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Seeking the 'Holy Grail': Long Island sees vaccination pace slow in immunity chase

Long Island has seen a sharp drop in

Long Island has seen a sharp drop in the number of people getting COVID-19 vaccines after reaching a vaccination peak in early May, a Newsday analysis of state health statistics shows. Credit: Randee Daddona, Howard Schnapp

The pace of vaccinations on Long Island has slowed dramatically over the last few weeks, but remains higher than state and national averages, according to state health metrics analyzed by Newsday.

The slowdown will make it even more difficult for the region to reach herd immunity and curb spread of the virus, medical experts said.

"We've been anticipating, discussing and expecting a slowdown for quite some time," said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease expert at New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, the largest health system in the state. "For the first several months, there was demand and it was mostly from people who wanted the vaccination and had very little to no hesitation in getting it."

What to know

The pace of vaccinations for COVID-19 has slowed dramatically on Long Island, affecting projections on potentially reaching herd immunity.

Some experts are skeptical the region can reach herd immunity at the current pace.

Still, the region is outperforming most of the nation in its levels of completed vaccinations.

Hirschwerk said many people getting vaccinated now were not in an immediate rush to do so. Long Island's immunization slowdown mirrors a statewide one. The number of people getting vaccinated statewide daily has fallen by more than 77,000 since peaking in early May.

Still, Nassau County reports the highest percentage of people 18 and over with at least one vaccine shot, and Suffolk is also slightly above the statewide average. Across the state, 65.7% of New Yorkers 18 and over have received at least one vaccine shot as of Thursday morning, according to state data.

"Yes, the rates are lower, but people are still getting vaccinated every day," Hirschwerk said. "For many people, as time goes by, they feel more secure and less hesitant."

Health experts have said it would take immunization levels of at least 80%, if not 90%, to get to herd immunity, understood as the point at which enough of the population has developed resistance to an infectious disease that it has little opportunity to spread.

The pace of vaccinations on Long Island and across the state was once so fast that it looked like 70% of the population would be fully vaccinated by mid- to late June. But as the rate has slowed over the last six weeks, the projection now is months away.

As of Saturday, the pace had decelerated to the point that the 70% vaccination level wouldn't be reached until Aug. 30 for Long Island and until Sept. 10 for the state, according to a Newsday analysis of state vaccination data.

Even that projection will hold only if the pace doesn't slow any further, something Dr. Sean Clouston, associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said is a possibility.

"The problem is it's summer and the rates are falling, so people are less frightened, and if you were concerned about getting the vaccine, you see the lower COVID numbers and wait," Clouston said. "I expect the rate of vaccinations to continue to be slow for a while. I expect it will go up again, since some universities are mandating that students get vaccinated."

The state in May said SUNY and CUNY will require proof of vaccination for all students attending in-person classes this fall. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also encouraged all private universities and colleges to adopt the same guidelines.

A COVID-19 vaccination is considered complete after one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two doses, spaced weeks apart, of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shots. The shots became available in December for Pfizer and Moderna, and early March for Johnson & Johnson.

The recent gap between the first and second shots for the two-dose vaccines indicates the immunization pace is slowing even more. There are 1,000 fewer Long Islanders receiving first doses each day than are receiving a second dose. That difference means that fewer Long Islanders will be receiving second doses and becoming fully vaccinated in coming weeks.

President Joe Biden has said the nation's goal is to have 70% of adult Americans with at least one vaccine shot by the Fourth of July. About 136.6 million people in the United States have been inoculated, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"If we get to 70% by August, that's not bad. To me, it's important to get to as high a number as possible by the time we get indoors in the fall and school starts up again," said Dr. Bruce Polsky, chairman of medicine at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola and an infectious disease specialist. "So, we are in decent shape. The slowdown was to be expected, especially because there was such a pent-up demand that had to be satisfied initially."

Nassau County officials said this week that 75% of adult residents have received at least one vaccine dose. It's the highest percentage of any county with at least 200,000 residents. The state average is slightly more than 65%.

Polsky said that as more New York venues require proof of vaccination, "More hesitant people will do so. I think it'll be an incentive for people."

Hirschwerk said he's not sure "we are going to get to herd immunity. But even without [herd immunity], as we get more than half the people vaccinated, it's clear COVID rates are going down considerably throughout the country.

"Without herd immunity, however, we risk flare-ups," he added.

Polsky said that "unless we reach it, we will have some low levels of infection and have variants."

"Herd immunity is the Holy Grail, and we aren't all safe until everyone does their part," he said.

For the seven days ending Tuesday, an average of 6,755 Long Islanders per day have become fully vaccinated, either by getting their second Pfizer or Moderna vaccine shots or their one Johnson & Johnson dose.

That is nearly a third of the peak reached May 1, when 20,201 Long Islanders became fully vaccinated. It is the slowest seven-day average pace tracked since March 10.

Statewide, the pace has slowed from a peak of 121,678 New Yorkers getting shots per day, on average, to just 43,917 for the seven days ending Tuesday. It’s also the slowest pace since March 10.

Still, the Northeast is outperforming other parts of the nation. Slightly more than half of U.S. residents have received at least one vaccine shot, according to statistics compiled by the Mayo Clinic.

The Mayo Clinic tracker also shows that some states are lagging at below 40%.

"The rate of some parts of the country are disappointing," said Michael Urban, senior lecturer at the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. "In many regions, 70% seems aspirational. In the Northeast, we will get there."

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