Tuesday will bring another moment of joy and hope, as every New Yorker, age 16 and older, will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. It has been a long wait.
While appointments haven't been easy to come by, that improved late last week as the state opened up more than 100,000 more slots, including thousands on Long Island. There are no excuses anymore. Now the focus must begin to shift, from how to distribute what was a limited supply of vaccine doses to how to encourage all New York adults to get their shots.
Recent surveys show more people are willing to take the vaccine, and more than 900,000 Long Islanders have received at least one dose, but hesitancy still runs deep. Neighbors have to talk to neighbors, family has to encourage family, and elected officials, community leaders and doctors must step up even more to combat resistance with clear answers to questions and easy access to shots.
The fundamental message — that all of the vaccines are safe and effective — was both helped and hurt last week. Pfizer emerged with data that showed its vaccine remained 91% effective after six months, a plus for those worried about how often boosters would be needed. Additional good news: the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine seems to be effective and safe for those 12 and up. But on the flip side, 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were contaminated at a plant in Baltimore, rendering them unusable, and raising needless concerns among the already-wary.
But the error was discovered before any of the doses left the plant and, as of now, the supply of J & J heading to New York hasn't been reduced.
So every New Yorker can and should be making an appointment. They'll need to bring a dose of patience, as websites and hotlines still aren't always able to handle the crush. But the landscape is changing, and vaccines are available. One example: the state is doubling its daily distribution at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood.
The state's release of new appointments late last week was enormously helpful, but they were snatched quickly. Additional new dates or slots should come Tuesday and Wednesday to meet the demand from newly-eligible groups. And everything the state can do to provide more guidance and doses to Nassau and Suffolk counties, and to continue to expand capacity at its own Long Island sites, would be welcome.
On a local level, the more that community-based pharmacies can expand eligibility and counties can continue local pop-up efforts, the better. State and local officials should also remain nimble in meeting the demand, and individual groups' needs, such as those who will celebrate Ramadan soon. While Muslim leaders have said the vaccine wouldn't break the fast, any opportunities state and local officials can provide to make vaccination easier before and during the holy period — as Suffolk County has started to do in working with area mosques — would help.
The state's introduction last month of its Excelsior Pass is a key sign of what's to come. Those who are vaccinated, or have had a negative test, will be able to use the pass at sporting events, concerts, theatrical shows, and more. Importantly, those without the digital pass can still use copies of their test results or the paper proof of vaccination.
All of those steps forward, however, come with a word of caution, as news on COVID-19 infections remains troubling. New cases have plateaued, with positivity rates hovering around the same levels for weeks — around 3.5% statewide and above 4% on Long Island. Nassau and Suffolk counties continue to see hundreds of new cases every day. Those levels remain disturbingly higher than they were during the summer. Adding to that concern are the multiple variants continuing to emerge.
Health officials say they think the stubborn infection levels are at least in part due to Long Islanders letting up on masking and distancing, or participating in indoor social gatherings or other activities that easily could spread the virus. That's not surprising — but it is concerning. As the number of the vaccinated grows, vigilance can't shrink. Basic pandemic protocol, especially in terms of mask-wearing and distancing, is still the order of the day. While the science supports the idea of vaccinated individuals being able to spend time with each other, or with a single unvaccinated household, everyone must remain vigilant.
The region's economic comeback is critical, but it can't come at the expense of a new rise in infections or deaths. Public officials should, for the next few months, be wary about opening up too quickly.
In the meantime, as local employers begin to plan for their workers' return, federal officials at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are expected to release emergency temporary standards soon on issues like mask-wearing and other COVID-19-related measures. Such guidance should be strict enough to protect workers at such a precarious moment.
But this goes beyond workplace rules and official decision-making. This is a moment when each of us has to make the right choices.
Get the shot. Stay safe. And don't let up quite yet.
Spring is here. Summer is coming.