One of the error messages on the New York State website Flanders resident Jules Devito received when attempting to schedule vaccination appointments for himself and his mother yesterday. Courtesy photo.

The expansion of the coronavirus vaccine rollout got off to a rocky start this week, with newly eligible residents spending many hours in vain attempting to schedule appointments online.

Residents who meet the expanded eligibility requirements announced this week describe frustrating experiences with a malfunctioning state website that kept crashing.

“I have completed the forms numerous times for both of us, only to lose all the data when I try to submit it,” reported an exasperated Hampton Bays resident, who tried in vain all week to schedule appointments for herself and her husband, both over age 75.

“I get to the point where I schedule it for time and date, then as I submit it, the screen turns white and then nothing,” she wrote in an email to RiverheadLOCAL, seeking assistance.

Compounding the state’s distribution problem on Long Island was the premature release of a scheduling link for a vaccination site at Stony Brook University Hospital that was not yet authorized to make appointments. The link was shared on social media and hundreds of people scheduled appointments that the state later said would not be honored.

Jules Devito of Flanders said he used the link to schedule appointments for himself and his mother for late March — the soonest available. Then he learned through a Facebook group that the appointments were not valid.

“I never even got a cancellation email,” Devito said.

His attempts to reschedule the appointments when the site went live at 8 o’clock Friday morning proved futile.

The site was “impossible to get on,” Devito said. And when he was able to access it, things did not go well.

“I actually got as far as making three appointments for my mom, only to have the website crash as I clicked ‘confirm.’ It’s absolutely maddening,” said Devito.

Devito said he tried all day Friday to make appointments, to no avail. “And now they just closed the site,” he said at 4:30 p.m.

“Furious doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Devito said.

The Stony Brook site was one of six state-operated sites affected by the release of what the state describes as “an unpublished scheduling link shared without authorization on social media.”

A lawyer for the state’s IT office said the issue was referred to the inspector general for investigation into what happened.

All “unauthorized appointments” made through the prematurely released link were voided, to ensure “equity and equal access,” the lawyer, Marcy Stevens, said in an emailed statement.

According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the federal government vastly expanded eligibility for vaccination without expanding the vaccine dosages available to the state.

“We have our distribution network up and running and are working to expand it every day — but we can only vaccinate as many New Yorkers as we have supply for,” Cuomo said yesterday in an emailed statement.

“There are around 7 million New Yorkers who are eligible for the vaccine but New York only receives 300,000 doses per week, and the next weekly allocation from the federal government will be even less,” he said, “just 250,000 doses.”

The vaccine allocations are distributed to each region of the state based on population and from there are allocated according to priority groups currently eligible for vaccination: hospital workers and front-line health care workers, EMTs, first responders, education workers, public-facing grocery workers, people over 75, people ages 65 to 74 and people with pre-existing conditions known to make individuals more susceptible to serious illness.

“Due to this limited allocation, appointments have filled up quickly, which I recognize is frustrating for so many New Yorkers who want to get the vaccine as soon as they can,” Cuomo said in the statement.

“Hospitals have to prioritize doctors and nurses. City/county health departments, they are in charge of 1b essential workers; they’re supposed to be doing the police, the fire, public safety, teachers, et cetera,” Cuomo said yesterday during a media briefing.

“Pharmacies, doctors’ networks, they are prioritizing 65-plus,” he said.

“COVID-19 vaccines will be available in all of Walgreens’ more than 9,000 store locations once they become available for mass administration,” the pharmacy chain said in a press release. “At that time, individuals will be able to schedule vaccination appointments through the Walgreens app or online.”

CVS currently has a vaccine distribution site operational in Center Moriches. Eligible people can sign up for an appointment on the CVS website, but appointments are scarce. A message on the site this morning said all available appointments have been booked.

“More appointments will be available once we receive more vaccines,” the CVS site said.

The state government is opening “mass vaccination sites” across the state. The only state-run vaccination site in Suffolk County is currently on the campus of Stony Brook University.

Elected officials on the East End wrote the the governor and the county executive this week to demand that a vaccination site be opened on the East End as well.

A Suffolk County spokesperson said the county has plans in place to open a vaccination site at the Eastern Campus of Suffolk County Community College in Northampton and would open the site as soon as there are vaccine dosages to distribute.

“Our constraint is the federal supply and that is creating a scheduling backlog, and it’s creating pressure on what was supposed to be the prioritization process,” Cuomo said yesterday.

And as hard as it may be to make an appointment, people who succeed will have a 14-week wait to actually get the shot.

Cuomo called on the federal government to increase vaccine supply. “If they don’t, it will only lengthen the amount of time it will take to reach the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said on Tuesday the administration would immediately release all of the coronavirus vaccine supply and stop holding back doses reserved for the second dose of the two-dose vaccination.

But state and county health officials told reporters at
national media outlets they’d been informed by HHS that there is no vaccine reserve because the administration actually started shipping out the reserved doses last month.

“HHS spokesman Michael Pratt confirmed in an email that the final reserve of second doses had recently been released to states,” the Washington Post reported last night. The spokesperson but did not address Azar’s comments, the Post reported.

“Operation Warp Speed has been monitoring manufacturing closely, and always intended to transition from holding second doses in reserve as manufacturing stabilizes and we gained confidence in the ability for a consistent flow of vaccines,” Pratt told the Post, according to its report.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.