ALBANY — State officials said Tuesday they have agreed to make people 65 and older as well as those who are immunocompromised eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations in response to new federal guidance.
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo immediately questioned the guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said it will stir up logistical problems in New York by boosting the pool of people eligible for the coveted vaccines to 7 million at a time when available supply is severely limited.
Despite Cuomo's misgivings, New York changed its eligibility standards Tuesday, allowing people 65 and older to schedule appointments for the inoculations. Previously, the state was limiting the vaccine to people 75 and older, health care workers, nursing home patients, teachers and other vulnerable essential workers.
Cuomo estimated it could now take as long as six months to administer vaccinations to people in the expanded eligibility pool. He noted the state expects to get just 300,000 doses per week from the federal government.
"This compounds the request for patience because how do you say on one hand 7 million people are eligible and then on the other hand say we only have 300,000 dosages per week?" Cuomo said.
The new guidelines are designed to quicken the distribution of doses by expanding potential vaccination sites and increasing the number of people who are eligible for the shots.
Marc Molinaro, president of the bipartisan New York State County Executives Association and the Dutchess County executive, said it's essential the state and local governments scramble to meet the added challenges.
"It would be better to have the scheduling, the site location and the coordination before you open up the valve (for more vaccinations)," Molinaro said. "But opening up the valve demands that we catch up. And I hope that the state leans more on its partners and coordinates more with the local and county entities, and then we can catch up with the demand."
According to the CDC, fewer than 9 million shots have been administered out of some 25 million delivered to the states.
In Washington, Alex Azar, secretary of the federal Health and Human Services department, said: "Every vaccine dose that is sitting in a warehouse rather than going into an arm could mean one more life lost."
Azar said the state-run vaccine programs have been "too narrowly focused" and suggested states should not be waiting to inoculate all health care workers before moving on to other vulnerable populations.
Cuomo, who has been critical of the CDC guidance during the Trump administration, said he expects the federal pandemic response will be better managed under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, a Democratic ally of the governor.
He also predicted ramping up vaccine production will be a top goal of the Biden administration.
While the state has yet to complete the task of ensuring all front-line health care workers have been vaccinated, it has allowed the teacher's union and unions for police department to assist in inoculating their members with the vaccines.
Cuomo said getting nurses and doctors vaccinated should remain a high priority because they could become "super spreaders" should they become infected.
"The biggest capacity element in the hospital system is we're losing staff," he said. "We're losing staff because the staff is getting sick from Covid."
The governor, accompanied at a press briefing by state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, complained the federal government provided no immediate clarity on which specific diseases define those afflicted as immunocompromised.
State officials are advising New Yorkers they can initiate the process for scheduling vaccination appointments by calling a special helpline: 1-833-697-4829.
However, numerous individuals have reported that upon contacting the helpline they got a recorded message indicating that staffers have been flooded with requests for assistance.
William Hammond, a senior health fellow for the Empire Center for Public Policy, said the state's rollout of the vaccination program has been bumpy. It became more disjointed this week as a surge of people attempted to schedule vaccination appointments through pharmacies and other sites, he added.
"I can say from personal experience their system for registering people was not ready when it involved a smaller group of New Yorkers," Hammond said. "So when you flood it with many more people you are setting them up for disappointment. It's not just a matter of not having the vaccine yet. They are not even ready to take down your name in some cases."
The Cuomo administration designed New York's approach for distributing the vaccine, with the governor assigning hospitals to manage the initial phase of the program. But Cuomo in recent weeks said too many hospitals have been slow in using the doses sent to them.
County leaders have repeatedly said they have long been prepared for a major mass vaccination. After initially bypassing the offer of county resources, the Cuomo administration signaled last week that it would work more closely with local health departments.
Cuomo argued Biden should review the revamped guidelines once he takes office.
“I think it’s going to create national frustration and suggest that the government is not capable,” he said. “The last thing we need is people frustrated or losing belief in the competence of government.”
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.