New York vaccine debate focuses on shots for seniors

Bliss

 ALBANY — The Cuomo administration’s efforts to restrict county health departments from administering the COVID-19 vaccines to senior citizens is being questioned by some county leaders.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a top aide, Larry Schwartz, are telling county governments to make essential front-line workers their priority in using the dosages provided to them, while elderly people should be directed to pharmacies.

But Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who is the president of the New York State County Executives Association, said turning away seniors with no other health care options from county vaccination clinics “is just not logical.”

Molinaro said the state Health Department advised county health departments this month that their future allocations of vaccine doses “could be jeopardized” if they bucked the state’s edict to reserve their supply for essential workers.

A Jan. 15 memo from Schwartz to local health administrators stopped short of threatening to limit doses to counties that buck the state government’s edicts. But Schwartz emphasized the counties should be focusing their efforts on “police officers, firefighters, teachers, college professors, and grocery workers, among others.”

“Local health departments are the best equipped providers to coordinate with the employers of these workers, such as police departments, fire departments, schools and universities, grocery stores, and unions,” Schwartz added.

Molinaro said the counties will try to direct their vaccination clinic notifications to the groups identified by Schwartz but are reluctant to reject requests from seniors who seek the inoculations from their local counties.

“Our public health departments can’t be forced into not helping the people they are constitutionally sworn to help,” Molinaro told CNHI. In 2018, Molinaro, a Republican, lost to Cuomo, a Democrat, in the governor’s race.

Dave Bliss, the chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, said he was on a conference call Friday with other members of the Mohawk Valley regional control room for pandemic matters, and some local county leaders voiced concerns about the state’s effort to curb counties from inoculating seniors. The Otsego Health Department opted to cancel scheduled vaccinations for seniors earlier this week in response to edicts from the Cuomo administration.

“The concern was expressed by several members of the control room that (Cuomo) is going to punish them by lowering the amount of vaccines allocated to our counties if they don’t follow his instructions to a T,” Bliss said.

At a press briefing Friday, Cuomo blamed the federal government for recommending the expansion of the pool of people in high priority groups by adding those who are 65 and older.

Some states opted not to add seniors to the early priority group for the shots. But Cuomo said he decided to accept the federal guidance, though it exacerbated the acute shortage of doses, with 7 million people eligible at a time when 300,000 dosages per week were being supplied to New York.

Had New York balked at adding people 65 and older to the vaccine priority groups, Cuomo said, “I think that would have increased the panic and the anxiety and the tension.”

He conceded the large eligibility pool now has led to problems.

“It should have been opened as you had allocation,” the governor said. “Anyway, that is not what we did. It’s not what they did. And now you have a period of confusion and anxiety because you’re trying to hit 7 million people with 250,000 a week.”

Cuomo said “everyone agreed” to have the top priority for the vaccines be nurses, doctors, first responders and other front-line essential workers be in the first wave to get the shots because “they could all be potential super spreaders.”

‘Adding those 75 and older also “made sense,” he said, though he acknowledged it left the vaccine effort “way over capacity.”

The state, after using 1.3 million doses so far, was expecting to have exhausted its limited supply by this weekend, though another shipment is due to arrive soon, Cuomo said.

“I understand the stress level and the anxiety level,” Cuomo said. “At least we have to be able to say, ‘we are fair.’ If you give the police dosage to 65 plus, then the police don’t get it. If you give the 65 dosage to hospital workers, then the 65-year-olds don’t get it. So please follow the Department of Health prioritization. Otherwise, you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Meanwhile, the New York chapter of AARP, an advocacy group for seniors, said a survey of nearly 3,000 people found many have encountered problems lining up vaccination appointments. Some made appointments only to have them canceled by providers, while others complained vaccine sites were too far away from their homes, or had no appointments available.

Molinaro said he welcomes the state’s effort to pressure the federal government to increase New York’s vaccine supply. County officials, he noted, are eager to work with the state to improve the vaccine appointment process and create a fairer system so that “seniors don’t have to compete with people who are more savvy online” and thus beat them in the scramble for notching appointments.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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