State Expands Vaccine Eligibility Again, and The Rollout’s a Mess

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties for Tuesday, January 12 and Wednesday, January 13. Published in collaboration with The River Newsroom.

NEW YORK STATE

14,577 new cases yesterday
196,868 tests yesterday
Positive test rate: 7.40%
168 deaths yesterday
8,929 hospitalizations (1,501 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

The number of New Yorkers eligible for COVID-19 vaccination more than tripled in just two days this week, after Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday opened appointments to those eligible under Phase 1B, which includes everyone over 75 and a broad array of essential workers. On Tuesday, the state was more or less forced to expand eligibility yet again after the Trump unexpectedly administration announced that states are now urged to expand eligibility to anyone over 65 and immunocompromised adults, and that any state that failed to administer its doses quickly would risk losing out in future dose allocations. More than 7 million people across the state are now eligible, and trying to navigate a confusing welter of state, local, and private sites in an effort to sign up for one of the state’s limited number of available doses.

Adding to the confusion: It’s not clear yet who qualifies as “immunocompromised.” State health officials are still hashing that out with the federal government.

In support of a sped-up vaccination effort, US Health and Human Services is releasing all available doses to states now, rather than holding half in reserve for partially vaccinated people to get their second shot—a rare moment of agreement between the Trump administration and the incoming Biden team, which had pledged to make a similar move after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. The strategy may save lives, but also risks disrupting the second dose if manufacturers miss their production targets, Wired reports. Some public health experts are applauding the move, including Baltimore health commissioner Leana Wen in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “States that have been efficiently distributing doses are showing that they can deliver vaccines with the urgency required,” she wrote. “Reward them by sending more doses their way.”

Vaccine distribution in New York State is still a mess: People trying to get vaccinated are dealing with the state’s buggy website, a hotline swamped by high call volume, and information that directs them to contact vaccine providers who are also overwhelmed, or not yet scheduling vaccine appointments. The Empire Center’s Bill Hammond described the process of trying to sign an 80-year-old up for a shot as “a bewildering array of poorly designed websites, contradictory instructions and several apparent dead ends.”

Still, many people have gotten through the process, and managed to schedule appointments at a locally run site or one of the mass vaccination sites launched by the state Department of Health this week. An all-caps notification across New York State’s vaccine website on Wednesday blared: “CURRENTLY APPOINTMENTS HAVE BEEN MADE FOR THE NEXT 14 WEEKS.”

A major factor behind the urgent calls to speed up vaccination is the ongoing spread of more contagious variants of COVID-19 that have been found in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil. The number of known New York State cases of B.1.1.7, a more-transmissible variant of COVID-19 first discovered in the UK through genetic surveillance of viral samples, keeps rising: up to 15 so far, according to a Wednesday state press release. There are six cases linked to a Saratoga Springs jeweler—four in Saratoga County, two in Warren County—and another three cases in Warren County that may be part of the same cluster. There is also a cluster of five cases in Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk counties, and a single case in Manhattan. A spokesman for the state Department of Health said that the state-run Wadsworth Center is still sequencing about 90 samples a day to check for important variants, both known contacts of the cases found so far and random samples from around the state.

https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/3327033/

Researchers at Ohio State University are concerned about two new variants detected through genetic surveillance in Ohio, The New York Times reports. Their research has not been peer-reviewed yet, but the scientists say the new variants carry specific mutations affecting the spike protein that have been linked to greater contagiousness in other variants, and at least one appears to have evolved independently in the US.

A new study from the University of Texas found evidence that Pfizer’s vaccine is effective against the B.1.1.7 UK variant, as well as another worrying variant found in South Africa.

Dollar General is offering its employees a cash bonus worth four hours of pay to get vaccinated, one of the first large US employers to offer financial incentives for vaccination, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The Times Union’s editorial board slammed the New York State Department of Health this week for its secrecy and obstruction on state nursing home data, which is appalling even longtime statehouse reporters used to being stonewalled by Albany.

Three inmates at Adirondack Correctional Facility, currently being run by the state of New York as a “prison nursing home” for older inmates because of the pandemic, are suing Governor Cuomo and the state Department of Corrections and Community Service, claiming that the state is operating with “deliberate indifference” to the health and safety of inmates during the pandemic.

Governor Cuomo’s multiple State of the State speeches continued Tuesday and Wednesday, focusing on the revival of the arts and business and new initiatives aimed at building the green economy. Cuomo will give the fourth and final State of the State address on Thursday.

All international air travelers must show a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recovery before boarding flights to the US, starting January 26, The New York Times reports. That’s good news for slowing the spread of new variants, but it’s more than a week away—and in pandemic response time, a week is an eternity.

The siege of the US Capitol is becoming a superspreader event: So far, at least three Congressional representatives have tested positive after having to shelter in place with colleagues who refused to wear masks. The data visualization team behind a popular White House outbreak tracker is tracking positive tests in Congress.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

After announcing Sunday that they had run out of vaccine, the Rockland County Department of Health posted on Facebook on Tuesday that it had received additional doses from the state that morning. The post also stated that all appointments for the new shipment had been filled, which drew widespread ire in the comments. “What is the point of this,” local man Gerry Matha wrote. “You announce vaccine but none available. Stop this crap until you can credibly help people.” Some 45 minutes later, the health department posted an image of a woman who’d been vaccinated, with a caption that reads, in part: “When you can, I urge you to get vaccinated to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” Many locals did not react kindly. “Great news,” wrote one, “but not for many.”

The regional vaccine hub at the Westchester County Center began administering doses on Wednesday, one of the first three mass vaccination sites in the state, along with the Jacob Javits Center in New York City and the Expo Center at the Fairgrounds in Syracuse. LoHud.com was on the scene as people with appointments showed up to the White Plains site to receive the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. “You felt like you could take a deep breath,” resident Janet Bedin said of getting the shot. “And it was just like: we’re almost there.”

Putnam County officials say they have a very small amount of vaccine available for residents aged 75 or higher for Thursday’s distribution, “due to unusual circumstances,” as a press release put it. The health department is working with the county Office for Senior Resources to register as many eligible seniors as possible for Thursday.

Westchester County will hold a virtual panel to discuss COVID-19 next Thursday, January 21 from 6-7pm. The panel includes County Executive George Latimer; the mayors of Yonkers, New Rochelle, and Mount Vernon; and infectious disease specialist Dr. Dial Hewlett, who heads the county health department’s division of disease control. The event will take place on Facebook, where residents can submit questions.

Westchester County had 740 new cases on Wednesday, with 7.5 percent test positivity; Rockland County added 284 cases with 9.1 percent test positivity; and Putnam County had 84 new cases, with 8.8 percent testing positive, according to the state’s regional dashboard.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY

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

The region’s leaders expressed dismay and frustration at the state’s rollout of Phase 1B, with Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan saying the county would run out of its first shipment of vaccines by Thursday, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro saying his county had been “shorted,” and the leaders of Orange and Columbia counties railing against the confusion the state had wrought on their residents.

In Ulster County, both demand and capacity outpaced supply, Ryan said during his COVID-19 briefing Tuesday. The county received 1,200 doses on Monday and has been administering 480 a day, though its vaccination hub in Kingston could handle 1,500 a day. The second hub in Ellenville has not been opened due to a lack of doses, Ryan said.

After touring the Kingston hub, Ryan and newly elected state Senator Michelle Hinchey called on the state to speed up its delivery of vaccines and to immediately release some of the $1.6 billion it received for distribution as part of the last federal stimulus to counties. The money would be used to fund the “resource-intensive” vaccine hubs, according to a Ryan press release.“We need to prioritize equitable vaccine access in our rural areas where public health systems have long struggled with underfunding and a shortage of workers,” Hinchey stated in a press release.

Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus said during his Tuesday briefing that hundreds of people had called the county, and others had arrived at the county building in Goshen, trying to get vaccinated. “All of them senior citizens,” he said. “They don’t have a computer, don’t have the internet.” He told senior citizens to call the Office of the Aging at (845) 615-3700 for help getting vaccinated.

The Columbia County Department of Health began operating a “COVID-19 Vaccine Information line” on Tuesday for those who live or work in the county. The number is (518) 687-5560—but good luck. The Other Hudson Valley called the number twice midday on Wednesday, and the phone just rang and rang and rang.

County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell excoriated the state’s vaccination plan in a Tuesday press release, stating the situation “has gone beyond crazy” and that the plan has “done nothing but sow confusion in the state and Columbia County.” The unanswered information line might be a symptom of the county health department being overwhelmed; Murell said the department has been drowned with calls from residents asking if they were eligible since Friday, a situation exacerbated by the state hotline being overwhelmed. County Health Director Jack Mabb stated they had been allotted 300 doses of the vaccine this week.

With Dutchess County receiving less doses than anticipated, many residents headed south to the state-operated vaccine hub at the Westchester County Center in White Plains to get shots, County Executive Molinaro told the Poughkeepsie Journal. Molinaro said the county would be getting more doses so it could meet its appointments for the week. Dutchess County’s first hub was set to distribute 200 doses on Wednesday, Molinaro said, but two more hubs are set to open by Saturday.

A local hospital operator is being investigated by the state for allegedly offering its board members COVID-19 vaccines before they were eligible, according to the Times-Herald Record. A spokesman for Garnet Health, which operates the hospitals formerly known as the Orange Regional Medical Center and the Catskill Regional Medical Center, did not deny the allegations when queried by THR’s Chris McKenna, instead claiming the board members were eligible because they were volunteers in a “low-risk worker group at hospitals.” The vaccinations were offered to the board members last week, potentially allowing them to skip ahead of senior citizens and police officers.

A group of at least three-dozen people, reportedly from Columbia County, refused to wear masks while playing hockey on Lake Mansfield in Great Barrington, much to the consternation of others on the lake, according to the Berkshire Edge. The outlet quoted other skaters who said the group denied there was a pandemic, calling it a government hoax.

The VA of the Hudson Valley is offering vaccines to outpatient veterans who fall under Phase 1B, according to an email from the organization. Veterans should call (845) 838-7668 to schedule appointments.

CATSKILLS

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

“Depending on what county you live in, there may not currently be any scheduled clinics for 1B.” In a Monday update on vaccination, local provider Bassett Healthcare put into words what the state hasn’t made clear: There are a lot of places in New York State without a single dose available to people who became eligible for vaccine this week.

Schoharie County Public Health doesn’t currently have any vaccine doses to give out, but it is dispensing information. In a Facebook post Wednesday, county health director Amy Gildemeister laid out the shape of the local vaccination effort for county residents. “In Schoharie County, it appears that, for the moment, only the Cobleskill Hospital, Schoharie County Public Health, and Pharmacies will have access to vaccine (in other words, right now it is probably not available at your primary care doctor),” she wrote. “The hospital has primary responsibility for remaining 1A healthcare workers; Public Health has primary responsibility for essential workers; Pharmacies and physicians groups can only vaccinate those 65 or older. Both the hospital and Public Health can also vaccinate people in other qualifying groups.” County residents can also travel to sites outside the county, including the large state-run sites, if they can get an appointment.

Greene County health officials are also asking residents to be patient, writing in a Tuesday post that newly eligible essential workers should “stay tuned to the Greene Government website and the Public Health Facebook page for dates and times of upcoming vaccine clinics.” The county is directing those 65 and older to register with the state at https://forms.ny.gov/s3/vaccine: “Your local pharmacy will contact you once the pharmacy’s supply of the vaccine has arrived to schedule an appointment.”

A Greene County restaurant that shut down briefly in September after an employee tested positive is closed again after a kitchen staffer contracted COVID-19: Creekside Catskill will reopen when it is safe to do so, the Daily Mail reports.

Delaware County Public Health officials have still not announced any plans for county-run vaccination sites. On Monday, the office urged residents to contact local hospitals for vaccination, but most hospitals in the area do not appear to be scheduling appointments for non-healthcare workers yet. Bassett Healthcare, which runs small hospitals in Delhi and Sidney, wrote on its website Wednesday that the network is currently finishing vaccination of healthcare workers in 1A, and planning for phase 1B. The website of UHS, which runs the Delaware Valley hospital in Walton, said Wednesday that the network currently has no vaccines on site. The Westchester Medical Center Health Network, which operates the Margaretville Hospital and is coordinating vaccination efforts in the Mid-Hudson Region of New York State, issued a statement in response to questions from The River that urged people to go through the New York State vaccine eligibility portal to schedule an appointment.

The Delaware County Office for the Aging is taking names and contact information for people in the population they serve—those over 60—who want to be vaccinated, and plans to call those eligible to make appointments when the county receives vaccine doses. Those 65 and over will be kept on a separate priority list from anyone under 65. To add your name and contact information to the list, call (607) 832-5750.

Sullivan County is planning a large vaccination clinic at SUNY Sullivan in Loch Sheldrake, county health officials announced Wednesday. The clinic may start vaccinating as soon as January 25, depending on supply. County Public Health will also hold smaller weekly clinics beginning January 20, which they plan to increase to twice-weekly in mid-February. The county will begin registering people and scheduling appointments when vaccine shipment from the state is confirmed. “As a key leader in the response to coronavirus, we plan to order 1,000 doses of the vaccine so that we can significantly increase inoculations,” Public Health Director Nancy McGraw said. “We are eager to do what we’ve long planned to do: vaccinate every Sullivan County resident that we can.”

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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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