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First priority: Long Island hospitals say they are vaccinating as fast as they can

Michelle Chester, a doctor of nursing practice and

Michelle Chester, a doctor of nursing practice and director of employee health services at Northwell Health, administers the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 14 at Long Island Jewish Medical Center to Yves Duroseau, MD, chair of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital. Credit: Howard Schnapp

This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Lisa L. Colangelo, David Olson and Yancey Roy. It was written by Colangelo.

Hospitals on Long Island next week plan to administer the second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to people who received it in mid-December, as they continue to give the first dose to high-risk health care workers, EMS workers, urgent care center employees and others on the priority list.

Medical experts at several hospitals said the second shots are coming, even after complaints surfaced this week nationally about the federal government lagging behind its own targets for vaccine distribution to end 2020.

"We are vaccinating as fast as we can," said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside.

The doses are not being held for long, he said. "As we get them, we are giving them out," Glatt said.

Both vaccines for the coronavirus require two doses, with the Pfizer-BioNTech shots about 21 days apart, and the Moderna vaccine about 28 days apart. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first one approved in the United States.

Officials at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola said they received more doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week.

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"We have ample supplies and have successfully offered the vaccine to all front-line and patient-care staff," spokeswoman Anne Kazel-Wilcox said.

Employees at Catholic Health Services are being offered the vaccine based on risk of exposure, said Dr. Alan Guerci, president and CEO.

"Top priority is being given to employees and physicians in our ICUs, emergency departments and dedicated COVID units, as well as long-term care, home care and hospice workers who regularly interact with patients and residents," Guerci said in a statement. "The vaccination will be made more widely available as additional supplies are received."

Stony Brook Medicine plans to vaccinate nearly 12,500 employees as it receives additional doses. It is vaccinating physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners and other hospital staff who come into contact with patients.

It started receiving shipments of the Moderna vaccine this week to vaccinate EMS and EMT workers, among others.

ProHEALTH, which has urgent care and primary care centers on Long Island and in New York City, was allocated 1,200 vaccines from the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has vaccinated more than 1,000 employees and had plans to administer the rest of the vaccine to staff on New Year's Eve.

Some 'scrounging' for information

While Long Island's hospitals said they were not experiencing shortages or other problems with the vaccine program, other health care providers said it was unclear when they and their staffs would be inoculated.

"We’re scrounging for information like mice looking for scraps of cheese" to find out how the vaccinations of their employees will work next week, said Dr. Kerry Fierstein, a Plainview pediatrician who is CEO of Allied Physicians Group, which has 33 offices, including 23 on Long Island, that primarily serve children.

She said neither the state health department nor New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, which will vaccinate the employees, have given details.

"It’s been a cloud, a black void," she said. "The vaccine is scarce, I get it. The information about it shouldn’t be so scarce."

Fierstein is an attending physician at two Northwell hospitals but had been told that hospital employees had priority over hospital-affiliated doctors, who sometimes see patients in the hospital but primarily work out of outpatient offices. She said Northwell notified Allied on Thursday that attending physicians were now eligible.

In addition to pediatricians, Allied’s nurses and physician assistants have regular close contact with patients and are taking the same or greater risks as many hospital employees, she said.

Northwell spokesman Jason Molinet said Northwell has tried to explain "the plan for the rollout" to Fierstein.

Northwell’s chief quality officer, Dr. Mark Jarrett, said medical offices won’t be given details until Northwell knows that there are enough doses to inoculate its employees.

"We cannot send out invitations way in advance because we need to make sure we have enough supply to fulfill all of those groups," Jarrett said.

The top priority early on was front-line hospital employees in high-risk settings, such as intensive care and the emergency room, he said.

Complicating the process is that those who got their first doses of the two-shot regimen of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are due to get booster shots, starting Monday, he said.

Those becoming eligible include outpatient employees who are in close contact with patients in various ambulatory settings, including radiology technicians and physical therapists, as well as doctors and nurses, he said. It would not, for example, include billing department employees who work from home.

Jarrett said Northwell has received as many doses as the system has expected.

State health department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond said in an email that "as we expand the priority populations to receive a vaccine, we will continue to issue guidance to providers."

New York received promised vaccines

New York received the 170,000 vaccines it was promised in the first two weeks, according to Larry Schwartz, a former secretary to the governor who was brought back into the administration to oversee the vaccination plan.

The state previously said it was slated to receive 346,000 vaccines in the third week of December, but delivery was a little short — roughly by 20,000. Schwartz doesn’t view that change as significant.

"We haven’t been shortchanged," he said. "The third week, we got a smaller amount [than promised] … But we’re part of 50 states, and our goal is to make sure" we get out what the federal government sends.

The state ordered county officials to sign a "memorandum of understanding" this week to receive doses. The memo gives the state full control of the process, the Cuomo administration said.

"We want them to understand and agree to follow federal and state guidelines for vaccine distribution," said Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo aide. "We don’t want to have a situation where there is a mishap and they say we didn’t understand" the guidelines.

Schwartz noted the vaccination program just began and said the administration intends to provide more information about doses and number of vaccines provided in local areas.

"We’re going to be as transparent as we can," he said.

State officials noted dose numbers have been provided on a regional basis.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city government is aiming to have 1 million New Yorkers vaccinated in the month of January — particularly important, he said, with the prospect of this new strain.

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