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As state expands eligibility for COVID-19 shots, people seeking them find chaos

Members of the NYPD on Monday got the coronavirus vaccine at the New York Police Academy in Queens. The vaccine is harder to come by on Long Island, as Fairview Pharmacy in Port Jefferson Station experienced. Credit: Jeff Bachner, James Carbone

This story was reported by Rachelle Blidner, Robert Brodsky, Lisa L. Colangelo, Bart Jones, Carl MacGowan and David Reich-Hale and Yancey Roy. It was written by Jones.

Chaos marked the rollout of New York’s expansion of eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines to teachers, police, firefighters and the elderly on Monday as pharmacies across Long Island were overwhelmed with thousands of people trying to get their shots, even though the businesses had no doses.

To cope with demand, the state on Monday started scheduling appointments for a large vaccination site in Nassau County.

The new group of about 3 million people who became eligible under Phase 1b of the state's vaccination plan includes seniors over 75. They were added to the group in Phase 1a, about 2 million people, including health care workers and nursing home residents.

But pharmacy owners said they were caught by surprise when their businesses were listed on the state's website for new vaccination locations, and they had to turn away droves of customers because the state has not delivered the doses.

The Fairview Pharmacy in Port Jefferson Station was inundated with nearly 700 phone calls by 11 a.m., experienced a crash of its phone system, and had 75 people show up before noon — even though the pharmacy has received no doses and just found out Sunday afternoon that it would be listed Monday, according to owner Michael Nastro.

"It's Armageddon," said Nastro, who called his pharmacy a small "mom-and-pop" operation.

State officials acknowledged "kinks" in the effort's launch, but said mass vaccination sites are opening at locations including Jones Beach and the Javits Center in Manhattan.

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A spokesperson for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Jones Beach went online Monday afternoon and has extensive availability for people to schedule appointments. The site is stocked with vaccines, the spokesperson said.

Still, as people desperate for their inoculation also reached out to hospitals and government sites, some officials were critical of the first day.

"Right now, I don’t think anybody could look at the rollout of the vaccine and call it a success," Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt (R-North Tonawanda) said.

Suffolk officials said their vaccine pod at the Suffolk County Community College campus in Brentwood was out of vaccines for Monday and Tuesday.

Leo Stimmler, 78, of Garden City, and his 75-year-old wife, Kathleen, tried in vain to get an appointment on Monday, getting shuffled around on the phone by hospitals and pharmacies — if they could get through at all.

An initial search on the Nassau County website told Stimmler he was not eligible, even though he is three years over the required age.

"It was so frustrating," said Stimmler, a retired administrator for the NYC Health and Hospitals Corp. "We waited on hold for 45 minutes only to be told they are not even giving out the vaccine" at one location.

Nastro, in Port Jefferson Station, said he was only notified at 4 p.m. on Sunday that his business would be one of a few new sites on Long Island to start administering vaccines under the expanded guidelines announced Friday.

"It’s a mess," Nastro said. "Right now I don’t have a means to make appointments and I don’t have product, but I have phones that are exploding."

He booked only 200 doses, he said, because that is all he can handle in a week.

"My regular business is suffering because phones are basically disabled at this point," he said. "Patients can’t get through. Doctors can’t get through. Nobody can get through."

Northwell Health, which is coordinating vaccination pods with Nassau and Suffolk counties, is hoping for delivery of more doses this week and will open sites as the vaccine becomes available, spokeswoman Barbara Osborn said.

"We have limited supply," Osborn said. "We did accommodate a small number of appointments today and will accommodate some appointments tomorrow as we wait to hear if we will be receiving additional vaccine deliveries this week."

In his State of the State address Monday, Cuomo stressed how important and difficult it will be to "vaccinate all New Yorkers," adding that the state is far from having enough shots for eligible residents. He called for the federal supply to increase.

"We would rather have people signed up and awaiting the vaccine than have the vaccine awaiting people. I understand millions of people want the vaccine today. But we must be patient, even though it is an impatient time. I believe the new federal administration will see the vaccine supply increase, and we will be ready for that increase," Cuomo said.

New York’s positivity rate was 6.72% in Sunday testing results, while hospitalizations grew by 161 to 8,645 people. The state said 170 people died Sunday of coronavirus-related causes.

Long Island had a 9.19% positivity rate Sunday, with 1,494 new confirmed cases in Nassau and 1,546 in Suffolk. New York City registered 5,290 new cases.

Among area schools, Port Jefferson high school and middle school students, along with all schools in the Port Washington district, will learn remotely this week because of COVID-19 cases or exposure among staff, officials said.

A line of people waiting outside

At Medford Chemists in Medford, it was a similar story.

Some 500 people flooded the store's voicemail system by the time the pharmacy opened at 9 a.m., overwhelming the system, said Dr. Ricky Vohora, the store's owner.

When workers showed up, there was a line of people waiting outside — and the workers had no idea why, he said.

Vohora has no vaccines, and said if he does receive some he must first administer as many as 4,000 at long-term care facilities, which his pharmacy services.

"We were not aware we were going to be listed, and we did not actually know until we walked in this morning and there were people lined up at our door," he said.

He said he received notification on Sunday that his pharmacy had been approved by the state to order vaccines, but must still get approval from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, his regular patients can't get through on the phone because hundreds of people are calling to get a COVID-19 vaccination. The pharmacy is asking for people to go to its website instead.

"We have patients that are on hospice care, and if they can’t get their treatments, they’re dying, they are in pain," he said.

Similar scenes played out in other parts of the state, where some officials said their counties had been overwhelmed by demand.

"At 12:30pm, with virtually zero Rocklanders able to make an appointment in 1B, I have seen enough to know this rollout is not working," Assemb. Kenneth Zebrowski (D-Clarkstown) wrote on Twitter.

"I’m calling on the State Health Department to establish a Rockland County vaccination center and to take control of the logistics of this process. … My office believes that very few, if any, Rocklanders were able to make appointments as of Monday afternoon. There is obviously a failure within the current system."

Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, a Republican and frequent Cuomo critic, said there was "chaos" as "phone systems are overrun and crashing."

Suffolk County Legislative Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said there is not enough information on how people can get vaccinated.

McCaffrey said he tried to make an appointment online Monday morning for his 95-year-old mother. The state website gave him several locations.

"Every time you call any one of those numbers, nobody picks up the phone," McCaffrey said, hours before the state appointment hotline opened.

People who want the vaccine can also visit a state website and complete a form to determine if they are eligible and consider their options, the state said.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city vaccinated 101,799 residents last week and that he expects the pace will accelerate in the coming days.

"It’s a very exciting moment. A very important moment," de Blasio said at his daily news briefing. "There’s a lot of work to do now. We got the freedom. Now we have work to do to reach each and every person ready to get vaccinated."

But city officials expect demand to quickly exceed supply.

Nursing homes get second dose

Meanwhile, residents and staff at Long Island's nursing homes began receiving the second dose of COVID-19 vaccines on Monday.

About half the 360 residents at Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care and Rehabilitation in New Hyde Park have been vaccinated, said Michael N. Rosenblut, president and CEO at Parker.

He added that about half its staff of around 700 also has been vaccinated.

"We had about 50 people who didn't do it the first time, decide to get the vaccine's first dose this time around," Rosenblut said. "There is going to be some apprehension. Some people maybe didn't want to interrupt the holidays. Others might have medical concerns."

The federal government contracted with chains including CVS and Walgreens to roll out vaccinations at nursing homes. Parker is working with Walgreens.

Commack-based Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, also working with Walgreens, administered the second dose to residents and staff, said Stuart B. Almer, the facility's CEO.

Almer said about 93% of Gurwin's 354 residents will be vaccinated.

"It's a fantastic percentage," Almer said, adding that about 40% of Gurwin's staff of about 700 signed up for the vaccine.

Almer said the facility has campaigned, asking staff to participate.

"The first time around, we had about 15% participation, so there has been improvement," Almer said.

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GETTING COVID-19 VACCINES

  • To complete a prescreening and find sites to schedule COVID-19 shots, people in the eligible lists can visit https://am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov/
  • State residents may call the New York State Vaccination Hotline: 1-833-NYS-4VAX (1-833-697-4829)

Who qualifies for COVID-19 shots?

New York State expanded its vaccination program to include essential workers and people over 75 years of age in addition to health care workers and nursing home residents and staff, among others, but the supply of vaccines is limited. Hospitals will continue to prioritize unvaccinated members of the first phase, focusing largely on health care workers. The following are the qualifying categories, as revised on Jan. 11. The full list can be found as part of the state’s posted guidance on phased distribution of the vaccine.

Group in Phase 1A

The state said about 2.1 million state residents belong in this group.

  • Health care workers at hospitals who interact with patients.
  • Residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
  • Dentists, psychologists and others deemed health care workers with direct contact with patients.
  • Employees of Federally Qualified Health Centers.
  • EMT volunteers and staff.
  • Coroners, medical examiners, some funeral workers.
  • Staff and residents of state facilities for people with developmental disabilities, mental health care and addiction services.
  • Employees at urgent care centers.
  • Individuals administering COVID-19 vaccines, including local health department staff.
  • Staff at ambulatory centers.
  • Home care and hospice workers.
  • Residents and staff at other congregate care facilities.

Group in Phase 1B

The state estimated about 3.2 million residents belong in this group.

  • People 75 and older.
  • Teachers and education workers, including substitute teachers, student teachers, school administrators, paraprofessional staff, support staff, contractors in schools and bus drivers.
  • First responders, including police; firefighters; state police; sheriff’s offices; county, town and village police departments, and other law enforcement offices.
  • Public safety workers, including dispatchers and technicians.
  • Public transit workers, including airport, railroad, subway, bus, ferry and Port Authority employees.
  • Corrections officers.
  • Other sworn and civilian personnel, such as court and peace officers.
  • Grocery store workers dealing with the public.
  • Individuals living in homeless shelters.

SOURCE: New York State.

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