Confusion and Delay Reign as Vaccine Eligibility Expands

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Saturday, January 9 through Monday, January 11. Published in collaboration with The River Newsroom.

NEW YORK STATE

13,714 new cases yesterday
203,904 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 6.73%
169 deaths yesterday
8,645 hospitalizations (1,426 in ICUs)
New York State coronavirus page
New York State vaccine page
New York State official pressroom
COVID-19 hotline: (888) 364-3065
Vaccination appointment hotline: (833) 697-4829

On Monday, New York State broadened vaccine eligibility to include Phase 1B: Frontline essential workers and people over 75. The launch of 1B, along with a new state hotline and an online tool for finding vaccination sites, got off to a chaotic start, as a surge of vaccine-seekers crashed state and local vaccine information sites and flooded the hotline with calls.

State officials say that more than 4 million New Yorkers in 1B are now eligible for the vaccine, along with the 2.1 million in 1A, which includes healthcare workers as well as nursing home residents and staff. At the moment, the demand far outstrips supply: The state is currently receiving about 300,000 doses of vaccine a week from the federal government. But although many New Yorkers are eager to be vaccinated, a perfect storm of confusion, logistical difficulties, power-jockeying between the state and local government, and the state’s strict limits on eligibility have contributed to a slow rollout of available vaccines so far.

On Monday, official guidance from the New York State Department of Health offered a more fine-grained look at who is currently eligible. A seven-page document aimed at vaccine providers states that in addition to groups mentioned by Governor Andrew Cuomo in recent briefings—teachers, first responders, police and corrections workers, other public workers, and those over 75—a variety of other essential workers are currently eligible. Among those who can receive vaccines: in-person instructors at colleges, staff and volunteers as well as residents of homeless shelters, grocery workers, childcare providers, emergency dispatchers, and more.

The list of eligible workers in 1B leaves out many workers considered by New York State to be essential, some of them at high risk for COVID-19 infection, including: food processing and agricultural workers, hotel and restaurant workers, retail and manufacturing workers, clergy, and—yes—news reporters.

Are prison inmates eligible for the vaccine? At first glance, the guidance is unclear, and New York State officials have given conflicting messages on the topic. According to the DOH guidance document, “local correctional facilities, including correction officers” are eligible, but inmates are not specifically mentioned. Prison outbreaks of COVID-19 in the crowded, high-risk environments of state prisons have claimed the lives of at least 27 inmates and six staffers in New York State, and spilled out into local communities.

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New York State is in the process of activating more than 3,000 vaccination sites, some of which launched on Monday. The state does not currently have a comprehensive list of vaccination sites: People who fill out the state’s eligibility form are directed to local locations, and there have been many anecdotal reports of the state website sending people to sites that have no available vaccine, or are not yet ready to handle appointments. The first three of 20 planned mass vaccination sites run by the state DOH will open on Wednesday: one at the Javits Center in New York City, one at the Westchester County Center, and one at the state fairgrounds in Onondaga County. About 500 pharmacies in the state will join a growing network of vaccination sites this week, according to a state press release.

Locally, some county health departments are releasing information on vaccination sites, and some are already vaccinating eligible people at county-run “PODs,” or points of distribution. Counties have limited supplies of doses, and in many cases, are still focused on vaccinating higher-priority 1A workers. We encourage readers of The River who want to be vaccinated to use the state hotline and vaccination site finder, and also to check county health department websites and Facebook pages for local information that may change quickly.

State Senate health chair Gustavo Rivera slammed the state’s vaccine rollout in a statement sent to reporters on Monday. “Localities and providers are being kept in the dark by the state until the last possible minute while people continue to get sick and die,” Rivera wrote. “It is not enough to say that is unacceptable. The lack of collaboration between the State and localities like the City of New York has created an unnecessarily confusing and bifurcated system of vaccination sites and scheduling for New Yorkers to navigate.” County leaders are frustrated too: A Times Union reporter managed to get on an officials-only Zoom call where local leaders expressed outrage at state officials for causing “chaos” and “bedlam,” and Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus said something unprintable. (Good for him. —Ed.)

Under fire from local officials and public health experts for strict eligibility rules that have led to doses being thrown away, Cuomo and state health officials are now allowing providers to loosen eligibility in situations where doses would otherwise expire. According to state DOH guidance, all vaccine providers must keep a “standby” list of eligible recipients who can step in to be vaccinated if an appointment opens up. If that list is exhausted and a provider still has extra doses, they can give them to other public-facing workers: “There may be times due to inclement weather, cancellations, or extra doses in vial, that there are doses of vaccine that remain at the close of business or the end of a vaccine clinic and no one from the priority population can come in before the doses expire. At these times and only under these circumstances, providers are authorized by the NYSDOH to administer vaccine to other public facing employees,” the document reads.

Needles on wheels: Albany County Executive Dan McCoy has announced a new COVID-19 vaccine-mobile, operated by Mohawk Ambulance Service, that will bring vaccines within reach for local seniors whose mobility is limited.

Three new cases of B.1.1.7, the so-called “UK variant” of the novel coronavirus that appears to be much more contagious than the original form, were found in New York State over the weekend, bringing the total found so far to four. Two were contacts of the Saratoga Springs jeweler who was the first in the state to be found infected by B.1.1.7; another was found in Nassau County. Last week, a state DOH spokesman told The River that the state’s Wadsworth lab is currently sequencing about 90 cases a day to screen for variants, most selected at random from around the state.

B.1.1.7 does not appear to be more lethal to those who catch it, but because it is more easily spread, it’s worrying public health officials, some of whom are asking if it’s time for New York State to take more urgent action—like, for instance, shutting down indoor dining. City & State has a look at the current state of New York’s regional regulation in light of the news: confusing, a mishmash of different strategies, and still fairly lax about allowing activities known to be dangerous, despite the apparent spread in the state of a worrisome new variant.

The ever-useful COVID Tracking Project launched a new resource this week: An interactive map of hospital data that shows how many COVID-19 patients each individual hospital currently has, and how many of them are in the ICU. The map draws on federal hospital data published by Health and Human Services, and is updated once a week.

Bad news: Gorillas can get COVID-19, and several at the San Diego Zoo are currently mildly ill with the virus and coughing, the AP reports. The gorillas apparently were infected by an asymptomatic zookeeper who wore a mask while caring for them. The San Diego report is believed to be the first of a primate contracting COVID-19.

On Monday, Governor Cuomo delivered his annual State of the State address, pledging to “win the COVID war” and to beef up the ranks of public health workers with a new state fellowship and an emergency volunteer program. The state website has video and a rundown of the highlights.

State data on COVID-19 infections and fatalities among nursing home residents is still under wraps, with state health officials still refusing to release it after more than six months of unrelenting pressure (and Freedom of Information requests) from reporters, citizen activists, and the Empire Center.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

Westchester County Executive George Latimer led off his Monday coronavirus briefing with an update on the county’s vaccine distribution, stressing that the county must work within the rules set out by the state and pointing to the state’s eligibility requirements for Phases 1A and 1B.

The Westchester County Center in White Plains will become a regional hub for vaccinations starting Wednesday. The county has ceded control of the site to the state health department, which is working with the Westchester County Department of Health and Westchester Medical Center to run the regional hub. The County Center was converted into a field hospital in March to handle any overflow of COVID-19 patients from regional hospitals, but it ended up not being used for that purpose.

Latimer also provided updated case numbers for the county, which are grim. Westchester saw 49 COVID-related deaths in the past week, its active cases shot up to 11,265, and hospitalizations have hit 504, “a much higher number than we’ve seen in past weeks,” Latimer said. “So the numbers are not good.”

Rockland County has used up all its doses of vaccine as of Friday, January 8, and will be pausing vaccinations until the county receives more doses from the state. “Having foreseen this eventuality, we requested additional vaccine from New York State the evening of Wednesday, January 6th, but have not yet received any additional doses,” County Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert said in a press release. The county health department will resume vaccinating eligible residents at its Pomona point of distribution after it receives more doses.

Seven people have died in Rockland County since Friday, according to the county’s COVID-19 metrics dashboard. There are 2,854 active cases and 107 hospitalizations in the county.

On Monday afternoon, state Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City) called on the state health department to establish a large-scale vaccination center in Rockland County similar to the one in Westchester County. “I have seen enough of the 1B rollout today to know that it isn’t working,” Zebrowski wrote in a statement. “My office has been on the phone with countless Rockland residents over the age of 75 who are confused and frustrated that they can’t make any appointment for a vaccine.”

One person died and 613 new cases were counted from January 1 through 7 in Putnam County, according to the county’s weekly coronavirus dashboard update. Almost one-third of the new cases were in the Town of Carmel. The county currently has 455 active cases.

The Putnam County Department of Health expects to open up additional appointments and points of distribution for vaccinations under Phase 1B this week, according to a press release issued Monday.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia
County vaccine pages: Dutchess, Ulster

Dutchess County Health Commissioner Dr. Anil Vaidian encouraged residents who fall into Phase 1B to subscribe to county updates and to continue to look for vaccine appointments if they do not initially get one. Appointments can be made through the state’s “Am I Eligible” portal. Vaidian reminded residents that vaccinating everyone eligible under Phase 1B is expected to take three to four months.

Dutchess County may be in for its worst month of the pandemic. The Poughkeepsie Journal notes that 36 residents died in the first nine days of January—half the total who died in May, the worst month of the pandemic thus far. Active cases have also spiked. County Executive Marc Molinaro said the spike was not due to a particular outbreak, but from a multitude of small family gatherings over the Christmas season.

Ulster County opened its first vaccine hub for people in Phase 1B of the rollout on Monday, and the Daily Freeman was there to shoot a video. Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan called the opening “great news,” but said the county now faces the challenge of securing enough doses from the federal government through the state. Deputy Executive Marc Rider said the hub was vaccinating about 480 people a day, and that it is already “fully booked” for the number of vaccines it received. The county has some ramping up to do: In an earlier press release, officials said the seven-day-a-week Kingston site would be able to handle 45,000 vaccinations a month, which would work out to about 1,500 a day.

A bus driver with routes with both the Hudson City School District and a Hudson-Greenport shopping shuttle tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. The owner of County Public Transportation was told on Thursday that a student on the employee’s bus route had tested positive, and the employee was immediately taken out of service, according to the county. He last drove the shopping shuttle on Thursday. The bus driver was one of seven new cases announced by the Hudson City School District on Monday, though the rest of the COVID-positive individuals had not recently been on school grounds.

The deaths of two Columbia County residents have been announced since Friday, bringing the county’s toll up to 54.

Columbia County has just 300 doses of vaccine to allocate this week, according to Health Director Jack Mabb, which will curtail the county’s ability to vaccinate everyone who is eligible. “People in the 1B category will need to be patient,” he said.

Nine more COVID-19 deaths were reported in Orange County on Monday, according to the county dashboard, bringing its total to 637. One of the deceased was a resident at a nursing home, while the other eight were not; they ranged in age from 50 to 93, according to County Executive Steve Neuhaus.

In his Monday coronavirus briefing, Neuhaus told his constituents to not focus on national politics, but instead on the everyday necessity of staying safe and getting vaccinated. “Do your best to avoid getting sucked into this negativity,” he said. The county received 800 doses last Wednesday, which were in residents’ arms within 36 hours, Neuhaus said. The county requested 3,000 more doses on Friday, but received word on Monday that they would only be receiving 200 doses. Neuhaus also encouraged residents to help those over 75, who are eligible under Phase 1B but may have more trouble signing up for appointments because registration is largely done online.

Only one inmate at the Ulster County Jail is still COVID-positive, according to a statement by sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Abram Markiewicz, and one jail employee remains out of work due to the virus. The positive case was someone who recently arrived at the jail, according to the Kingston Wire. An outbreak hit the jail over the new year, with 23 inmates testing positive by January 4, according to Mid Hudson News.

The Beacon Highway Department and transfer station will be closed until Monday, January 18, after two employees tested positive, with a third employee possibly infected. Those who normally contact the Highway Department for business should call (845) 831-0932 and leave a message or call city hall at (845) 838-5000.

CATSKILLS

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie
County vaccine pages: Sullivan, Greene

A small but ardent group of Greene County residents and prison-reform advocates gathered outside Coxsackie Correctional Facility on Sunday to demand decarceration amid a string of recent deaths at the facility. Three inmates have died from COVID-19 within the last 10 days at the maximum security state prison. “Allowing people to die because they’re a criminal offender is not New York Tough,” said Thomas Kearney, one of the speakers at the event and a former inmate at Coxsackie Correctional. “This is a time where we need to make hard decisions and allowing people to die and facilitating in that death because you don’t like the label they hold is no different than a fucking hate crime.”

Several people died of COVID-19 in the Catskills region over the weekend and Monday. A death in Delaware County brings the county up to 17 fatalities so far, seven of which have occured since Christmas. Greene County health officials reported four deaths over the weekend. One Sullivan County resident has died of COVID-19 since Friday.

Greene County health officials have been vaccinating some healthcare workers at a clinic in Catskill, but they say they’re not ready to move on to 1B yet. “Despite what the NYSDOH site has stated, Greene County does not have the supply for the 1B tier at this time and must complete 1A before proceeding,” the county wrote in a Facebook post on Monday. “Anyone in the 75 and over group has been instructed that they will be receiving this vaccine through their local pharmacy when the supply becomes available. They must register at health.ny.gov to register to be contacted.”

Schoharie County is apparently in the same boat: County health officials said Monday that they are still focusing on vaccinating 1A workers, and are requesting more vaccine from the state that has not yet arrived.

Sullivan County health officials will begin hosting weekly vaccination clinics starting January 20, according to a county press release. The clinics will increase to twice-weekly in mid-February, and the county is also planning to launch a larger vaccination clinic after eligibility to the general public increases. The county release also has information about vaccination efforts underway at local healthcare providers Garnet Health and Sun River, which has a waitlist for eligible essential workers and people 75 and older who want to be vaccinated.

Out of the 11 counties The River tracks in our local news roundups, Delaware County is the only one to have given out no information whatsoever about any county-run vaccination efforts, either planned or underway. In the county’s regular daily update on cases Monday, county health officials urged residents to contact local hospitals about vaccination. “Most hospitals in the area are vaccinating 1A and 1B, call the facility or go [sic] their website for more information,” health officials said in a release. “Vaccination sites can request vaccine weekly. Check back with the facility periodically because slots could open up with cancellations or the facility may receive more vaccine. Delaware County residents do not have to be vaccinated in Delaware County. Check out-of-county facility availability.”

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OF INTEREST?

The River and The Other Hudson Valley are collaborating with WGXC to announce these updates over the air. To listen, tune in to 90.7 FM at midnight, 5am, 7am, or 9am, or visit the audio archive online.

La Voz, una revista de cultura y noticias del Valle de Hudson en español, está traduciendo estos resúmenes y co-publicandolos en su página web. Leyendo aqui. También puede escuchar actualizaciones diarias por audio en el show “La Voz con Mariel Fiori” en Radio Kingston.

To read more of our coronavirus coverage, visit our coronavirus page.

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