NY preps public vaccine distribution sites

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, and Health Department Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, pictured Tuesday in the state Capitol in Albany during a coronavirus briefing to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Courtesy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office

ALBANY — The state will use thousands of public distribution sites across New York to expedite the COVID-19 vaccine to essential workers, the elderly and eventually the general public as officials expect immunization supply to increase in the coming months.

The state has received about 300,000 doses of drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine each week since immunizations began Dec. 14, or roughly 1.2 million dosages per month.

The initial supply is reserved for high-risk and all health care workers, especially those who directly work with the public per Centers for Disease Control & Prevention guidance, but eligibility will expand to vaccinate essential workers and New Yorkers over age 75 in the next phase, or those most at risk to become hospitalized or die from COVID-19 complications.

“If you have a hospital now that says ‘I did all my health care workers and I have an extra allocation,’ contact us and we’ll move it,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday during a coronavirus briefing in the state Capitol in Albany. “...I’m deluged with phone calls from health care workers who say, ‘I want the vaccine, but I can’t get it.’”

The state’s more than 5,000 pharmacies, federally qualified health centers, county health departments, long-term care facilities, private urgent care clinics, hospitals and other health care facilities will administer the vaccine to those larger groups, and eventually, the general public.

“We’ll be supplying all of these outlets with the vaccine to do the distribution when we get to the general public,” Cuomo said. “The distribution system is going to outpace our supply system right now, which is the way it should be.”

The nation’s vaccine supply is expected to increase with the pending U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval of Oxford-Astra Zeneca’s and Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccines.

Johnson & Johnson’s immunization against the novel coronavirus only requires one dose to be effective, and would help the state and nation’s supply.

“We’re distributing 900,000 vaccines for a 2 million population of health care workers,” said Cuomo, adding the state needs another four weeks of allocation to vaccinate all health workers at its current rate and move to essential workers and the elderly.

“Obviously, it’s a very long timeline at this supply rate, and the supply rate is the limiting factor. We hope, pray and expect the supply from the federal government will be increasing, but we need it to increase,” he said.

To date, 3,762 vaccination provider sites have enrolled as a distribution site with the state Health Department.

The Capital Region has 343 sites, with 297 designated locations in the Finger Lakes, 351 in Western New York and 150 in the North Country.

The state reports 636 vaccination provider sites at hospitals, federally qualified health centers, urgent care and local health departments are currently active and helping to vaccinate the state’s 2.1 million health care workers with their first of two injections with 37 in the Capital Region, 47 in the Finger Lakes, 40 in Western New York and 25 in the North Country.

“There’s a network out there besides these hospitals where people can go [to be vaccinated] if they’re eligible health care workers right now,” Cuomo said.

The governor requested large police and fire departments and transit workers to organize their employees to help vaccinate first responders and essential workers.

The vaccine is free to all eligible New Yorkers.

The federal government controls the vaccine supply and allocates vials to U.S. states.

Cuomo urged federal officials, including U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield to require every international traveler to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding a plane and arriving in the United States.

The federal government mandated the negative COVID-19 test for all U.K. travelers before flying to the United States on Christmas Day, four days after airlines agreed to test passengers traveling to New York shortly after the more contagious variant was first discovered last month.

“Not a travel ban — just mandatory testing,” the governor said. “This virus has been ahead of us every step of the way and this country has been playing catch-up every step of the way. Government leaders are supposed to be competent. Why do we not have mandatory testing of everyone flying into this country?

“You know there are viral strains in other countries now. How many times do you have to learn the same lesson over and over? What happened to competent leadership in government?

New York will take action if the federal government does not, Cuomo said.

“The United States must act. If the United States won’t act, then New York state will act,” Cuomo said. “...To allow this virus to continue landing at our airports and to make New York a petri dish and the federal government does nothing — I can’t allow that to happen. I wouldn’t be doing my job as governor of the state of New York.”

A Saratoga Springs man in his 60s was the first New Yorker to officially test positive Monday for the 70% more contagious strain of COVID-19 first discovered in the United Kingdom.

The man owns N. Fox Jewelers, at 404 Broadway, in Saratoga Springs. Three other store employees tested positive for COVID.

The Health Department’s Wadsworth Center in Albany is testing each employee for the more contagious variant through genome testing. The variant is 70% more transmissible, but is not believed to cause more severe sickness or risk of death.

No other cases of the variant were confirmed as of press time Tuesday afternoon. The more involved genome test takes about 44 hours to complete.

“As soon as we have answers, we will provide that,” Health Department Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said of additional cases Tuesday. “We’re moving very quickly on this. We’re doing aggressive contact tracing of all those in the store. It has been taking place since the moment we discovered [the U.K. variant].”

The CDC takes two weeks to conduct the necessary genome testing for the mutated disease.

“COVID tests are very quick,” Cuomo said. “It’s a very complicated situation.”

Health Department officials encourage any person who entered the store since Dec. 18 to get a COVID-19 test.

Anyone exposed to or who works closely with another person likely exposed to the more contagious variant should contact the Health Department immediately, the governor said.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of — it’s a virus, it travels, but we have to know,” he said.

State officials spoke with global experts about the viral strain Tuesday morning.

The state was expected to vaccinate its nursing home residents and staff through a federal program partnering with national pharmaceutical chains, including CVS Health and Walgreens, starting Dec. 22.

The state is expediting nursing home vaccinations with the goal to vaccinate all residents and staff within the next two weeks after the federal program has been met with widespread delays.

“That has not gone as quickly as we’d like to see it move,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo released a list of the 10 best-performing and slowest-performing hospitals when administering COVID-19 vaccines. As of Monday afternoon, hospitals across the state had used about 46%, or less than half, of their allocated vaccine supply to date.

The delay varies by hospital or health system, Zucker and Cuomo said.

“We need them to operate quickly and put in place a seven-day use it or lose it,” Cuomo said of the Health Department’s new guidelines, and potential $100,000 fine to hospitals for not inoculating New Yorkers quickly enough after vaccine shipments are delivered to a facility.

Hospitals that fail to efficiently immunize health care workers will not receive additional vaccine shipments to carry out the task.

“I need the best hospitals with the best management in the best systems as part of this effort because it’s literally a matter of life and death,” Cuomo said.

The state plans to set up large vaccination sites at field hospitals, such as the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, churches, community centers and other temporary sites to ensure minority and poor communities are also protected against the novel coronavirus.

“That’s a priority,” Cuomo said.

The state’s COVID-19 infection rate without microcluster zones was 8.12% Tuesday — up from 7.78% the day before, but in line with 8% positive for most of last week before the New Year’s holiday. Statewide positivity increased to 8.31% including hot spots.

Virus hospitalizations continue to tick up statewide, with 8,590 total patients in state hospitals Tuesday, up 339 patients overnight.

The state reported 149 New Yorkers died from COVID-19 complications Monday — down slightly from 170 virus fatalities Sunday.

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