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Top Stories 2021: Rollout out COVID-19 vaccine accelerates after slow start

The COVID-19 vaccine, once a distant hope, became widespread on the North Fork in 2021. 

State data indicates many North Fork zip codes — including Laurel, Jamesport, New Suffolk, Aquebogue and Fishers Island — have reached 100% vaccination, with other hamlets close behind. Calverton had the lowest vaccination rates among North Fork zip codes as of Dec. 15, at 67.7%.

Local health care facilities fared better than some other regions in the state, with most staff complying with a state-issued vaccine mandate in late September. 

The phased rollout, however — which prioritized New Yorkers based on risk — has not always gone smoothly. A coalition of East End officials joined together in mid-January, about a month after the start of vaccine distribution, to call for improved vaccine accessibility on the two forks. 

“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 a letter addressed to then-governor Andrew Cuomo and Suffolk County Executive Director Steve Bellone. “While we have submitted many locations in our communities for consideration for the distribution of the vaccine, those suggestions have been ignored.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell slammed the state in a February press release for distributing vaccines on a “seemingly random basis” that lacked transparency. “The public shouldn’t have to rely on rumors or spend hours day and night scouring the internet in the hope of finding an opportunity,” he said at the time.

A county-run vaccination site in Riverside was operating by mid-February and a state-run vaccination facility opened in Southampton in mid-March. Local health care centers also offered vaccinations.

Children were gradually included in the rollout over the course of the year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the Pfizer vaccine for the 5-11 age bracket in November. The Food and Drug Administration expanded emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine to include the 12-15 age bracket on May 10. Data from ongoing clinical trials for children 4 and younger is expected either late this year or in early 2022. 

As the year draws to a close, health care officials are urging people to sign up for a booster shot as new variants, such as omicron, continue to spread.