ALBANY — New York hospitals provided with the COVID-19 vaccine were given an ultimatum Monday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo: Use the doses within seven days or lose them.
Cuomo, acknowledging he is engaged in "constructive impatience," also warned that hospitals that fail to expeditiously use the vaccine could face $100,000 state fines.
"If one hospital isn't performing, we can use other hospitals," Cuomo told reporters during a Zoom conference. He added: "I do have a problem with the hospitals saying they’re going to participate, receiving a scarce vaccine and not administering it."
Cuomo pointed to state Health Department data showing that only about 46% of the vaccine doses sent to New York hospitals have been used to inoculate front-line health care workers, in the first tier of groups to get the initial doses, based on federal guidance.
"I don't want the vaccine in a refrigerator," Cuomo said. "I want it in someone's arm."
A Cuomo administration listing of the "lowest performing" hospitals in terms of using the vaccine put Samaritan Hospital in Troy, at the bottom, with 15% of its supply used so far, followed by A.O. Fox Hospital's Tri-Town Campus in Sidney, at 18%. The latter hospital is part of the Cooperstown-based Bassett Healthcare Network.
Bassett spokeswoman Karen Huxtable-Hooker, in response to CNHI inquiries, said Bassett is working with the Health Department in an effort to correct "discrepancies" in the state data. She noted A.O. Fox, including the Tri-Town emergency department, has administered more than 29% of its vaccine allotment.
She noted the hospital is continuing to provide vaccine inoculations for hospital employees and others in community priority groups after the state expanded the criteria to include all health care workers who come into contact with the public.
On the upper end of the spectrum, Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, administered 87% of its COVID-19 vaccine supply, one of the highest percentages statewide.
The state Health Department declined to provide CNHI with a full listing of the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered at each New York hospital. A spokesman for the agency said the data provided by Cuomo was the only vaccine information being released. They also offered no explanation for why they were only providing the data for hospitals that have used at least 62% of their vaccines or less than 33% of their supply, and declined to discuss if they had the missing data.
Cuomo's decision to use a "punitive approach" to spur a faster rollout of the vaccine program was questioned by William Hammond, senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany think tank.
"The people he's threatening are the people he put in charge of doing the job," Hammond said. "Maybe he should go back to the people who are ready, willing and able to do the job, which are the county public health departments."
Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, president of the New York State County Executives Association, said it is "pathetic" the state is now threatening to fine hospitals after the vaccine job was "dumped" on hospital workers.
"Lives are being lost & now the scapegoating begins," tweeted Molinaro, a Republican who unsuccessfully challenged Cuomo in the 2018 governor's race.
Cuomo warned that regions that continue to see decreases in their available supply of hospital beds because of the pandemic, such as the Mohawk Valley and Finger Lakes could face a state-imposed shutdown of non-essential businesses.
"Part of the state's effort will be a special focus on poor communities," he said, noting there are plans to set up "pop-up vaccination centers" while also utilizing churches and community centers.
The latest state guidance for vaccines has made community-based physicians and their staffers eligible for the vaccine.
"We have received several hundred emails and telephone calls from these physicians asking where they and their staff should go to be immunized,” said Bonnie Litvack, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York. “Many physicians understandably want the vaccine for themselves and their staff as they are on the front-lines testing and treating patients who may have COVID-19."
Also Monday, testing at the state's Wadsworth research laboratory near Albany detected what Cuomo called the first New York infections involving a variant of the coronavirus that has led to large outbreaks in Great Britain.
The owner of N. Fox, a jewelry shop in Saratoga Springs, and three other individuals who were in the store in the days leading up to Dec. 25 have tested positive for the fast-spreading strain and are in quarantine. The variant has already been detected in patients in three other states.
If New York and other states accelerate their vaccination programs, it's possible that members of the general public can be vaccinated in large numbers in April, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, told Newsday Monday.
"I think by the time we get to April, we will be at that point where a normal man or woman who has no underlying condition and no reason to be at a high risk, can get vaccinated if they want to," the newspaper quoted Fauci as saying.
The latest state data indicated New York hospital intensive care units were treating 1,357 patients as of Sunday, including 843 who were breathing with the aid of ventilators. The percentage of people getting positive results from coronavirus testing stood at 8.43%.
Cuomo said the state will now "expedite' vaccinations being offered at New York's 611 nursing homes. The federal government has contracted with large pharmacies to do the vaccinations at New York nursing homes.
"That has not been going as quickly as we would have liked," Cuomo said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org