ‘We can’t tell you yet. All we can tell you is we’re working on it.’”

A timeline for when it will be more broadly available remains very vague, but Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week, during a video Q&A with Long Islanders hosted by Newsday, that he hopes that the general public will be able to start getting their first doses by April.

“We hope that by the time we get to the end of March, the beginning of April, that we’ll be at the point that priority groups have already been vaccinated and its what I would call ‘open season,’” Dr. Fauci, the longtime director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during the live-streamed session. “Namely, anybody in society … can wind up getting vaccinated.”

New York State has been working with local municipalities to identify future vaccination centers, from public buildings to urgent care offices to public parks, and already has a list of more than 3,700 sites that will be used, including more than 700 on Long Island.

“They are looking for a variety of different sites,” Ryan Murphy, Southampton Town’s emergency management administrator, said of the state task force officials who have been in contact with the local towns. “They are examining which sites might be used for drive-thru sites, which could be large interior spaces sectioned off so people can move through them safely.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that the state will be creating and distributing vaccination “kits” that will contain everything needed to create a pop-up vaccination site, from tables and chairs to needles and PPE and office supplies, to be ready for delivery by the time the vaccine is available to the general public.

Southampton offered its three senior centers, in Hampton Bays, Flanders and Bridgehampton, as well as Red Creek Park, where Mr. Murphy said the town and Stony Brook Southampton Hospital have been operating a very busy but very smooth drive-thru testing site since the summer. He said the town also suggested that Gabreski Airport and the Stony Brook Southampton college campus could accommodate large-scale operations.

“We want to make sure we get at least one, if not multiple distribution locations in our jurisdiction,” Mr. Murphy said.

What the state has not offered, Mr. Murphy said, is any kind of time frame for when they expect vaccines to be available beyond the targeted distributions of the first phase — something he said will be very hard to ballpark both because of the enormous complexity of the undertaking and the unforeseeable variables that will effect vaccine availability, like participation levels and the vaccine production rate.

The governor on Monday said that the state will have distributed 900,000 doses of the vaccine by the end of this week, but that the roll-out of the vaccine to healthcare workers has been slow going at many hospital networks around the state, with some reporting that fewer than 25 percent of their staff having received the vaccine. The governor admonished those networks lagging behind and warned they could be fined if they do not get their staffs vaccinated faster.

Locally, a Stony Brook Southampton Hospital spokesperson said that more than 60 percent of its staff have already received their first dose of the vaccine.

“Right now, we are completely focused on administering COVID-19 vaccinations to our staff and, by appointment only, to those East End healthcare workers who qualify for Phase 1 distribution as defined by the New York State Department of Health,” Fredric Weinbaum, the chief medical officer at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital said in a statement released by the hospital. “As of today, over 60 percent of our hospital frontline healthcare workers have been vaccinated and we have protocols in place to vaccinate each phase of eligibility as approved by the DOH.”

Amagansett Fire Department member Britton Bistrian receiving the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Southampton Hospital on Monday.

Additionally, the chiefs of most local ambulance companies said that most, if not all, of their EMTs, paramedics and EMS volunteers have gotten their first doses of the vaccine, or are scheduled to do so soon. Members of local volunteer fire departments with EMS certifications are now eligible to receive the vaccine.

“I think 39 of our people have gotten the shot or have their appointments scheduled, which would leave only five people who are not getting it either because of medical reasons or being out of town, or two chose not to get it,” Lisa Charde, chief of the East Hampton Village Volunteer Ambulance said. “I had to make the appointments for everyone and get them their paperwork. The hospital is keeping very close track of who is being signed up.”

Phil Camman, a Bridgehampton native who is the paramedic supervisor of the Southampton Volunteer Ambulance and recently stepped down as chairman of the Suffolk County Emergency Medical Council, which oversees all of the emergency medical services in the county, said that the state-led distribution of the vaccines has gone quite well thus far, especially considering the scope and novelty of the effort underway.

“If you think about when the last time we had this sort of mass vaccine effort, they’re having to completely write the book as they go,” Mr. Cammann said. “And it has been a very quick-moving process. The Monday before Christmas, the director of EMS for the state did a WebX meeting and announced how the procedure was going to happen. It took a little while to get the ball rolling but the first EMS worker got their shot two days before Christmas and its now a very fluid process.”

Mr. Cammann, who noted that physical reactions to the vaccine among his crews have been minor, said that vaccinated EMS workers will be essential to the broader administering of the vaccine when the time comes. There are more than 5,000 paramedics and emergency medical technicians in Suffolk County who can be mobilized to assist physicians with administering the vaccine.

Infections have continued to spread around the region as the fall surge “second wave” has now soared far past the spring’s limits. Southampton Town has seen its total number of cases more than double since November 1, leaping from 1,365 to 2,981 in the last eight weeks, and East Hampton Town has seen its total number of cases more than triple in the same time frame, from 290 to 890 as of Wednesday morning.

Currently, local hospitalizations are still below the spring peaks. Stony Brook Southampton Hospital had 34 patients admitted with COVID-19 as of Monday afternoon, only seven of whom are in intensive care and three requiring ventilators to help them breathe. At the height of the spring surge, when hospitalists were still figuring out the most effective ways to treat patients, the hospital had more than 50 patients admitted with the disease.

A new COVID-19 testing site opened in the parking lot of East Hampton Town Hall on Wednesday and will be open daily from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. through the winter. The site offers walk-up testing by appointment and takes all insurance plans. The tests are covered by insurance or, without insurance, can be paid for out of pocket for $179 for the PCR test, $99 for the rapid test and $59 for the antibody test.

Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that a limited number of free tests will be offered to those who cannot afford to pay.

The governor said that the new strain of the coronavirus that appears to be more easily transmissible is a “real problem” and called on federal officials on Tuesday to require that all international travelers entering the United States be tested for COVID-19 before entering the country and said that the federal government is failing to protect American citizens.

The governor said that not demanding testing is like replaying the spring spread of the coronavirus in the United State all over again, but with the much more transmissible new strain of the virus that was first identified in the United Kingdom in December and has now been found in 33 countries. The first confirmed case of the new strain was found in New York late last week in a Saratoga-area person.

With a photo of Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield showing on a screen next to him with the letters “M.I.A.” emblazoned below their images, the governor said that the virus has been ahead of the U.S. response “every step of the way.”

“Why do we not have mandatory testing of everyone flying into this country,” the governor asked with exasperation on Tuesday morning. “Why not? Not a travel ban, just mandatory testing. Tell the airlines you have to test them before they get on a plane. If you land in this country, we’re not going to allow you in unless you take a test.”

“This is what happened in the spring,” he added. “Learn the lesson.”

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