For a nation suffering under a pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans, the development of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines in record time is a blessing.
But while their rapid development promises light at the end of a dismally dark tunnel, doses of vaccines cannot be administered fast enough to immediately slow the disease’s advance. What’s more, the supply of COVID vaccines started out short and at least for the time being has grown shorter.
When New York announced more than a week ago that it was broadening vaccine availability to include residents 65 and older and some younger individuals, the pharmacies, grocery stores and state-run dispensaries marked to administer doses were almost immediately overrun.
Within hours of the initial Jan. 11 rollout of the state’s second, 1B phase of its vaccine program, local Wegmans, Tops, Rite Aid and Walgreens pharmacies and the state’s own vaccine sites were forced to temporarily shut down due to short supplies or crashes of overworked websites. Since then, many hoping to be vaccinated have found that availability remains hit or miss.
Both vaccines approved so far require two doses, with a first and second shot to be administered roughly a month apart. Some single-dose vaccines are expected to be greenlighted by the Food and Drug Administration shortly but are not yet available.
Richard Newman, 74, is eligible to get a COVID shot due to his age. His partner, Amy Burns, a Monroe Community College professor who’s not yet 65 and currently doing all her teaching remotely, is not.
It took the couple nearly a week of multiple daily calls to various vaccine dispensers before they finally arranged for Newman to get a shot of Moderna’s COVID vaccine at a Tops store in Hamlin.
They made their first try Jan. 14. Burns had heard from a neighbor that shots were available at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, so they called Syracuse and arranged an appointment for Newman.
However, when he called his primary care physician, who is affiliated with the University of Rochester’s UR Medicine health system, Newman’s doctor told him UR Medicine would provide vaccines to all eligible patents. UR is randomly setting up appointments and would call him when his number came up, the doctor said. Thinking to avoid the drive to Syracuse, Newman decided to wait.
In the meantime, Burns began hearing of difficulties neighbors were experiencing trying to line up vaccine appointments or were getting appointments months away. Waiting, she decided, “was probably not such a good idea.”
So, Burns and Newman made calls to various local vaccine providers. They had no luck. After learning that neighbor had scored an appointment at an outlying Tops store, Burns decided to concentrate on Tops. Newman kept checking the state site.
“Amy made most of the calls,” Newman says.
He had little patience with the process, which requires vaccine seekers to check each individual pharmacy for availability separately and to start the process from scratch with each attempt, he explains. He had no luck at the local state-run dispensary at the Dome Arena in Henrietta. It showed no vaccine currently available and was taking no advance appointments.
Burns checked various Tops pharmacies’ websites a number of times on Jan. 15 and Jan. 16 without success. There was no vaccine available and it was taking no appointments, the site’s website said.
On Sunday, the Tops vaccine website crashed. On her third try on Monday, Jan. 18, Burns scored a next day appointment for Newman, who drove to Hamlin and got his first dose. He has an appointment for a second shot in three weeks.
Says Burns: “It was pure luck.”
The rough rollout to a great extent traces to a sketchy national vaccine distribution program. Under the Trump administration, the federal government dispensed limited supplies of the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines to states, leaving each state to distribute and develop its own protocols for administering doses.
When New York announced on Jan. 11 that it would begin offering COVID vaccinations to a wider group of individuals, the state had been getting 300,000 doses a week, an amount that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had said was less than adequate to meet demand. But after the Trump administration revealed it did not have a reserve to ensure adequate availability for second doses, New York’s allotment was reduced to 220,000 a week, where it remains.
State figures show that as of Jan. 20, the Finger Lakes region, which includes Rochester, had received some 77,000 doses of COVID vaccine of which 94 percent, or approximately 72,000 doses, had been administered.
The newly installed administration of President Joe Biden has vowed to ramp up vaccine production, setting a goal of seeing 100 million vaccinations against COVID in his first 100 days of office. Biden also has said he would set up federal vaccination sites. How soon such plans might be implemented or what effect they might have on New York’s or Monroe County’s vaccination efforts is not yet clear. Biden says he does not expect the vaccine supply to increase before April.
Against this backdrop, the Rochester Beacon posed four questions concerning the local COVID vaccine program to Nancy Bennett M.D., the chair of a COVID vaccine task force formed by Monroe County to oversee the program. Her answers are below:
ROCHESTER BEACON: The Jan. 11 rollout of the second phase of the COVID-19 vaccine program was somewhat chaotic, with those seeking inoculation directed to providers who either had scant supplies or none at all. What are the problems in supply and what improvements might we expect?
NANCY BENNETT: The operations and logistics needed to quickly, efficiently and equitably administer vaccines have not been at all chaotic. The vaccine providers have been ramped up and ready to deliver vaccine. As we know, the supply of vaccine allocated from the state has been limited. Some of the vaccine clinics have been shifted, or canceled.
The need to make appointments for vaccines adds a step for people that is somewhat unusual.
People were directed to make appointments, and the appointments filled up quickly. The demand for vaccine caused overloads in the state’s telephone and website scheduling system, which did make it frustrating for those trying to make appointments using those tools. And the public is grappling with more or less unprecedented guidelines: two vaccinations, made by appointment only, with no walk-ins. This is different for people.
As more vaccine becomes available, the infrastructure for vaccinations will prove that we are ready to vaccinate large numbers of those who want the vaccine across the region.
ROCHESTER BEACON: How many people have been vaccinated so far locally?
BENNETT: While we do not have an exact count of how many people have been vaccinated, we do have a count of the number of vaccine doses that have been received in the nine-county Finger Lakes region. By the end of this week, we believe that approximately 85,000 doses will have been delivered and administered in our region.
ROCHESTER BEACON: One or more new vaccines including at least one single-shot alternative are said to be approved soon. What are they, how soon might we see them and how much are they expected to add to the local supply?
BENNETT: There are multiple vaccines in Phase III clinical studies, and it is anticipated that two (AstraZeneca/Oxford and J&J/Janssen) will reach study endpoints in February or March and submit for FDA emergency use approval. The J&J vaccine is particularly noteworthy because it requires only one dose, and both have less cumbersome storage requirements than the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, meaning there will be fewer logistical hurdles to their distribution. Supplies of these two vaccines are projected to be enough to vaccinate an additional 110-150 million people across the U.S. in the first quarter of 2021. The share that will be allocated to our region will be determined by the new administration and New York State.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Are there any significant differences such as effectiveness or possible side effects between the two mRNA vaccines that are currently available and the newer vaccines expected to become available?
BENNETT: The Phase III studies for the AstraZeneca/Oxford and J&J/Janssen (vaccines) are still ongoing in the U.S., so we do not have final data on safety and efficacy. However, the AstraZeneca/Oxford has been approved for use in other countries, including the U.K., and interim data from studies there and elsewhere show that the vaccine is 70.4 percent effective with no serious side effects. Data from the Phase I/II studies of the J&J/Janssen show similar efficacy. I think it is also important to note that hundreds of local volunteers are participating in the AstraZeneca/Oxford Phase III clinical trial through URMC’s Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, led by Drs. Ann Falsey and Angela Branche. Dr. Falsey is a national coordinating investigator for the study.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.