Activity at mass vaccination sites across Long Island, including the site at SUNY Old Westbury, has slowed down, and enthusiasm has been replaced by hesitation. Newsday's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Newsday file; Kendall Rodriguez

Haley Swanson stood alone in a long canvas tent at the entrance to a SUNY Old Westbury gymnasium that months ago was packed with people getting COVID-19 vaccines. She was the first person to arrive for a vaccine appointment in 15 minutes.

Inside the gym, row after row of white-curtained vaccination pods were empty, had medical personnel waiting for people to arrive, or housed medical supplies.

More than a year after COVID-19 vaccines were first offered, vaccination sites that once had long lines and sometimes required sign-ups weeks in advance are quiet, with only a small fraction of the number of people getting shots. The enthusiasm of a year ago has been replaced by hesitation or resentment among some, including Swanson, who said she was only getting a booster shot because it's required to attend a SUNY university.

"I didn't want to get it," said Swanson, 21, of Oyster Bay.

What to know

The number of people getting COVID-19 vaccines on Long Island is far less than a year ago and even a few weeks ago. Declining coronavirus case numbers have helped cause the more recent decline, experts say.

Statewide, fewer than half as many shots were administered for the week ending Thursday morning compared with the week ending Feb. 3. At Suffolk County sites, there were 133 times fewer vaccinations the week of Feb. 14 compared with late March 2021.

Some Long Islanders say they are reluctantly getting vaccinated or boosted now because of mandates. Others are more enthusiastic, including some parents who are now convinced of vaccines’ safety and effectiveness.

At the state-run site at Old Westbury, there were 53 vaccines administered on Wednesday, compared with up to 1,800 doses a day in April 2021, according to state Department of Health data. Vaccinations at Stony Brook University also fell precipitously. Three other state-run sites on Long Island closed months ago.

The number of vaccinations has slowed further in the past few weeks.

"As the omicron wave subsides in the New York area, the fear and anxiety of COVID also subsides," said Rachael Piltch-Loeb, an associate research scientist at the NYU School of Global Public Health who has studied vaccine hesitancy.

All New York adults have been eligible to receive the vaccine for nearly a year, and "for folks who hold the perception that the vaccine is either ineffective or not useful for them, it’s hard to change that perception at this point in time," she said.

Children 5 to 11 have been eligible since Nov. 3, but only about 29% of kids of that age on Long Island are fully vaccinated, state data shows.

Dr. Inder Nagpal, a pediatrician in West Islip, said people tend to be more cautious about getting their kids vaccinated than themselves.

"When they talk about their child, they have a lot more questions, a lot more answers they want to hear, reaffirmation about the safety and efficacy," said Nagpal, who is part of a Suffolk County program that provides vaccines to doctors’ offices, where, Nagpal said, many parents are more comfortable getting vaccines than at government-run vaccination sites.

There were 96 vaccinations administered at all Suffolk-run sites the week of Feb. 14, compared to the 12,730 during the peak week of March 22, 2021, county records show.

Stephanie Ierano, 42, of Kings Park, said she "wanted to wait and see" whether the vaccine caused medical problems in other children before getting Dylan, 11, and Luca, 9, inoculated.

"We know a lot of people whose children were vaccinated, and there were no effects or minimal effects," Ierano said as she, her husband and kids arrived at a weekly vaccine clinic at a Suffolk administrative building in Hauppauge.

David Ohliger, 46, of Lake Ronkonkoma, said his wife initially resisted getting son Max, 6, inoculated. The potential lifting of the state school mask mandate helped convince her, he said.

David Ohliger and son Max.

David Ohliger and son Max. Credit: Reece T. Williams

In addition, he said, "I think there was finally enough data out there" on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines in kids to help sway her.

They also want to take Max to a Manhattan museum and Broadway show, where vaccines are required and where "I don't want to put him at risk," Ohliger said.

Deb Downs, 48, of Hauppauge, was bringing in son Jason, 16, for his booster shot. He has asthma, putting him at higher risk for severe COVID-19, and that makes Downs nervous.

"I know people who have lung problems and they’re still recovering months later," Downs said, referring to long COVID, a condition in which COVID-19 symptoms linger long after the initial infection.

Cyrus Solhjou, 14, of Upper Brookville, was hospitalized for three days for COVID-19 in March 2021.

Still, mother Bita Mosleh said she was only bringing Cyrus to the Old Westbury vaccination site for his first shot because the private Manhattan high school he will attend in the fall requires vaccinations.

Mosleh wonders whether the vaccine caused periodic chest pains she’s had since a month after her second shot. Her doctors said they don’t know the cause. She’s also read about myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that has been linked to vaccination in a small number of adolescents and young adults — including about 1 in 14,000 kids ages 12 to 15, mostly male, according to a recently published study.

Mosleh said tests show Cyrus still has high antibody levels, so, even beyond her concerns about health risks from the vaccine, she hadn't thought inoculation was necessary.

Although myocarditis is uncommon after vaccination, so is hospitalization for COVID-19 for a teenager and for a healthy man in his early 40s like her brother, who almost died of the disease in March 2021, before most people in their 40s were eligible for a vaccine, she said.

"It’s very rare for everything that happened to us, but it happened," Mosleh said.

Cyrus wanted to get the vaccine.

"It can’t be anything worse than what I went through," he said.

Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, said parents are taking more risk if they leave their children unvaccinated, because COVID-19 is far more likely than the vaccine to cause myocarditis.

Glatt said the higher rate of myocarditis was discovered during a rigorous federal monitoring of potential effects from the vaccine, and there’s no evidence that chest pains like the type Mosleh has are because of the vaccine.

Hans Castañeda.  

Hans Castañeda.   Credit: Reece T. Williams

Hans Castañeda, 43, of Carle Place, didn’t hesitate getting his booster. He dined indoors at a restaurant for the first time in two years last weekend and, now that cases are continuing to decline, is planning to go to more restaurants, as well as Atlantic City casinos.

"I’m doing more indoor activities now, so I figured I should be as protected as I could be," Castañeda said.

Some of those getting the shot at Old Westbury were students at the university, and some of them weren’t happy that SUNY requires boosters.

Haley Swanson.

Haley Swanson. Credit: Reece T. Williams

Swanson said she didn’t even want the initial vaccinations.

"I just wasn’t comfortable with it," she said. "I think it’s too new and we don’t really know what it is or if it works. We have no idea of the long-term effects."

Reports of "breakthrough cases" among vaccinated people made her wonder if it does any good.

Danajia Rosewelch, 18, of Coram, also a SUNY Old Westbury student, believes the two shots she already received were "enough immunity."

Yet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that boosters increase protection. An adult with a booster is 3.2 times less likely to get infected with COVID-19 than an unvaccinated person and is 41 times less likely to die.

Glatt said that, after billions of doses administered worldwide, there’s no evidence there will be long-term vaccine effects that will emerge later. With any type of vaccine, negative effects are almost always within days or a few weeks.

"The same people who are concerned about these theoretical 20-year-from-now complications from the vaccine should be concerned about the effects of COVID 20 years from now," he said. "Long COVID scares the living daylights out of me."

There already are millions of Americans struggling with long COVID, studies show, and it’s unclear how long their conditions will last and whether other problems will develop years later, Glatt said.

"Why," he asked, "aren’t people worried about that?"

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