Bureaucratic maze keeps many from getting vaccinated

Associated Press Pharmacist Diana Swiga fills a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Bronx River Houses Community Center in New York City on Jan. 31.

ALBANY — Eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination for more than a month, Paul Rapp, a 65-year-old lawyer, says he has tried lining up an appointment by regularly checking an array of web sites for appointments and visiting his local pharmacy.

"I have spent hours and hours online, trying to get into a queue — and nothing," the Ulster County resident told CNHI. "It's bewildering, even if you're computer savvy."

His luck didn't change when he dropped in at his local chain pharmacy. He said there had been indications doses would be available, then he was told the shots would not be administered because there was not sufficient supply for a second shot.

When he called the pharmacy to further pursue the inquiry, Rapp said he waited on hold for 45 minutes before a pharmacist took his call. 'Oh, that's a mistake," he quoted the pharmacist as saying. "We don't have any first shots available.'

He is still waiting to book an appointment.

The challenge in getting a vaccination appointment in a state where some 10 million people are now eligible for the shots is being driven by several factors. They include the acute shortage of doses nationally and stiff competition for the limited supply.

The latter has become increasingly intense as the state adds more more batches of people to the priority groups and limits the venues where those groups can go to get the shots. For instance, pharmacies, if they have the doses, can inoculate people who are 65 and older, but the state won't let them vaccinate people with varying forms of underlying health conditions. The state's mass vaccination sites are allowed to give the shots to all those who are eligible.

Michael Burgess, 67, the former director of the state Office for the Aging, said he has been helping a 77-year-old friend who has no computer to schedule an appointment, as well as another man who is blind and getting dialysis.

Were they left on their own, it is unlikely they would be able to get an appointment for months, he said.

The fact that New York has allowed people who are at least 65 to get the vaccine before it had completed administering shots to those who are 75 and older has "kind of overwhelmed the system" and ignited an all-out scramble that has led to some seniors driving 200 miles or more to get the shots, Burgess said.

Marc Molinaro, president of the New York State County Executives Association, said the scheduling systems for COVID-19 vaccinations in New York are "unnecessarily complicated" and "exactly the opposite" of the more streamlined and simpler method that the situation demanded.

The state initially kept county governments "sidelined" in the initial phases of the vaccine rollout and has only begun to welcome the involvement of county health departments in recent weeks, said Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive.

"The county health departments for distributing the vaccine in a large way," though the state has "cannibalized" the distribution of doses, he added.

Some of the most popular vaccination venues has been the various state sites set up at such locations as the Plattsburgh International Airport, SUNY Potsdam, the University at Buffalo South Campus and SUNY Binghamton, all of which use a state web page for booking appointments. However, that portal does not handle the shots at pharmacies, county health departments or community health clinics.

Molinaro said the county governments have asked for data from the state on the number of doses that go to the state sites, but so far has not been able to acquire the information.

In a formal request to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, Molinaro requested an array of vaccination demographic data as well. He also asked that the state provide the counties with weekly reports on the number of doses dispensed at the state sites and statistics on the number of residents vaccinated by zip code. Also being sought is data on the variant strains of the coronavirus, which have now surfaced in numerous counties across New York.

"This data is critical to helping counties direct eligible individuals to vaccination sites, encourage new vaccine providers (e.g. primary care practices) to enroll in the New York State provider program, and identify and address disparities in vaccination rates," Molinaro said in the letter.

CNHI requested data Tuesday from the state Health Department on the total number of vaccination appointments booked through the state portal and also inquired as to whether the agency is considering streamlining the scheduling process for the multiple vaccination venues. The agency provided no information.

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

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