Covid Vaccine Remains Elusive Here
Pictured Above: Kisa King, Resident in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook University Hospital receives the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Stony Brook University Hospital in December.
As The Beacon’s March edition was going to press in late February, the sorry state of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout on the East End was still the topic of top concern on the minds of residents here, with a new wrinkle of frustration: the lack of public information regarding the few pop-up vaccination events that have come and gone here in the past month.
When the vaccine was first released to health care workers and residents of senior care facilities in late December, local hospital networks took the lead in vaccinating health care workers, while chain pharmacies deployed to nursing homes to stop the spread of the virus in the place it’s proved most deadly.
But when the pool of eligible applicants opened up wide in late January, the vaccination effort bumped up against the enormous demand for the limited supply of vaccines here. Bookings quickly filled up at New York State’s 13 mass vaccination sites, only two of which are on Long Island — at Jones Beach and Stony Brook University.
While frontline workers like teachers, transit and grocery store employees were being vaccinated at Suffolk County Community College’s three locations by the end of February, no information has been released to the general public about how to sign up to receive the vaccine there.
New York State has mandated that county health departments focus on vaccinating front-line workers, medical facilities vaccinate health care workers, and pharmacies, physician networks and the mass vaccination sites vaccinate senior citizens.
One county official who spoke at the Feb. 17 unveiling of the vaccination site at the college’s Selden location didn’t mince words about how the vaccination program is going.
“This roll-out has come too fast, and seniors are being left behind,” said Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker at the unveiling. “Senior citizens are not able to register as easily as some other folks are, and the governor’s executive order prevents the county from providing vaccines to seniors. Pharmacies are doing that.”
“We’re doing the best we can with what we’re getting,” she added. “Who are the highest fatalities? Our senior citizens. We have to do more.”
East Hampton Town managed to get 300 doses for a clinic to vaccinate firefighters, grocery store workers and teachers at the former Child Development Center of the Hamptons school in Wainscott on Feb. 13, but had not released details for any future clinics as we went to press.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, with an East Hampton Town Police Department escort, Officer Joe Montiel, personally picked up the vials of Pfizer vaccines at a Suffolk County clinic in Riverhead on Feb. 12.
East Hampton Town pointed out in a statement that it was not allowed to vaccinate senior citizens under the county’s program, saying seniors “are eligible for vaccination through pharmacies and NYS vaccination centers.”
“The town will continue seeking opportunities to offer vaccination clinics, particularly in partnerships with pharmacies and doctors who can offer vaccinations to our age 65-and-over residents or other eligible categories,” according to a press release issued by East Hampton Town Feb. 14. “There is no sign-up or waiting list at this time.”
New York State has held a smattering of pop up vaccination clinics at St. Rosalie’s in Hampton Bays on Feb. 3 and at East Hampton’s Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in conjunction with OLA of Eastern Long Island on Feb. 19, in an effort to bring the vaccine directly to communities of color. The OLA site, the only state pop-up site on Long Island that weekend, received just 250 doses of the vaccine. Organizers scoured the Latino community to offer the vaccine to people at the greatest risk for complications from the virus.
Stony Brook Medicine crowed on Feb. 4 that it was vaccinating 600 community members by appointment only at Peconic Landing in Greenport that day, but issued the following vague statement when asked how people would know how to sign up for the vaccine there:
“Stony Brook Medicine has had a long-standing partnership with Peconic Landing to provide medical services to its community. We had the opportunity to offer the vaccine at the Point of Distribution (POD) to elderly residents of the far eastern North Fork with permission from the NYDOH. The population today will return in three weeks for the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Appointments are required for all vaccinations. The public is encouraged to regularly visit the New York State Department of Health Eligibility website.”
The next day, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell issued a scathing rebuke of the vaccine roll-out, saying “the current state plan, which distributes vaccines to pharmacies, various healthcare agencies and healthcare providers on a seemingly random basis, lacks transparency and places undue burdens on our residents, especially our seniors and those with critical underlying conditions.”
“This “pop-up” style plan provides no meaningful advance notice to the residents who must primarily rely on word-of-mouth, often finding out too late,” he added. “The current plan directs residents to make appointments at various locations, only for them to find out that appointments aren’t being accepted or there is no vaccine available. Further, New York State-run vaccination centers currently located at Jones Beach and in Stony Brook place undue burdens on our Southold residents, especially our seniors, which forces them to drive for hours if they are lucky enough to get an appointment.”
“The lack of advance notice to the community when vaccines are available at different locations leads to disappointment and frustration for those who simply don’t know when vaccines are being offered,” he added. “The public shouldn’t have to rely on rumors or spend hours day and night scouring the internet in the hope of finding an opportunity. There is no communication with the towns, which are in the best position to help get the message out and, certainly, the healthcare agencies and businesses aren’t to blame because they aren’t notified until the last minute that they are receiving vaccines to administer. Intentional or not, it creates the appearance of a lack of transparency.”
Southampton High School is slated to become a vaccination site for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services two months from now, after the school board approved the project Feb. 9. We don’t have any further details about that site at the moment.
Local pharmacies have been attempting to set up vaccination clinics, with the local Barths chain of pharmacies on the North and South Forks having some success with a three-day vaccination clinic at the Westhampton Beach Firehouse in late January. People who had managed to snag an appointment through Barth’s who we’d talked to were going back for their second dose of the vaccine in late February. By then, Barths wasn’t currently accepting any more names on its waiting list for a vaccine.
No vaccination appointments were available at either Walgreens or CVS pharmacies in New York State as of press time.
Fed up with the lack of public information, East Enders have turned to their neighbors and to social media for tips on how to score the elusive vaccine.
As we went to press, the best advice we were hearing is to call the state vaccination scheduling line at 1.833.697.4829, wait on hold, and then beg the person who answers the phone to keep you on the line while they scour the mass vaccination site schedule for cancellations.
We asked the County Executive’s office as they unveiled the Selden Suffolk County Community vaccination site on Feb. 17 how people could get appointments there, and whether front-line workers were receiving the information about scheduling a vaccine there through their employers. We asked again this week.
The response? Crickets.