The line at the New York State COVID-19 vaccination site in Jones Beach in Nassau County last month. Courtesy photo: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office

New York’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution program is a “chaotic mess” and a failure, according to local elected officials who are on the front lines dealing with distraught residents, especially senior citizens, frustrated by the state’s dysfunctional vaccine registration website and COVID-19 vaccination hotline.

“The Titanic had a better rollout,” State Assemblyman Fred Thiele said in a statement issued .

Under eligibility criteria established by the state, 55% of New York’s 19.5 million residents are now eligible to receive the shots, according to an analysis by NBC News.

New York State has opened up eligibility to health care workers (7% of the state’s population, according to the analysis), front-line essential workers — including first responders, teachers, transportation workers and public-facing grocery workers — (9% of the population) everyone age 65 and over (15%) and — as of yesterday — all persons with any one of a long list of co-morbidities (24%).

But the vaccine supply is not nearly adequate to meet the demand — not by a long shot. The state was receiving 250,000 to 300,000 doses per week from the federal government, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Expanding eligibility in the face of low supply has created a public expectation that could not realistically be met. The frustration and anger are palpable and justified. The outcome resembles a sequel to the ‘Hunger Games,’” Thiele said.

The state’s vaccine supply is supposed to increase by 20% over the next three weeks, Cuomo said Friday.

What that will mean for local residents will likely remain a mystery — as it’s been since vaccination distribution first began in New York.

“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,” Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said.

The governor implemented his own vaccination plan rather than use plans the State Department of Health developed with local health departments after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“After 9/11, each county was required to file a mass-vaccination plan — required by state law – as part of jumble of public security initiatives after 9/11,” Russell said in a phone interview today.

But those plans were set aside as the governor took control over pandemic policy, sidelining career public health officials — which led to high-level resignations at the State DOH, according to reporting by the New York Times.

“The governor has been micromanaging this plan. He’s micromanaging everything,” Russell said.

The state currently operates 13 vaccination sites, including two on Long Island — Stony Brook and Jones Beach. The state distributes vaccine doses to each region based its eligible group population count. Appointments at the state sites become available as supplies of the vaccine come in. Eligible residents have to stay on the state website, refreshing the page in the hope of being able to book an available slot.

One local resident over 65 reported being on the state website with two devices, constantly refreshing the page to see if a slot would become available — to no avail.

In addition to the state distribution sites, vaccine doses have been made available at various “pop-up” locations.

Russell said local officials aren’t told in advance about the state’s “pop-up” vaccinations sites — even when they are set up in their own towns, as one was at Peconic Landing in Greenport on Feb. 4. He said it still isn’t clear how residents gain access to vaccines at the pop-up sites.

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar agreed. “That information is not provided to us. It’s very frustrating and frankly, has lacked transparency,” she said.

“We should be informed of of these pop-up sites prior to them opening up — they literally pop up, here I am and will distribute to who we want,” Aguiar said.

“If you’re going to provide vaccines to a community, you should inform the community. And it should be done on a fair basis, not on a selected basis, with without the knowledge of the entire community, especially our seniors who need them,” she said.

The local resident who said she had no luck nailing down an appointment through the state website told RiverheadLOCAL she learned in a casual conversation with a Stony Brook/Eastern Long Island employee that the Greenport hospital would be getting vaccine doses and scheduling appointments through its own website — which was not listed on the state website. The ELIH appointment portal went live Friday, Feb. 5 and the resident was able to schedule an appointment for Monday, Feb. 8.

The state’s process an “outrage,” Russell said.

Both town supervisors said they have identified locations within their towns for vaccine distribution — at the state’s request — and have developed plans to operate them. Russell said Southold has a plan to transport homebound seniors to the centers for inoculation.

Aguiar said Riverhead has a plan for a mobile unit that will take the vaccine to the senior communities in the town.

She said Riverhead Town will begin “pre-registering” seniors to relieve them of the stress of trying to snag an appointment online or trying to get through to the state’s hotline number.

But if and when these plans will be approved and implemented/ remains unknown. Communication is minimal to nonexistent, Russell said. 

“We recognize that vaccines are limited and that this is a problem statewide. However, a shortage of vaccines doesn’t mean there should be a shortage of information too,” he said. 

For example, the East End supervisors and mayors have been demanding an East End distribution site, because the closes state site is located in Stony Brook, a very long drive from the East End, especially for seniors.

In response to that letter, the county executive’s communication director told RiverheadLOCAL on Jan. 14 that a distribution site would be opened at the eastern campus as soon as the vaccine supply became available. The county did make an announcement about its opening or even tell the town supervisors it had opened — though the county executive mentioned it in passing during a Feb. 4 press conference initially scheduled on another subject. Russell said he only learned of eastern campus location this weekend.

The SCCC eastern campus distribution site is not listed on the county’s web portal for vaccine appointments, which lists only a site in Bellport. The link to the Bellport site leads to a page on the state health department website that says “no appointments available.”

Pharmacies such as Walgreens and CVS are supposed to be supplied with vaccine doses when they become available.

Aguiar said county officials told her on Thursday that only 12,500 first doses and 3,710 second doses had been administered on the East End. The 3,710 fully-vaccinated East End residents represent 2.7% of the total combined population of the five East End Towns (139,103 people, according to the 2018 U.S. Census estimate.)

Statewide, over 1 million residents are fully vaccinated so far, according to data provided by the governor today — 5.2% of the total population of 19.5 million New Yorkers.

“The supply we have received is by far minuscule,” Aguiar said.

“Relying almost exclusively on mass distribution sites located in more populated areas discriminates against rural and less populated areas,” Thiele said.

“In rural areas, we need to get the vaccine to the people. We cannot expect them to make an all-day journey,” he said.

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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.