East End officials push back against ‘nonexistent’ vaccine rollout

A coalition of East End officials have joined together to call for an equitable share of COVID-19 vaccines for residents.

In a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone Thursday, more than a dozen lawmakers, including all five East End supervisors, several village mayors and state representatives voiced concerns about vaccine accessibility on the twin forks.

“We recognize the difficulties inherent in implementing such a massive endeavor,” the lawmakers wrote, adding that distribution of the vaccine on the East End is “virtually nonexistent.”

Officials argued that the population in all five towns has swelled to summertime levels since the start of the pandemic and that they’ve been inundated with complaints about the chaotic rollout of the vaccine.

The concerns raised over the vaccine mirror similar issues raised in March and April, as the state ramped up testing sites. The state has nowopened several mass vaccination sites, including one at Jones Beach, this week with more, including one at Stony Brook University expected to open next week.

“Our residents, particularly senior citizens, cannot be expected to drive an hour or more to places such as Brentwood, Jones Beach or Stony Brook to get the vaccine,” officials said in their letter. “While we have submitted many locations in our communities for consideration for the distribution of the vaccine, those suggestions have been ignored.”

All agreed that while there may not be enough vaccines to meet the demand—the state currently receives approximately 300,000 doses each week—the East End should receive its fair share as more become available. 

At a press briefing Friday, the governor said the vaccine is “the weapon that’s going to win the war” against COVID-19, but depends on the federal supply. “That’s what’s driving the timeline right now,” Mr. Cuomo said, blasting the federal government for “creating a crisis” by increasing the vaccine-eligible population without increasing supply.

There are currently 7.1 million New Yorkers eligible to be vaccinated due to their status as essential workers or being over the age 65.

Mr. Cuomo said the state could actually receive less first doses of the vaccine next week and, at the current rate, it could take up to 6 months to vaccinate the eligible population.

“We are now scheduling appointments out 14 weeks in advance,” the governor said, noting that most distributors are fully booked. “People want the vaccine.”

He also said the state is unable to negotiate its own supply directly from the pharmaceutical companies. “The federal government controls all the purchasing” and allocation, he said.

During Friday’s briefing, the governor also addressed growing frustration with the vaccine rollout process and a breach that allowed hundreds of Long Islanders to make appointments at a Stony Brook vaccination site before the site was set to go live.

Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, said Friday that those appointments have all been voided and the state Inspector General’s Office is investigating how the link was released.

“The hypothesis is either it was hacked or there was someone who leaked the link,” she said.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Friday that a mix of poor communication and an unreliable registration system is creating frustration. He said it’s currently not clear which health care facilities get the vaccine and when. “Usually, the notice is last minute and we get calls from the public wanting to know how to sign up. That raises hopes that get dashed quickly,” he said.

County spokesperson Derek Poppe said Friday that while supply remains an issue, the county has plans in place to administer at least 10,000 doses a week. “In addition to the vaccine POD in Brentwood, we have identified locations across the County and already have agreements in place to quickly stand up PODs at Suffolk County Community College’s Ammerman Campus and Eastern Campus once the vaccines become available,” Mr. Poppe said.

Mr. Russell said that each of the East End towns are prepared to organize vaccination centers. “We are ready to go when they are, but the vaccines need to be delivered here, not Jones Beach,” he said.

In addition to state and county-run vaccine hubs, Northwell Health is also offering appointments for those in eligible categories, which currently include health care workers, first responders, teachers and those over 65.

In a message on their website, Northwell notes that vaccine doses are “very limited” but additional appointments are added regularly.

The next phase that has yet to start, Phase 1c, will expand eligible residents to those ages 16-64 with high-risk health conditions. Phase 2 would then expand the list of eligible essential workers such as grocery store workers, food service, construction, media and those with health conditions such as asthma or high blood pressure. Phase 3 would ultimately open it to the entire population of those 16 or older.