Vaccine Rollout Leaves Many On Long Island Confused, Frustrated

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Peggy Spellman Hoey
·10 min read
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LONG ISLAND, NY — People lined up to receive the COVID-19 vaccine outside the Nassau County Department of Health’s vaccine distribution center at Nassau Community College on Jan. 8, while police kept the surrounding area secure. Some people breathed sighs of relief as they received their first shot. It was like something out of a movie scene, and those poignant moments brought tears to the eyes of neuroscientist Heather Berlin who was also waiting for her vaccine.

“The sight of it was almost surreal,” she said.

Berlin could have received her COVID-19 vaccination at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan where she is an assistant professor of clinical psychology, but she thought it would be easier if she received the shot closer to home. She was mistaken.

After her vaccination, she was instructed to take a photo of a white board informing her when she was due for her next shot, but she was informed that the location was not booking appointments for patients receiving their second dose of the vaccine. Instead, she was told to wait two weeks to log on to Nassau County’s website to schedule her appointment.

Berlin has since tried to go online to the site and she has been unable to schedule her second dose of the Moderna vaccine, which is due Feb. 5. She has tried numerous times to log on to the site as early as 4 a.m to book her next inoculation, but to avail. She has even tried New York State’s vaccination scheduling site. To further complicate matters, Berlin might not be able to receive her second shot elsewhere because patients have been instructed to return to the location where they were originally inoculated.

Like others, Berlin, took to Twitter Thursday, pointing out the flaws in the state’s vaccination roll-out plan, as well as asking for advisement on what direction to take, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced Wednesday that those receiving the vaccine for the first time would be able to make an appointment for their second vaccination.

“I feel like I am in a Catch-22 now,” said Berlin, an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a radio and television personality who has appeared on PBS and the Discovery Channel.

The state’s mass vaccine rollout that has expanded over the past week, has left many confused and frustrated, only increasing as the eligible list has expanded to include other classes of patients such as those in healthcare with less exposure risk to the virus than frontline workers, seniors over 65, food workers, teachers, law enforcement and firefighters. Many Long Island residents, like Berlin, are finding that when they show up for their first inoculation, there is no way of signing up for a second appointment.

“I am stressed that I am not going to be able to get the second vaccine,” said Berlin, who has a master's degree in public health from Harvard University, noting the second vaccine must be administered within a specific time period to ensure immunity. “I am not going to get the same effect, it would be kind of a waste of the cycle.”

A spokeswoman for Nassau County Executive Laura Curran acknowledged the glitch Berlin encountered with Nassau’s vaccine distribution centers, stating that the county’s Internet Technology Department is currently working to develop a more comprehensive system to book second appointments. The county has a record of all first-dose recipients’ information and officials will make sure that all residents that received their first dose at a Nassau County Department of Health vaccination site receive their second dose accordingly, the spokeswoman wrote in an email.

In a statement Thursday night, Curran, who is currently under quarantine for COVID-19 exposure, said that all residents who received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose at a county Department of Health site, either at Nassau Community College or the ‘Yes We Can’ center, “should” receive their second dose at the same site.

“While, there has been some confusion surrounding the process to receive appointments for second doses, be assured that Nassau County will be contacting each individual with the date of their second dose approximately one week prior to their scheduled appointment,” Curran stated. “The second doses will be administered within the appropriate time frame. All applicable residents should be on alert for a phone call or email from Nassau County with the scheduling information.”

Dr. Danielle Rannazzisi, a psychologist from Garden City, said that when she first learned she was eligible to receive the vaccine, she got the run-around navigating the state’s eligibility generator, which directed her back to a state-run hotline. She finally made headway when she reached a Northwell Health telephone operator who sent her a link to sites across the island, but the closest location that she could find was an hour away at Peconic Bay Hospital Medical Center in Riverhead.

When she received her first shot on Jan. 9, she was informed by staff that she could not book a second appointment on-site, and she was directed to wait two weeks and go online. Her 80-year-old father had the same experience after he received his shot at the Nassau-run vaccination distribution point at the ‘Yes, we can’ Community Center in Westbury.

Peconic Bay’s staff was aware that the second shot must be given, but they were unsure how that would transpire because she was informed appointments are booked out until December. Rannazzisi has since made an appointment for the state-run Jones Beach State Park distribution site in Wantagh, however, she is unsure if she will be accepted there because it is a different distribution site.

“I just don’t understand how — with the rollout — there was no plan for when people would get the second vaccine,” she said.

Northwell Health spokesman Joseph Kemp said that what Rannazzisi was told was inaccurate because the health system does not even have the vaccines available to distribute through the end of December.

Northwell Health, which has Long Island’s largest network of doctors and facilities, is not scheduling appointments for patients to receive the second dose of vaccine when they show up on site, according to Kemp. Under the current plan, patients who receive their first vaccine inoculation will receive a notification when it’s time to book an appointment for their second dose, Kemp wrote in an email.

“It’s a supply issue,” Kemp said. “With every shipment, we satisfy all second-dose needs first, then we book first dose appointments. But those appointments are all being made with product in hand.”

Kemp reiterated that “anyone who gets the first dose will get that second shot” because the health system has managed its supply to account for those requiring a second shot.

However, Rannazzisi said she would not fault Northwell Health, instead she said that there should have been more guidance at the state level, and she is nonetheless worried neither she or her father will receive the second dose of the vaccine. She also questioned why there was no guidance as to whether people could book their second vaccination appointment elsewhere.

“That’s a real concern,” she said. “I am hoping that [health officials] will make some sort of plan to reach out to people. It would be nice if they reached out sooner rather than later.”

To further complicate the state’s vaccine roll-out plan, an unpublished scheduling link was shared without authorization earlier this week, allowing people to schedule appointments in areas upstate that have not been set up, as well as Stony Brook University, according to Marcy Stevens, the state’s general counsel for its Office of Information Technology. The only way to sign up for vaccinations at state-operated locations is through the Am I eligible? website, she said.

“Out of an abundance of caution we referred this issue to the Inspector General. As this pandemic has shown, equity and equal access are critical in distributing the vaccine, and to ensure these principles are followed all unauthorized appointments have been voided — we are currently contacting everyone who used the unauthorized link to inform them of the situation,” Stevens stated. “We will continue to safeguard all New Yorkers' information and ensure equal access to the vaccine for everyone eligible.”

When contacted for comment, Stony Brook Medicine officials would not address specific questions aimed at the vaccine scheduling, instead issuing a statement confirming the university as a state-designated location for distribution.

The statement reads, “The state has sole responsibility and authority for determining vaccine eligibility, allotment of vaccine supply to [points of distribution] across the state, and when appointments at the location will be made available on the state site.”

The statement went on to direct a reporter’s questions to the state Department of Health.

The governor on Tuesday laid the blame on President Donald Trump’s administration for not allocating an adequate supply of vaccines — only abut 300,000 doses per week — to accommodate New York’s needs. In a news release announcing the addition of five new vaccination centers, he said that the state’s “vast distribution network and large population of eligible individuals far exceeds the vaccine supply coming from the federal government” and that residents could expect to wait for an appointment 14 weeks or further away. It was not immediately clear if that statement refers to first vaccination appointments, second, or both under the new roll-out plans.

On Friday morning, The Washington Post reported that when U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced the federal government would release a reserve of vaccines, the reserve never existed, so states can expect less of an allocation, according to federal and state representatives who were briefed on vaccine distribution plans. Cuomo in his morning press conference announced the state’s vaccine weekly distribution supply will now be reduced from 300,000 to 250,000, at a time when medical providers need more of a supply because the demand has increased with expanded eligibility.

"New York is working around the clock to get needles in arms quickly and efficiently, but we are being constrained by the federal government - they increased eligibility, but never increased supply," Cuomo said. "What they did was like opening the floodgates of eligibility.”

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People on the eligible list also ran into problems scheduling appointments, using the state’s website. Many Long Island residents reported websites crashing, long wait times on the phone, and they were directed to distributers that did not have the vaccine available.

In response to Patch’s inquiry, a spokesman from the State Department of Health noted that all of the providers listed on the state’s website are in “various stages” of being set up as vaccine distribution sites. Some providers have the vaccine and are scheduling appointments, others are booking appointments in a planning effort, and others have registered to participate but have not yet begun accepting appointments, according to Jeffrey Hammond, spokesman for the state’s Department of Health. “Again, demand is outpacing supply right now,” he wrote in an email.

Berlin said that she has now scheduled an appointment to receive a vaccine at Mount Sinai, however, she will not know until close to her vaccination if it will match the Moderna one that she has already received. Still, she vowed to complete the vaccination series.

She noted that she has been a “fan” of Cuomo for his efforts tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, but she questioned if there could not have been a better plan for vaccine distribution given the amount of time that has elapsed. Berlin believed that she had to be vocal in addressing the issue because it might help “achieve a solution.” She recalled receiving her first vaccination and seeing how important it was to the people lining up outside Nassau Community College.

“It is the difference between life and death for some people and the bureaucracy is playing with peoples’ lives,” she said.

This article originally appeared on the East Meadow Patch