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New York's chaotic vaccine rollout

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Stony

  The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Stony Brook University on Dec. 29. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Error messages and frozen computer screens. Hour-long waits on hold by phone only to be disconnected. Appointments made, only to be oddly canceled moments later. Pharmacies listed as ready-to-go, only to not even be scheduling vaccinations at all.

Have you tried to get an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine yet?

It’s been a very rocky start. New York’s efforts in scheduling people for their first vaccines have been a chaotic maze of frustrating, time-consuming and sometimes futile steps showing, yet again, the limits of the state’s aging information technology infrastructure. Also at issue: the limited supply of doses that makes appointments difficult to get.

State officials say they were prepared for the start of statewide vaccine appointments, and that tens of thousands of people successfully booked appointments in the last two days. But it’s clear the state’s system couldn’t meet the demand, and the situation worsened Tuesday, though officials correctly point out that the federal decision to broaden guidelines to include anyone 65 and older further taxed the system.

Nonetheless, the state has known a vaccine was coming — and that demand would be extensive — for months. State officials should have learned from the atrocious failure of the state Department of Labor’s unemployment system last year. While they said they ramped up their systems and staffing, it clearly wasn’t enough.

That’s not to say this was going to be easy. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Tuesday that the expansion of eligibility criteria meant that 7 million New Yorkers are eligible for the vaccine. But the state is still getting just 300,000 doses a week. If the pace were to stay as it is now, many older New Yorkers would be unable to get an appointment until the summer. That’s an unacceptable scenario and it’s imperative that federal officials pick up the pace, if not now, then as soon as President-elect Joe Biden takes office next week.

But New York has to be better prepared for this constantly changing situation and that means finding ways around the often Byzantine way of doing things so common in Albany. It means enlisting outside experts or considering public-private partnerships with entities that understand supply chains or the scheduling and programming of large events. It means increasing staff and capacity. And it means communicating with local governments and with residents, so county officials can better plan for appointments at the sites they’re running, and so everyone knows what to expect.

It was essential that the state’s efforts start smoothly, particularly to instill confidence and get us past this crisis and back to some normalcy. Eligible New Yorkers have to be patient, and should only show up if they have an appointment. State officials, meanwhile, must match their hope that kinks will be worked out in the coming days with the effort to make that happen, even as some appointments may be months away.

The demand is only going to increase, especially once the vaccine opens to more of the public. The state must learn from its early mistakes and be ready.

— The editorial board