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Cuomo: New York will have COVID-19 vaccines for 170,000 residents on Dec. 15

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced on Wednesday that the state expects a vaccine to be available Dec. 15, with nursing home residents and workers to be in the first wave of recipients. Newsday's Steve Langford spoke with Long Islanders and got a mixed reaction. Credit: Newsday / Ed Buccio

This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, John Hildebrand, Michael Gormley, Bart Jones, David Reich-Hale and Olivia Winslow. It was written by Jones.

New York will receive its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines in about two weeks, marking a major milestone in combating the virus in what was once a global epicenter of the pandemic. The first delivery will contain enough doses to vaccinate 170,000 residents, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday.

News of the vaccines' arrival could not come any sooner for Long Island, where figures released Wednesday showed case numbers skyrocketing overnight to levels last seen during April amid the thick of the pandemic. The jump comes after Cuomo had warned of a surge of cases starting with Thanksgiving and persisting through the holidays until at least mid-January.

The first tranche of vaccinations, arriving on Dec. 15 from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, will go to nursing home residents and staff, with the next batches, or any left over from the first, to be set aside for the highest priority health care workers, including personnel in emergency rooms and intensive care units, Cuomo said.

The biotechnology company Moderna is expected to deliver its own batch of vaccines to New York about two weeks later, though Pfizer will continue to ship a second and successive batches, starting this month.

After Pfizer's first delivery, Moderna's "is supposed to be just around the corner. And then they say it will be a constant every 7 to 10 days another shipment, another shipment, another shipment," Cuomo said. "So it will be on a rolling basis."

The vaccines require a double dosage, and their availability to different sectors of the population is being prioritized according to federal guidelines reviewed by the state. The second dose is to be taken 21 days after the first.

Both companies are seeking federal safety and efficacy approvals for the vaccines, which could come within days.

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The deliveries will be part of a national vaccination push that will build up to about 40 million doses, or enough to vaccinate 20 million people across the country, by around the end of the month, Cuomo said during a news briefing. Those dosages will vaccinate about 6% of Americans, he said.

A state official said the first batches should be enough to cover all nursing home residents and staff across the state, though Cuomo said he expects some people at those facilities will opt not to be vaccinated. He added he won't mandate it, either.

Instead, he hopes a state public education campaign convinces skeptics that the vaccine can save lives.

Between 75% and 85% of people would need to be vaccinated to allow the country to return to normalcy, Cuomo said, citing the projections of experts.

"That is a tremendously high percentage on every level, administration of it and acceptance of it," Cuomo said.

There are about 85,000 nursing home residents in the state, and 130,000 staff members in the facilities, for a total of 215,000 people eligible for the first tranche, Cuomo and his aides said. However, since officials expect not all 215,000 will want to be vaccinated, some doses should be available for health care workers.

The state has about 600,000 health care workers, Cuomo said.

'A great relief' for nursing homes

The news that nursing home employees and residents will be at the head of the line for getting the vaccine is "a great relief," said Stuart B. Almer, president and CEO of Gurwin Healthcare System, which operates a nursing home and assisted living facility in Commack.

"I'm very pleased, because it's been the most challenging time for nursing homes," he said. "It will be great, and then we can reunite families again with loved ones. It's been torture for them."

Nursing home residents were "disproportionately affected and clearly are the most vulnerable population," added Dr. David Siskind, medical director at Stern Family Center for Rehabilitation, a Northwell-operated skilled nursing facility in Manhasset.

Siskind said Northwell will administer the vaccine to Stern staff, while Walgreens is slated to inoculate residents.

Nurses at hospitals are also preparing to be vaccinated.

Catherine Shannon, a nurse practitioner and director of infection prevention at Catholic Health Services, said that for the last nine months many nurses have been afraid to go home for fear of spreading COVID-19.

"I have two sons, with three children each, and I spent Thanksgiving alone," she said. "I do not want to put family or friends at risk. We need to prevent further spread of this, which is why we need to be immunized."

Stephen Hanse, head of an association representing more than 425 long-term health care facilities, praised Cuomo's move.

"New York’s health care system is under attack from the COVID-19 pandemic. This virus is the greatest public health threat our country has faced in most of our lifetimes, and the governor’s announcement today acknowledges that our residents and dedicated health care workers are on the front line of this pandemic," said Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association and the New York State Center for Assisted Living.

Climbing a new mountain

The vaccine announcement came as Cuomo told New Yorkers to brace for the climb up a new mountain the way it did starting last March when infection levels and cases skyrocketed, reached a plateau in April, then slowly came down.

That reality was clear as the latest numbers came in Wednesday from state officials. Long Island just late last month surpassed 1,000 new confirmed cases a day for the first time since April. In figures released Wednesday, the number soared to nearly 1,800.

The number of new confirmed cases in Nassau was 826 and in Suffolk 966, for a total of 1,792. New York City had a total of 3,198 new confirmed cases.

The numbers on Long Island were similar to some of the figures the region saw amid the worst days of the pandemic in mid-April.

On April 11, for instance, Suffolk had 933 new confirmed cases. The next day, Nassau had 805.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Wednesday that for the second consecutive day the county's positivity rate was above 5%, "an alarming number we have not seen since the spring." He said the cases signal "we are beginning to see the first signs of the post-Thanksgiving holiday surge we had warned about."

Long Island's positivity level jumped to 5.5% in test results from Tuesday. For weeks throughout the summer and into the fall, the level was about 1%, as it was statewide.

"Without that vaccine, which I know we’re all waiting for, our strategy has been very simple: Keep the virus under control, so we can live our lives, keep our businesses going, keep our economy going and keep our children in school," Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said. "Until we have that vaccine, we know that testing is key to contain the virus."

The governor on Wednesday did not discuss the costs of the vaccination program, though he has complained that the federal government is not allocating enough funds to states to help them carry out what he called one of the largest and most challenging government operations since World War II.

Cuomo said the state will have its own panel of experts review whatever approvals the federal government gives to the vaccines because many people have become skeptical of the approval process, which he said has been politicized by President Donald Trump.

Cuomo did not provide details on Wednesday on what phases will come next in New York with vaccines, but said experts expect the country to reach a critical mass of the population being vaccinated some time between June and September so it can return to a semblance of normal life.

He previously laid out the order in which people will be eligible to be vaccinated, with workers in especially critical jobs such as police, EMT, teachers and firefighters in the next group, along with the elderly who do not reside in nursing homes.

Toward the bottom of the list are young people with no health problems.

NY's positivity level above 4%

The statewide positivity rate tracked at 4.21% on Tuesday, including the microclusters that have higher rates of infection. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals grew by 150 to 3,924.

Sixty-nine New Yorkers died of virus-related causes on Tuesday.

The level of COVID-19 patients has shot up by 212% on Long Island over the last three weeks, the latest state figures show, for a total of 538 patients.

Northwell Health on Wednesday said its number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients continues to rise, though not at the clip it faced during the height of the pandemic, when increases eclipsed 300 a day.

Northwell said it had 622 hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Wednesday, up from 462 a week ago.

"In the spring, it just exploded and we had no social distancing, little PPE, no mask wearing and, quite frankly, a horrible testing problem," said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset and Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park. "That's not to say this can't get bad. The numbers are alarming, and anyone who thinks we are out of the woods, does it at their own peril."

Among area schools, Sachem High School North reopened for students Wednesday, after closing for a day following notifications of a dozen COVID-19 infections, a district spokesperson said.

A total 1,852 students attend in-school classes at the Lake Ronkonkoma facility.

On Monday, district Superintendent Chris Pellettieri informed families that students would work remotely from home for a day due to the new viral infections, including some that occurred before Thanksgiving break. Another factor was a power failure Monday.

With electricity out, school staffers were unable to fully trace contacts with people infected, because they could not access student schedules and parent locations, the district said. Once power was restored, tracing resumed and the school reopened.

NYC schools moving to five days

In New York City, schooling will be five days a week in person at most buildings, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday, although the most recent publicly released tally shows that most students are doing all-remote schooling, based on their families’ choice, and he couldn’t give a date for when most students would be in school every day.

The need to maintain physical distance and shrink class sizes has led the public school system, the nation’s largest, to teach on a hybrid model — some days in school, some at home. He said the school system would seek to identify unused classroom spots so there would be room for schooling five days per week.

"These seats are precious. Kids need these seats. A seat cannot go unutilized. So everyone, this is an opportunity, just declare your intentions and live by them. If you want your child in school, your child needs to show up in school," de Blasio said.

He said that while the city is aiming for most students who opt for in-person to be in school five days, there will be some who attend fewer, based on the availability of resources.

Also Wednesday, de Blasio reported that the city's positivity rate continues to rise. It was 4.8% as of Monday. The rate has continued to rise for more than a month.

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