As many as 20,000 people may have had COVID-19 vaccination appointments at Stony Brook University canceled after New York State officials said a sign-up web link was improperly circulated, a top aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Friday.
Melissa DeRosa said in a news conference that late Thursday "we became aware of unpublished links set to go live [Friday] for certain sites … the hypothesis is that it was hacked or there was someone who leaked the link."
While "we understand the frustration if someone got the link," in the interest of fairness, the state voided the appointments, she said. She starkly described the vaccine shortage the state faces as "7 million people vying for 250,000 shots."
The state inspector general’s office is investigating how and why the link was released.
In a statement, Stony Brook said the state "has sole responsibility and authority" over the registration link, determining eligibility and allotment of vaccines at the Stony Brook location.
Long Islanders affected by the incident described the experience as exasperating, mystifying or bitterly disappointing in interviews Thursday night and Friday. What had seemed like a stroke of good luck — a sign-up link with appointments available just days away, in some cases — soured as emails from the state's Department of Health began to roll in around 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
"You made a vaccination appointment for a state-run location through an inactive link that was shared without authorization," the emails read, in part. "Your appointment and confirmation have been voided."
In the news conference Friday, Cuomo did not specifically address the issue at Stony Brook but placed much of the blame for the difficulty scheduling vaccinations on the federal government.
"What they did was like opening the floodgates of eligibility … they did not increase the supply," Cuomo said.
He said the federal government has cut the number of vaccines being distributed to the state from 300,000 to 250,000 per week.
Starting from scratch
Two retirees and a teacher who lost their appointments shared their paperwork and frustration with Newsday.
"I’m angry, I’m exasperated, I feel so let down and now I have to start from scratch, and I don’t even know where to go back to," said Sheryl Hanson, 74, a retired banker from Nesconset. "Every place I looked at for the last half hour has no appointments available."
Lynne Dierlam, 68, of Williston Park, retired from Morgan Stanley, said she’d been up until 3 a.m. Wednesday, trying to find a vaccination site with open slots, a long search made desperate because she cares for a brother who is immunocompromised. She then found the link and signed up.
Dierlam said that after getting the state email, she resumed searching for appointments for her brother and herself. She thought she had found a location at Jones Beach, but when she tried to make an appointment on the website, Dierlam soon learned there were none available. Jones Beach is booked until mid-April.
"It's little things like that that let you know they don't have the big picture together yet," she said.
Marcy Eager, 61, of Baldwin, a social studies teacher at Syosset High School, said she was overjoyed when she thought she and her husband had appointments for next Wednesday. "I felt guilty that I was not doing other work because I was searching for this golden ticket," she said. "Finally I feel like I’m good, I’ll be vaccinated next week, and now I realize it’s not going to happen."
Hanson got the link from a friend, Eager from a colleague, and Dierlam from her sister, who got it from a Facebook group for Long Island mothers.
Before they got the state's cancellation email, the women passed the link on to friends and excitedly called relatives to tell them the good news.
Hanson said she was excited to think she'd be able to attend a granddaughter's college graduation. Eager was relieved she could focus once more on teaching and made sure to alert fellow teachers.
"Half my school made appointments" using the link, Eager said. "We spread the word."
One colleague used the link, then canceled appointments he'd already made for the spring at Jones Beach for himself and his elderly parents, Eager said.
Eager was adamant that she was not trying to "game the system," but thought she was doing a good thing by forwarding the link. The final insult, she wrote in an email Friday, came as she tried to help her colleague reschedule: "The site is down, overloaded or says no appointments available. I'm hearing that other people have been making appointments. I don't know how."
More Long Islanders contacted Newsday on Friday morning, including Debbie Virga, 65, of East Northport, who said she had lost an appointment because of the Stony Brook incident.
Working for six hours on three devices Monday, Virga, the district clerk for Commack schools, said she had scheduled a Jan. 27 appointment in Long Island City. Then on Tuesday, a teacher told her: "Stony Brook just opened up." She made a new appointment for Jan. 21 and canceled the first one.
"I don’t want to be greedy. Let someone else have it," she said.
Virga said she got an email from the state Thursday night telling her that she had lost the Stony Brook appointment. Realizing she needed to start all over, she said her heart "dropped."
Virga said she was angry on behalf of colleagues who had lost appointments for elderly relatives and angry for friends and neighbors she said are unable to navigate online sign-up or drive to distant vaccination sites. She chalked it up to a failure by officials: "We knew the vaccine was coming. Why wasn’t this planned out? Why did we wait to the last minute?"
A 'serious matter'
The state, in a news release attributed to Marcy Stevens, general counsel for the state's Office of Information Technology Services, said the link "issue" has been referred to the inspector general.
On Friday, Lee Park, a spokesman for the state inspector general’s office, told Newsday, "We’re working as diligently as possible to find out the facts here."
He added that the incident was a "serious matter" but said his office couldn’t comment further on its investigation because it was ongoing.
Area lawmakers said they had gotten dozens of worried calls and messages from their constituents about the Stony Brook incident and about problems people were having scheduling vaccinations.
"It’s a total disaster and the horrible part is, it’s a cruel punishment to senior citizens," said Suffolk Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).
Trotta said better planning could have averted what happened at Stony Brook, along with other problems with vaccine sign-up. His 25-year-old daughter, a teacher, set up an appointment this week for Jan. 20 with relative ease, he said, while he had spent hours trying to schedule appointments for his parents, who are in their 80s. He finally succeeded, he said, getting them appointments in early February — not at the same time, but four hours apart.
"There’s no common sense here," he said.
Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) asked his constituents to be patient.
"There’s no way you can inoculate 18 million or 20 million people in a short period of time," he said. "There’s more demand than supply and that is going to create delay."
While he said he was pleased overall with state officials’ responsiveness to concerns Long Island lawmakers have raised during the pandemic, he said, "If we’re running out of [vaccine] supply, I don’t think it makes sense to open additional locations."
With Bart Jones, Bridget Murphy and David Reich-Hale
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