by New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr.
We have all seen enough of the New York State Vaccination Program to realize that it is failing. The Titanic had a better rollout. While it is true that vaccination distribution has been hamstrung across the nation by the lack of supply, that is not an excuse for the distribution problems for the vaccine we actually have.
Even though officials had months to plan for the distribution of the vaccine, it appears that decisions are being made up as we go along. Expanding eligibility in the face of low supply has created a public expectation that could not realistically be met. The frustration and anger are palpable and justified. The outcome resembles a sequel to the “Hunger Games”.
Currently, getting a shot has less to do with your age, medical history, or essential worker status, and more about your access and ability to use a computer. There is little correlation between public health need and getting an appointment. Being computer savvy shouldn’t be the primary basis for getting an appointment. One lucky winner told me her experience in getting a vaccine appointment was really helped by what she learned going online to get Beyoncé tickets two summers ago.
Second, one size does not fit all. Relying almost exclusively on mass distribution sites located in more populated areas discriminates against rural and less populated areas. Seniors and those with health conditions cannot drive an hour or more to get the shot. Areas such as the East End and rural areas of upstate New York simply have not had the same access to the vaccine as their urban and suburban neighbors. We can learn from West Virginia, one of the more successful states in vaccination distribution. They successfully focused on decentralized locations such as pharmacies and doctors’ offices to distribute the vaccine in rural areas. In rural areas, we need to get the vaccine to the people. We cannot expect them to make an all-day journey.
In short, if the distribution of the vaccine was supposed to go first to those with the greatest need, based on science and medicine, it is a failure. There is nothing even close to fairness or rationality that explains who has gotten the vaccine and who hasn’t so far.
The system must be changed now based on fairness and need so that when the vaccine does arrive in greater quantities, it will be distributed efficiently to those with the greatest need first.
Here are some suggestions. Instead of having to constantly call or try to snag an appointment on the computer, starting from scratch each time, create a system where EVERY eligible person can register for the vaccine. Organize all the eligible persons according to their public health need, and contact them when it is their turn. Many companies do this now with their consumer help line. You call, give your information, and they tell you when you can expect a call back and when it is your turn, you get the call. Also, there should be a central clearinghouse for ALL methods to access the vaccine, so the public knows ALL their options.
Recognize that the needs of New Yorkers in less populated areas are not being met by mass sites only. Less populated areas with less public transportation require community and neighborhood distribution sites like pharmacies, doctor’s offices, hospitals, schools, and firehouses so that it is not an all-day journey to get the vaccine.
Finally, as the Chair of the Assembly Local Government Committee, it is clear the vaccine distribution has been a top-down affair with little communication to Mayors and Supervisors. They have been left in the dark as decisions filter down from Albany. They know the needs of their community best. Use them to get the vaccine out in their communities.
This is a management problem. It is supposed to be fact-based and all about the science. It is also a communication problem. It’s not just that people don’t know when they will get the vaccine. They don’t even know how. We should be able to tell them that much.
We need to admit this is not working and fix it now.
Fred W. Thiele Jr. is a member of the New York State Assembly, representing the 2nd district from 1992 to 2012 and the 1st district since 2013. The district includes the towns of East Hampton, Shelter Island, Southampton and portions of Brookhaven Town.