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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Lack of supply isn't the only issue for Nassau's vaccination-seeking seniors

Yessenia Williams gives a COVID vaccine shot to

Yessenia Williams gives a COVID vaccine shot to Lorraine Parente Maschiro at Nassau County's first Vaccine Distribution Center at Nassau Community College on Jan. 5 in Garden City. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Nassau County Legislature last week offered Long Islanders a look into the guts of the vaccine distribution system on Long Island.

Supplies are scarce. Of that, there's no doubt.

But as lawmakers, Republican and Democrat alike, sussed out during a hearing on Thursday, a system that looks great from the top down, so far isn't cutting it for Long Islanders peering from the bottom up.

Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury), for instance, wondered why residents of two multifamily housing units near the Yes We Can community center in Westbury don't qualify to get appointments for vaccinations there.

Instead, older residents — who, unlike those being inoculated at the community center, are not designated as essential workers — were left trying to get appointments at a pharmacy in East Meadow last week, Bynoe said.

"Why can't they get to vaccines being given out in their backyards?" Bynoe said in an interview Friday.

Multiple lawmakers wondered why couples can't easily make twin appointments, rather than searching out spots, one by one, via online reservations systems.

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers praised Nassau's health department, which early on put a system into place that would have helped older county residents navigate the cumbersome appointment process.

Nassau had trained employees in multiple departments to take calls from seniors, gather information and, from there, schedule appointments at county-run facilities, Kyle Rose-Louder, Nassau's deputy county executive for health and human services, told lawmakers.

"The state virtually prohibited us from continuing in that program, so we had to stop," she said.

New York State tasked county health departments, instead, to coordinate vaccinations for police, firefighters teachers and other designated essential workers.

Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein, Nassau's health commissioner, described how the department has had to apportion the allotment of vaccines it receives each week.

This week, for example, the department is concentrating on teachers, working with BOCES and other groups, to get word out about appointments — which, he said, were filling lightning fast.

Earlier, the department concentrated on grocery store employees, transit workers and others.

To be sure, not every one in the designated categories has scored vaccines.

Nassau has been receiving about 2,800 doses a week (although the county recently wrangled another 600 or so for older residents), Eisenstein told lawmakers.

The county anticipates its share could rise by about 16% over the next two or three weeks, and, perhaps, by another 20% later.

And so it will go, presumably, as vaccine supplies increase.

The health department's share of vaccines, it's worth noting, does not include doses apportioned to state sites on Long Island, or to hospitals, pharmacies, physicians' offices and other locations.

Still, supplies are sparse.

Which is why elderly residents in Nassau and Suffolk have been left to compete with other eligible Long Islanders for the rare open and publicly available appointment.

Which leaves them frustrated, and angry — and looking to their elected officials for help.

Which is why Richard Nicolello, a Republican from New Hyde Park and presiding officer of the Nassau legislature, convened last week's hearing in the first place.

New York State has, from time to time, made vaccines available at churches and other community centers.

Recently, for example, 150 vaccinations went to a site in Hempstead. Most of the appointments were generated from a list Bynoe and other county employees compiled by going door to door, she said.

On Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that the state soon would reallocate vaccines now set aside for hospital employees to county health departments, which then would get the task of vaccinating residents with underlying health conditions.

Laura Curran, Nassau's county executive, said such a change — which she said she and health officials would have to review before making a final decision — could provide an opportunity to put the county's moribund call-in system back in action.

And, she said, she is not opposed to Nicolello's suggestion that Nassau Coliseum play some part in the county's inoculation plans.

"We've had to make changes and we are open to making more," said Curran.

She said she anticipated that multiple sites could provide vaccinations to residents down the line.

"I think we are going to see vaccines in a lot of big places, and in a lot of small places," Curran said.

In preparation, both Nassau and Suffolk are seeking volunteers to help in that effort, after they're screened and trained.

Meanwhile, Nassau County — both counties, actually — also may want to bolster another item that lawmakers said was in short supply.

"I feel like we are in an information desert," said Bynoe, who along with other legislators lamented the lack of a place where residents could seek information.

Two lawmakers, for example, said they found out — after the fact — that appointments had been available, briefly, at four pharmacies.

Curran said she's open to the idea of adding information to the county's website.

As for Nassau's seniors, "As soon as the state says that we can target that 65 and older group," Curran said, "we are ready to go."

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