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Cuomo details vaccine distribution plan, warns of possible January shutdown

On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that New York State has set up regional vaccination hubs, led by local hospital systems, to help administer the vaccinations for Phase II, which will happen in late January. Credit: NY Governor's Office

This story was reported by Lisa L. Colangelo, Joan Gralla, David Olson, David Reich-Hale and John Valenti. It was written by Colangelo.

A widespread economic shutdown in January to stem the spread of COVID-19 is possible, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday as he unveiled new plans to distribute the vaccine across the state.

And Cuomo pledged that any New Yorker who wants the new COVID-19 vaccine will receive it for free.

"In New York State, no person will have to pay a penny for a vaccination," he said during a morning virtual news briefing.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow, with the rate of new positive cases at 6.21%, Cuomo said.

Figures released by the state show 9,998 people tested positive for COVID-19 in New York on Tuesday, including 1,052 in Suffolk County and 782 in Nassau County. That brings the overall total since the pandemic started earlier this year to 804,555 statewide, 72,904 in Nassau County and 77,681 in Suffolk County.

Since the first public COVID-19 vaccine was administered on Monday to Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, more than 4,000 health care workers in the state have been vaccinated, New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said.

Cuomo said he didn’t believe the snowstorm overnight Wednesday into Thursday would impact getting the vaccine to hospitals. Next week, doses will be used to vaccinate workers and residents of nursing homes.

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He announced that a variety of health systems have been designated to set up hubs in different regions of the state to handle the second phase of vaccinations — essential workers and members of the general public with certain underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Northwell Health will be in charge of the hub for Long Island.

Each system will have to come up with a plan to work with local governments and health organizations on administering the vaccine — especially in high-risk communities. Those plans must be submitted to the state Health Department by the first week of January. Vaccine doses needed for phase two candidates are expected to arrive by the end of January, Cuomo said.

Northwell Health is in the "early stages of planning, but we have experience at working with local governments through previous vaccine campaigns, including H1N1," said Mary Mahoney, vice president of emergency management and clinical preparedness.

Mahoney added that Northwell would also work with community groups, schools, chambers of commerce and other health systems to equitably roll out the vaccine.

Another challenge, Cuomo said, is winning over skeptical New Yorkers who do not want to receive the vaccine.

"... 75% to 85% of the population has to take the vaccine to hit what they call herd immunity," Cuomo said. "Right now we have 50% of the population who says they won’t take it. You cannot get to 75% without the number 50. So we need a real public education campaign."

"We have to reach out to the communities that have paid the highest price — the Black community, the Latino community, the poor community and we have to expedite the distribution and administration," he said.

The state unveiled a new portal, ny.gov/vaccine, with safety and distribution information about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Cuomo also said hospitals in New York must switch to "crisis mode" to prepare for a wave of COVID-19 patients. Zucker sent a letter to all hospitals, urging them to come up with plans so they will not get overcrowded.

There were 95 new deaths attributed to COVID-19 on Tuesday, state figures show, including seven in Suffolk County and two in Nassau County.

Suffolk County has had far more COVID-19 deaths in the past several days than Nassau County — 45 from Dec. 10 through Tuesday, compared with 14 in Nassau, according to state data.

Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said in an email that "for the deaths to jump like this, the most likely culprit is that COVID spread to older family members at Thanksgiving more in Suffolk than Nassau, or that people working at or visiting nursing homes exposed nursing home residents at or after Thanksgiving."

Clouston said the coronavirus "spreads through a network of close family and friends and harms vulnerable people with whom they work or within their extended family."

Health officials have warned people against traveling during the holidays and to limit indoor gatherings to those living together in a household.

Cuomo said whether or not businesses and other locations would be temporarily shuttered to slow the spread of COVID-19 depends on the actions of New Yorkers during the holiday season.

"Nobody knows what New Yorkers will do between now and Christmas and how they will act Christmas week," Cuomo said. "The numbers are not predestined. The numbers are a reflection of what we do."

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran echoed Cuomo's concerns, saying in a statement "what happens over the next few months is up to us."

"By wearing masks and social distancing we can save lives, protect our hospitals’ capacity, and keep businesses open," Curran said.

Northwell Health said the number of COVID-19 patients at the 19 hospitals it owns and operates was rising, although not nearly at the rate it experienced in the spring.

The New Hyde Park-based health system said it had 881 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, compared to 762 at the same period a week ago. In late March and early April, Northwell was reporting daily increases of nearly 300 COVID-19 patients.

"It’s gradual, not a steep climb, and that’s a relatively good sign," said Dr. David Battinelli, chief medical officer at Northwell Health.

Rockville Centre-based Catholic Health Services said it had 285 COVID-19 patients at the six hospitals it operates.

"We are seeing a doubling of COVID patients every 10 or 11 days, compared to the first wave, when we saw a doubling every two or three days," said Dr. Patrick O’Shaughnessy, chief clinical officer at Catholic Health Services.

Catholic Health Services began vaccinating its front-line workers with the Pfizer-BioNTech drug on Tuesday, including employees at three nursing homes it operates, O'Shaughnessy said.

Residents of those nursing homes will be vaccinated through a federal program, with the help of pharmacy chains such as CVS and Walgreens. Those vaccinations begin next week, O’Shaughnessy said.

The Lindenhurst School District will switch to all online learning next week, a school official said on Wednesday, joining other districts striving to minimize COVID-19 outbreaks. In a message to parents, Schools Superintendent Daniel E. Giordano said it was being done to "proactively (reduce) the risk of spreading the virus even further by reducing the volume of people in the buildings."

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio went to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, where staffers Veronica "Ronny" Delgado, the lead physician assistant in the hospital emergency department, and William Kelly, a lifelong Queens resident who has worked at the hospital Environmental Services Department since 1997, received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

"This is a heroic place," de Blasio said, noting Elmhurst had been seen as the global epicenter of the battle against the coronavirus during the spring. De Blasio pointed out there had been 2,785 confirmed new cases of COVID-19 in New York City in the past 24 hours, with 195 new hospitalizations — numbers he called "another cause for concern."

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