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'There are going to be problems' as NY COVID vaccine push adds underlying conditions

Sarah Taddeo David Robinson
New York State Team
  • New Yorkers with medical conditions or immunocompromised status have been in limbo for weeks about when they'd be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • The state released a list of eligible conditions last week. Vaccines will begin for those groups on Feb. 15.
  • Those with comorbidities are welcoming the vaccine, though they have concerns about accessibility and side effects.

For Barbara Evert, getting the COVID-19 vaccine means the chance to hug her grandchildren, return to the office and protect her already weary heart and lungs from being ravaged by the respiratory disease.

The 64-year-old heart disease survivor is one year shy of the age limit for Phase 1b, New York’s second round of vaccine eligibility that included those 65 or over, and she didn’t qualify under any of the job-specific eligibility criteria. She has been researching the issue for weeks, looking into when and how she can get a shot. 

“It does make you want to just throw up your hands and give up,” said Evert, of Perinton, Monroe County.

But now, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday that New Yorkers with select underlying health conditions will become eligible on Feb. 15, Evert and millions of other New Yorkers with compromised immune systems are cautiously optimistic but still leery it may be weeks or months before they get vaccinated.

Barbara Evert, 64, of Perinton, is immunocompromised and eagerly awaiting an opportunity to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Indeed, Cuomo and top aide Melissa DeRosa warned New Yorkers with comorbidities, as well as millions of others previously made eligible, to expect continued delays in booking vaccinations as the supply chain remains effectively week-to-week.

“Expect the appointments to book very quickly, and this will be an ongoing tension,” Cuomo said Monday during a press briefing, adding “this is going to be a long, anxiety-producing time” before supply, around 300,000 doses per week, catches up with demand, about 10 million eligible New Yorkers.

DeRosa noted the state vaccination booking website is expected to activate eligibility for those with underlying health conditions at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, though the anticipated rush could overwhelm the system.

“Everybody should go into this with their eyes wide open. It’s going to be frustrating, it’s going to be a crush, there are going to be problems,” she said, adding state officials will do their best to fix any website and vaccination hotline glitches in real-time.

The move to open up shots to New Yorkers with comorbidities came amid mounting pressure from advocates and those in the high-risk group, which accounts for about 92% of the state’s 33,546 confirmed COVID-19 deaths based on state data tracking the top 10 riskiest underlying health conditions.

More: NY allowing residents with underlying health conditions to get COVID vaccine. Here's the list.

More:Neighboring states offer different COVID vaccine eligibility. What you need to know

'I thought we were prioritized'

Gregory Litz, of Pittsford, is immunocompromised and eagerly awaiting an opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Santina Guarcello-Hunt, a 63-year-old heart disease survivor from Long Island, estimated she spent about three hours per day hunting online for COVID-19 vaccination appointments over the past month.

Her saga began after Cuomo on Jan. 12 indicated immunocompromised New Yorkers under age 65 would soon become eligible.

But he ultimately left them in the dark for weeks about when it would happen, leaving throngs of New Yorkers to obsessively check the state vaccination website for updates.

“I kept thinking it might pop up any second, and I don’t want to miss out,” said Guarcello-Hunt, recounting the cruel cycle of holding out hope for a vaccination only to be crushed anew each day.

DeRosa this week offered a glimpse at the scope of demand, citing how the state vaccination booking website has been improved to handle the hundreds of thousands of people constantly refreshing the webpage.

All the internet searching paid off for Guarcello-Hunt, however, when she landed a COVID-19 vaccination recently for her 66-year-old husband, Nick, scoring a slot at a pharmacy near their Long Island home before a fresh round of appointments booked up in a matter of minutes.

Yet the victory brought limited relief as Guarcello-Hunt — who has five stents, or small mesh tubes used to prop open arteries, in her heart — remained at heightened risk of severe COVID-19 illness and death.

“I’ve started doing telemedicine therapy to speak to someone about being afraid,” she said. “I’m getting so nervous about getting sick.”

Santina Guarcello-Hunt, of Long Island, is one of the New Yorkers with underlying health conditions awaiting a chance to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Similarly, Evert's fear stemmed from a heart attack nine years ago. She has what’s called “popcorn lung” — a condition defined by scarring and inflammation in the lung’s smallest airways. If she contracts COVID-19, her doctor warned, she has about a 30% chance of not making it out of the hospital, Evert said.

Gregory Litz, 79, of Pittsford, Monroe County, originally believed he would be prioritized for a vaccine on multiple fronts. He’s currently eligible as someone 65 or older, and he survived a heart attack and a severe gastrointestinal hemorrhage last year. 

When he searched online for available vaccine appointments, the possible slots would evaporate before he could finish signing up. He tried calling a COVID-19 hotline; the representative told him the only open appointments were in Potsdam, St. Lawrence County, more than three hours drive from his home. 

“I feel frustrated and pissed off,” Litz said, adding that the broadened eligibility criteria further complicates matters.

“I don’t see that as an opportunity,” he said. “It’s an additional impediment. It opened it up to more millions of people. I thought we were prioritized and we weren’t.” 

Fran Ferentinos, 64, of Binghamton, has had Chron's Disease for 40 years, and is "thrilled" and "hopeful" about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

Fran Ferentinos, 64, of Binghamton, who has had Crohn's Disease for 40 years and takes immunosuppressant medication, said she was “thrilled” and “hopeful” when she heard she’d finally be eligible for the vaccine. 

Her husband, who also has underlying medical conditions, is already eligible for the vaccine due to his employment. But he was told he’d have to travel over an hour away to get an available shot — a trip his doctors advised against, Ferentinos said.

The couple is planning to get their vaccines in March, if appointments are available. The state’s website has been helpful to answer their questions, Ferentinos said, although a reminder for residents to fill out an online pre-vaccination form prior to their appointments would be helpful, especially for seniors, she said. 

More:Tracking COVID-19 vaccine distribution by state: How many people have been vaccinated in the US?

How to prove COVID vaccine eligibility in NY

To show they have eligible comorbidities or underlying conditions, New Yorkers must provide either a doctor’s letter, or medical documents evidencing comorbidity, or sign a document certifying they are eligible, according to the governor’s office.

Vaccination site officials will be checking the documents and New Yorkers face legal penalties for fraudulently obtaining the vaccine, Cuomo said, but didn’t provide further details.

In one possible scenario, people who sign documents attesting they are eligible but don’t have an underlying condition on the list could face charges of filing a false instrument, which is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, state health officials said. 

Meanwhile, county officials are seeking clarification from state officials about how the expanded eligibility addressed privacy concerns, such as unnecessary disclosure of a health condition, according to Stephen Acquario, executive director of New York State Association of Counties.

Some of the potential solutions being discussed by county leaders included allowing the doctor’s note to attest the person is eligible without specifying the condition, he said. Further, a person could potentially be required to sign a document at the site attesting under penalty of perjury that they have one of the eligible conditions without disclosing it.

“We want to ensure the integrity of the governor’s protocols, and we’re working through it and want to see how the state is going to do it,” Acquario said.

How counties will handle comorbidity vaccinations

Junko Mills, a RN, vaccinates a person against COVID-19, giving them their first round.  The Dome Arena in Henrietta is one of the state COVID-19 vaccination sites with today, January 20, 2021 being their first day in operation.

County officials have been racing to finalize local health departments’ vaccination plans for adding eligible comorbidities since Cuomo announced the move during a press briefing Friday, according to Acquario.

One plan involves potentially administering some vaccine doses at primary care physician’s offices. Another would see health departments conducting targeted vaccination clinics that exclusively provide shots for each health condition to streamline the process.

Some of the concerns include the potential for inequality, such as limiting access among New Yorkers without a primary care doctor or living in poor and rural communities.

Acquario said county leaders are also seeking further details from state officials related to the expanded eligibility, such as the amount of doses for the effort as well the locations of roughly 5,000 different medical offices, pharmacies and other sites enrolled in the state’s vaccination program.

More rural counties are expected to seek some additional support from state health officials to expand into the group, he added.

How many vaccine doses will go to comorbidities in NY

The federal government plans to boost vaccine shipments to New York state in coming weeks by about 28% as production ramps up, according to Cuomo and federal officials.

The promising development brought the weekly allocation from about 250,000 to 320,525 for week eight of the rollout, which spanned from Feb. 1 to Feb. 7, state data show.

Further, the state plans to reallocate unused vaccine doses from hospitals to local health departments for use on the expansion of eligibility into those with comorbidities, Cuomo said, citing how 75% of health care workers have been vaccinated and many in the remaining 25% have declined to take the shots, at least temporarily.

State health officials are currently finalizing the number of doses being reallocated from hospitals to health departments,

Jill Montag, a state Department of Health spokeswoman, on Tuesday would not provide an estimate for the number of doses being reallocated from hospitals to health departments, noting the effort is currently being finalized.

There will also be doses available at state-run vaccination sites for the newly eligible comorbidities group, but state officials have not released a detailed breakdown for how many doses are expected at specific sites.

Sarah Taddeo is the consumer watchdog reporter for USA Today Network's New York State Team. Got a story tip or comment? Contact Sarah at STADDEO@Gannett.com or (585) 258-2774. Follow her on Twitter @Sjtaddeo. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Please consider becoming a digital subscriber.