On the trail of the elusive COVID-19 vaccine

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One day last week, I thought about taking a drive to Potsdam. I’ve never been there. 

I didn’t know exactly where Potsdam is and, in fact, knew nothing about the northern New York town. Online research tells me that Potsdam sits 70 miles northeast of Watertown, has a population of 17,000 and that as home to SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University, it is “a cultural and educational hub” of the Empire State’s North Country.

It wasn’t the culture or education that interested me, though. It was the vaccine. 

For all of last week, the SUNY Potsdam Field House was the only one of the 13 state-run dispensaries where shots of COVID-19 vaccine were available. 

There were brief flashes of availability in Westchester County and New York City and a longer run in Plattsburgh. The local site in Henrietta remained dark. Only Potsdam continued to beckon. 

Still, I seriously considered a Potsdam run only for a few minutes. The drive seemed in some ways easy enough. But in the end, I decided, I was not desperate enough to spend eight or nine hours on the road to get a shot of potentially lifesaving COVID vaccine … yet.

The supply of COVID vaccines locally and across New York is short, very short, I learned a day or so later when I joined a Feb. 10 Zoom update for local media on the vaccine situation. Demand, say officials, remains very high.

Demand got higher last week as New York opened up a new eligibility category. Previously, only health care workers, essential workers, nursing home residents and staff, and individuals 65 and older were eligible. Now, people of any age who suffer from a range of serious health conditions are added. No proof is required.

“This is all great news that we’re expanding eligibility and will be able to vaccinate more members of our community,” said Nancy Bennet M.D., beginning on a positive note at the Feb. 10 briefing. 

Bennett is a University of Rochester public health expert and former Monroe County assistant commissioner of public health. Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Health Commissioner Michael Mendoza named Bennett in January to head a task force charged with coordinating the area’s COVID vaccine rollout. Her positive spin was short-lived.

“Demand far outstrips our vaccine supply,” Bennett continued, repeating a refrain echoed often by Bello and Mendoza. 

While area officials had hoped to see an increase in the amount of vaccine doled out by the state to this region that week, it had actually received less than the previous week, Bennett reported.

By the task force’s tally, since shipments began nine weeks ago, the nine-county Finger Lakes region—whose population totals more than 1 million people—has received 107,100 COVID vaccine doses.

Weekly allotments have varied, rising and falling in no discernable pattern. The state shipped some 4,000 doses in week one and more than 25,000 the following week. Successive weeks showed shipments ranging from 8,000 doses to 18,000. In the week Bennett cited, the area got 13,225 doses, down from 14,875 a week earlier.  

As for their part in the vaccine rollout, Bennett and other local officials have done what they were supposed to—put together an apparatus to, as Bello puts it, “make sure vaccine goes into arms as soon as we receive it.” 

In fact, said Bennett, the county has built infrastructure with the ability to vaccinate tens of thousands daily.

“We have a model where we’ve looked at capacity (to administer vaccinations) in the region and the capacity is somewhere around 30,000 vaccines a day,” Bennett said. 

Some 2,000 volunteers assembled by United Way of Greater Rochester are ready to vaccinate and standing by.

“We’re ready,” said Mendoza. “But we’re all dressed up with nowhere to go.” 

As a person in the 1b group of the state’s phased COVID vaccine rollout, I have been trying to line up an appointment, since the state first said I could do so in mid-January. 

Beginning my search on Jan. 11 at 6 a.m., I followed instructions on the state’s COVID website, where I learned which local pharmacies supposedly would be offering the vaccine. Visits to the pharmacies’ websites produced messages saying they had no vaccine. Wegmans’ website crashed, overwhelmed by traffic. The handy template showing all sources vanished after the first day, leaving searchers to identify and individually check availability with each provider. 

In days that followed I checked pharmacies again and again with similarly frustrating results. I also checked state-run dispensaries. I never hit a day on which the Dome Arena in Henrietta offered shots. Sites in New York City and Plattsburgh made fleeting appearances. Only Potsdam consistently stated a coveted “appointments available message.” 

At first, I wasn’t overly concerned by the scarcity. At the outset, area health systems including UR Medicine, where I get care, soothingly said that they would be randomly selecting COVID vaccine-eligible patients in their databases and would set up appointments. 

My wife, who is also eligible, and I talked it over. We decided to not drive ourselves crazy in what seemed to be a process akin to hoping to win the lottery. Instead, we would wait for UR to contact us. A benefit of that strategy is that the health systems said they would vaccinate everyone in a household at once. No scrambling to find and make separate appointments would be needed.

Then, we each got notices from UR Medicine stating that it did not have enough vaccine to follow through on the previously announced program, so we would be on our own and should feel free to arrange appointments at pharmacies. 

“The hospitals are receiving only enough to cover those who are in 1a, that is health care workers who have not yet been vaccinated,” Bennett explained in the recent update. 

Which providers get what allotments of vaccine is up to the state. Hospitals, county health departments and other providers each get an amount determined by the state in weekly shipments 

“One of the groups that’s getting quite large is the pharmacy group,” Bennett said. “They are getting more and more vaccine as time goes on.”

The upside of this, she added, is that “they’re spread out throughout our region” and can thus reach out to a wide geographic area. A downside is that “they don’t have the capacity to run as many people through a clinic as we can do in more mass sites, but it is important that they are out there.”

In any event, Bennett concluded, pharmacies “currently are providing the lion’s share of vaccine to those who are over the age of 65.”

At state sites, Mendoza noted, often when you go to schedule an appointment, there is nothing there. However, he added, some appointments at the Dome Arena and other large sites are no-shows that could result in availabilities popping up at random times. It seems that some individuals are making multiple appointments but failing to cancel the ones they don’t need because they have already received a shot elsewhere. 

“It has been a challenge. We’re encouraging anybody who has made multiple appointments to get your vaccine to please cancel,” Mendoza entreated. 

He described another unfortunate “glitch” in which Dome Arena staff had erroneously made appointments for vaccine it didn’t have, resulting in people showing up for appointments only to be turned away. Staff was working on correcting the glitch, he promised.

Over the past few weeks, I have kept trying state-run sites and pharmacies several times each day. 

In terms of Greek myths, I would describe the process as somewhere between the experience of Tantalus, who was condemned to attend a banquet in which he could never partake, and that of Sisyphus, who had to eternally roll a boulder up a hill whose peak he would never reach. 

Walgreens has been particularly galling. On several occasions, it posted vaccine available at pharmacies only blocks from where I live. But when I tried to sign up for an appointment, the website informed me that since I needed a first and second dose and they could only schedule dose one, I was out of luck. 

Walgreens was updating availability hourly, its message stated, inviting me to keep trying in a sentence punctuated by a cheery exclamation point! No such availability arose. Occasionally I come up with a “service unavailable” message.

Wegmans has promised less. “All available appointments are reserved at this time. Please try again later,” its website has consistently stated. 

My attempts to arrange appointments at Tops Markets pharmacies and a newcomer to the state’s pharmacy vaccinators, CVS, have also come up dry.

On the first day of CVS’ entry to the New York market last week, it posted that it had vaccines available at stores in Fairport and Batavia. When I tried to sign up for an appointment, I got a message telling me the website was busy and would let me know when I could schedule one. After a while it told me all appointments at its New York pharmacies had been booked. No CVS appointments have opened up in subsequent checks. 

The local vaccine task force is hoping to receive increased vaccine supplies within the next several weeks, members say. 

There is nothing local authorities can do to increase vaccine supplies. They depend on what the state ships. The state, meanwhile, can only supply what the federal government allots and the federal government can only give states what manufacturers supply to it.

Some months ago, Pfizer, which manufactures one of the two vaccines currently available in the United States, revealed that federal officials had for reasons not stated turned town its offer to sell the United States an additional 100 million doses, a purchase that would have doubled the country’s current supply. 

Local officials hope to see increased shipments soon. “We’ve been told that by the state and also by the federal authorities,” Bennett said. However, she conceded, no one has stated a definite timeline. 

Anthony Fauci M.D., director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, is chief medical adviser to the Biden administration. 

In a recent “Today Show” interview, Fauci said the pace of COVID immunization is already accelerating. Supplies would ease within the next two months, he predicted.

“The number of available doses will allow for much more of a mass vaccination approach, which is really much more accelerated than what you’re seeing now,” Fauci said. “I would imagine and in fact I’m fairly certain that as we get into the end of April, … as we get into the early spring, we’ll have a much greater acceleration of dosage.”

If things don’t work out as Fauci predicts, my hope is that there will always be Potsdam.

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

Postscript

One day after turning in this article, I landed an appointment for a first shot at the Dome Arena. It took pure luck and a lot of persistence. My wife learned of a little-publicized state hotline (833.697.4829) from a friend’s Facebook post. I called the hotline. After a half hour on hold, the line went dead. I repeatedly tried and retried the number; messages told me all lines were busy, try again later. I gave up and took a shower. My wife tried the hotline and got through. During the 20 minutes she was on hold, I also called the hotline three or four times, with no luck. My simultaneous attempts to schedule through state’s website also were fruitless. The server is busy, try back later, a message said. A few moments shy of 20 minutes in, a scheduler answered my wife’s call. She was friendly, efficient and graciously offered to set up appointments for both of us on the same day and at the same time. We gratefully agreed. 

Here’s a list of New York State-operated vaccination locations and availability.

3 thoughts on “On the trail of the elusive COVID-19 vaccine

  1. The state’s reservation software finally installed a queuing system. I’ve been successful coaching 4 new appointments in the past 24 hours. Only problem with the new system is that you can reach the end of the countdown with “0000” left on the clock–but nothing happens. My experience says WAIT–in each of the 4 instances I mentioned, it took an additional 10-15 minutes before available appointments appeared. FYI, I drove to the state’s Binghamton location last Tuesday for my first shot, then was able to book a second shot locally with Walgreens. One other tip: The system does permit double booking, so if you find a slot in Binghamton, take it–then cancel if you get a better option.

  2. This whole vaccination thing has me thinking, maybe I will have to wait until summer to get my shots. I’m over 70, have multiple severe chronic auto-immune diseases.

    I’m not sure that I’m upset, but I am disappointed that URMC donors got early access, after all that’s the way of the world these days. On the other end of the spectrum I think giving elderly people of color preference because of the perception that the broader POC community has a high incidence of fatalities might be politically motivated. I would hope that the large number of POC who are working in first line and key industries have been vaccinated already.

    I figure that if I’ve got a sufficiently effective strategy that has kept me from contracting the disease so far, then I can wait a bit longer. You know, wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands, and stay away from other people as much as possible.

    Like many others I have difficulty understanding why the State working with the Counties can’t develop a database where citizens could supply critical health, age and other demographic information. The citizen could then get a number based on an algorithm that factors all those data-points. People could then be called in for vaccinations when their number is drawn, perhaps even sent to the nearest location that has doses. A lot like picking a number in a bakery line.

    Communication is the big problem., Governments rise expectations and then disappoint. That behavior does not build trust. There should be one source of information (the County) and one source for assigning numbers (the State).

    I hope by the time I’m in line for a vaccine they have the system worked out.

    I sincerely someone in State Civil Service is documenting all of the highs and lows of the pandemic, so than when it finally fades into the background, the Governor and key personnel can sit down and develop a detailed playbook for how future administrators can cope with pandemics and other mass medical emergencies in a way that protects as many lives as possible.

  3. Unfortunately Will, your description of your experience with obtaining the COVID vaccine mirrors that of myself & many others I know. The system, albeit created in a chaotic & ad hoc environment, certainly is a mess. And that doesn’t even take into account the much more difficult challenges faced by those with limited technical skills and/or technology, especially members of the POC community. It is little wonder that people’s faith in government is on the decline.

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