On The Hunt For A Local Vaccine, East End Residents Scramble To Make Appointments

With local pharmacies not receiving regular supplies of vaccine, as this sign at the Hampton Bays Stop-and-Shop attests, many East End residents have been seeking out shots as far away as New York City and even Connecticut. Dana Shaw

The lack of availability of vaccines on the East End has sent local residents on treks far and wide to get shots, embroiling some in conflicts over Long Islanders journeying to Connecticut pharmacies that had shots and leaving others to abandon precious appointments because of weather and logistics.

To date, there have been only smatterings of vaccine availability at all on the entire East End. A few dozen shots in Southampton Village, a few hundred at state-run PODs in churches in Hampton Bays and Riverhead, a Westhampton Beach pharmacy secures an allocation of more than 1,000. The scattershot allocations seem to appear with little or no notice from the state and no apparent rhyme or reason to who is given appointments.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that vaccine doses are being distributed statewide according to population — much like the federal allocations are being doled out according to relative need. Most of the state’s allocations go to New York City and most of the rest are being administered through the 30 or so large regional vaccinations sites, of which there are two on Long Island, at Stony Brook University and Jones Beach. But there has been no evidence that pop-up vaccination sites in smaller communities are giving appointments only to residents of the surrounding area, rather than just whoever was able to grab the appointments first when they were made available on state online portals.

Local officials who have expressed exasperation and outrage at the lack of shots that have been available specifically to East End residents say they are baffled by the apparent lack of acknowledgment of the elderly residents of more remote areas.

“If Suffolk is getting 8,000 doses a week, East Hampton is 5 percent of the county population, that should be 400 shots coming to us — that would be a pretty good start,” East Hampton Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said this week. The town has begun setting up its own vaccination site in a vacant school, which he says is nearly ready to be operational, if the state will allocate shots. “It doesn’t make sense to make an 80 or 90 year old go to Stony Brook, or even Riverhead. I’ve got elderly people in Montauk who don’t even want to have to come to East Hampton, and they shouldn’t have to. We can bring it to them, we could do a day at the [Montauk Playhouse]. We just need the shots.”

Instead, there remain only precious few options for even looking for appointments. Most of those now eligible — the 1b cohort will expand from 7 million to nearly 10 million people statewide this weekend when those with various co-morbidities are added to the list — have chosen to toil for hours on the state’s Am I Eligible App, hoping to snag an appointment, anywhere. Some get lucky and get shots in places and on days that they can get to. Others, not so much.

“We had an appointment in Brooklyn last week, but it snowed and, you know, do you risk your life on the road or risk your life by not getting vaccinated — it’s kind of ridiculous that we have to make that choice,” said Marybeth Simmons, who has been living with her family at what is usually their vacation home in Southampton Village since March. “So that appointment just went to waste. We’ve been back on the sites looking again, but haven’t found anything yet.”

A number of local residents had thought they’d found a golden goose, in the form of CVS vaccination appointments that appeared to be readily available.

Anne Marhall and her husband had done the now common marathon sessions on the state portal and had stumbled into an appointment availability in April — in Binghamton, at least a five-hour drive from their Bridgehampton home. Out of desperation, they booked it.

Then a friend told them of the CVS Pharmacy portal and the availability of shots at one of the chain’s stores just 30 miles away — in Waterford, Connecticut.

“I went on the site and there were multiple days and times available the very next week,” Ms. Marshall recalled on Friday, several days after the couple had gotten their first shots.

Even though vaccine doses have been allocated to states according to their population, pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens have been getting their allocations directly from the federal government and in many states have been accepting appointments from anyone who applies, regardless of where they live.

“They asked our ZIP code and we put in 11932 — we didn’t hide anything,” Ms. Marshall said. “We got confirmation emails and texts a couple times, and as we pulled into the parking lot they sent us the link to click 15 minutes before our scheduled time. It was big CVS and it went very smoothly. They scheduled our second shots for three weeks later. We didn’t feel we were taking away from anybody, there were plenty of times available.”

Then, late last week, word spread that Connecticut officials had gotten wind of the New Yorkers coming to CVS stores near the ferry connections. The New York Post reported on Friday that a group of 10 New Yorkers were halted as they arrived for scheduled appointments in Waterbury, Connecticut, and were told to leave.

Several local residents who had appointments at the Waterford CVS this week, canceled their plans and went back to the desperate hope of finding a new availability “locally.” Others, who had gotten their first shots in Connecticut, are waiting on pins and needles for their second appointments, unsure of whether they will be honored.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said another local senior citizen who, with her octogenarian husband, had traveled to a CVS in Connecticut earlier this month to get their first vaccination shots. They were given return dates of February 20, but now are worried that Connecticut will order their appointments canceled. The woman, who is 77 and lives in North Sea, asked not to be identified for fear it could alert Connecticut of their appointment, which as of now they hope to be able to keep.

“CVS has not notified us of any changes,” she said. “It would be awful to travel up there and be told no, but I don’t know what else we are supposed to do. We have our first shots, we have to get the second shots of the same [brand of vaccine] so how are we supposed to start all over trying to find appointments here. It would be awful of them to tell us we just have to waste our first shot. That doesn’t seem wise.”

The Marshalls were mulling the exact same thoughts this week when Ms. Marshall received an email alerting her that a CVS in Manorville, which had not previously been offering vaccines, suddenly had appointments available for, she was told, those in need of second doses only. She went to the CVS portal and, sure enough, was able to make an appointment for a second dose on exactly the date they had been scheduled to return to Waterford for their second shots.

“We got appointments there and there were multiple times available so we canceled our other appointment in Connecticut, and the one in Binghamton,” she said. “It’s a very interesting situation. My thought is, this [location] had never been on anybody’s list and then there’s this problem and it appears, did they do this because of that? We had not received any information about it at all, so I don’t know. It’s all so informal, just word of mouth. But we’re happy we were able to get it scheduled and it’s much closer, so that’s a relief too.”

Ms. Marshall said that she has been told by friends that the Manorville CVS has now started accepting appointments for first dose shots as well.

A request for comment from CVS about the inter-state appointments was not returned this week.

The lack of local vaccination availability and the incongruity between state policy and the seemingly random allowances of and the of the state’s appointments portal has left many residents venturing into the boroughs of New York City, where allocations have been the largest, to get shots. For many seniors, a journey to Staten Island or the Bronx is not something they are particularly comfortable with but must accommodate because of the lack of alternatives.

Sagaponack resident Pingree Louchheim and her husband, Sagaponack Mayor Donald Louchheim, spent hours on the state portal when senior citizens were first made eligible and were finally able to snag appointments for last week — in the Bronx. Having never been to the city’s northernmost borough and concerned about navigating the uncertainties of weather and the crumbling and congested arteries to Adlai Stevenson High School, they hired a livery car to take them.

The driver from Sunny Limo in Southampton told them they were the fifth trip he had made with East End residents to the vaccination site — and he had the unknowns of the system down pat.

“We’ve never been to the Bronx and we thought there would be crowds and since my appointment was at 1 and Don’s wasn’t until 4, we brought a lunch and figured we’d wait in the car,” Ms. Louchheim recalled this week. “But he knew exactly what to do. He knew where he could park and said he’d go in and check for us and when he came back out he said you both can just go in now. It was — wow, what a relief.”