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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Long Islanders left to seek vaccinations in bureaucratic haystack

Vials of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

Vials of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Riiiing, riiiing.

It's not usual to hear phones trilling at the neighborhood pharmacy — because customers more often than not call in to request medicine refills.

Riing, riing.

But last week was different, because, while standing in line customers could hear pharmacy employees as they answered incoming calls.

"Sorry, no, we are not," one employee told a caller at one point.

That would have been a no, as in, no, we don't have the coronavirus vaccine.

What played out in one pharmacy seemed to be playing out at other, larger pharmacies, doctors' offices, state vaccination sites and darn near anywhere else Long Islanders tried snag vaccines — or, just as prized, an appointment to get a dose.

For days, it was like "The Hunger Games" meets "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" out there.

During a pandemic that has robbed so many Long Islanders of their lives, it was a quest for the presumptive safety of the first dose of vaccine.

And while Charlie managed to snag one lucky Golden Ticket, thousands of Nassau and Suffolk County residents did what they could to grab one of the thousands of doses they might reasonably have expected to come their way.

After all, New York State and county health officials had announced the opening of vaccination sites.

And, with that, a state list went further, by including a list of pharmacies.

So, expectations were high.

Add to that, a number of Long Islanders had family, or knew friends, who had received one, and maybe even the required two doses.

That rocketed expectations even higher.

Earlier last week, at the intersection of meats and dairy in a grocery store, I overheard a woman say, "We've got appointments for next week!"

Where!?!?!??

How?!?!?!?

Daggummit, she didn't say.

But then came word from a colleague about a neighbor.

Their doctor had called them about coming in for a shot.

And then — and especially after New York State significantly increased the eligibility pool by adding New Yorkers 65 and older — social media began to explode.

Long Islanders posted links on Facebook.

And telephone numbers.

And suggestions of places where appointments seemed to be open.

We were all in this together.

While it also was every man and woman for themselves.

At one point, the state COVID-19 vaccine form had two versions, one which required answering more questions than the other.

One hospital site included a neatly organized list of places to go. But it didn't include the then-soon-to-be-opened site at Jones Beach — or some of the places on a different form put together by the state health department.

Suffolk's health department website linked to the state site. Nassau's gave more information before linking to the state site as well.

And as for the state site?

On Jan. 12, it did show a few openings at a few locations.

And a deep dive into the Jones Beach website turned up a rare single opening, here and there.

At one point, the Yes We Can Community Center in Westbury showed a single appointment left.

And, unlike other sites that showed open appointments, a single click turned up a real, live opening — on Jan. 13 at 1:30 p.m.

But even that disappeared within the blink of a very-tired-of-searching-and-scrolling eye.

And then came the notifications, at almost every web location:

"This XMI.file does not appear to have any information associated with it. The document tree is shown below." That tree had eight short lines of code, and included the word "fault" six times.

Still later, even that was gone, replaced by: "Temporarily down for maintenance.

We'll be back soon!

Sorry for the inconvenience but we're performing some maintenance at the moment. We'll be back online shortly!

— Thank you."

When it came back up, most of the vaccination site pages showed this:

"The existing scheduled events for this OpID do not have any remaining capacity."

And then came the end of the week, when Nassau and Suffolk residents — who'd managed to get appointments, many after spending days on the web and hours on the telephone — discovered that their appointments were no good.

Is it any wonder Long Islanders are so angry, frustrated and confused?

On Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo placed the blame on the federal government, which, according to reports, has no backlog of vaccines ready to shower upon New York or any other state.

In addition, as Cuomo pointed out, demand far, far, far outstrips supply.

Still, Long Islanders have been left to compete against each other — so much so that the Quest for A Vaccine Appointment has become an ordeal.

Which should not be.

So while we wait for the vaccines to flow, how about setting up a system that is as easy to navigate as it makes sense.

Because that's so, so far from what's happening out here now.

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