Elementary workers and people over the age of 75 were vaccinated on January 10, 2021 in New York City, United States.
Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
The New York Department of Health says appointments for the Covid-19 vaccine are being booked for the next three and a half months, filling up quickly after the state expanded the eligibility criteria for adopting new federal guidelines.
Federal officials have put pressure on states to expand approval requirements for the vaccine in an attempt to accelerate adoption, which has been slower than expected. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged states to extend eligibility from primarily health care workers and nursing home residents to all people 65 years of age and younger with compromised immune systems.
States that thought they were now vaccinating millions of people weekly have in fact fired a few hundred thousand shots of the two-dose vaccines since federal regulators cleared Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for public use in mid-December. Local officials in the US are struggling to speed up vaccine distribution as millions are demanding a few thousand open slots to get their first vaccinations.
In New York state, vaccine providers across the state are at different stages of setting up their programs, said Jill Montag, a spokeswoman for the New York Department of Health. Some don’t manage recordings yet, but will open more reservations online when they do, she said. However, the demand is still far higher than the supply of cans.
Cuomo said further expansion to 65 years and older would open the eligibility for about 7 million of the state’s 20 million residents.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health’s vaccine information page has a red ALL-CAPS banner at the top of the page that reads, “ALERT! OVER 7 MILLION NEW YORKERS ARE NOW ALLOWED FOR THE COVID VACCINE BUT THE STATE RECEIVES ONLY 300,000 DOSES PER WEEK FROM THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. “
The notification, which apparently came out on Wednesday, informs New Yorkers that all appointments for the next 14 weeks have already been booked.
Some public health professionals said expanding the eligibility criteria was the right move. They cited reports of cans sitting in refrigerators or spoiling due to low intake in prioritized groups. Others have said that such a drastic increase in eligibility could create further confusion in the already Herculean logistical and public communication effort.
CDC officials have not returned CNBC’s request for comment.
“States shouldn’t wait to complete phase 1a prioritization before moving on to broader categories of eligibility,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on Tuesday of the new guidelines. “Think of it like getting on a plane. You may have a sequential order in which you board people. But you don’t wait for literally every person in a group to board before moving on to the next . “
Frustration and fear
New York governor Andrew Cuomo quickly announced Tuesday that the state would adopt the new guidelines. The state had first given priority to health workers, and over the weekend extended it to 75 years and older, as well as some public sector workers such as teachers and police officers.
However, with the adoption of the new CDC guidelines, Cuomo warned that doing so would lead to excessive demand for vaccines. He added that if the government is unable to meet demand for the vaccine, it could cause people to “lose faith in the competence of the government”.
The state received 1.7 million doses of the vaccines from the federal government, about 300,000 doses per week, but was only able to deliver 632,473 of those shots, according to CDC data from the states. Even if the state were able to deliver every shot in real time, it will take two to three years for New York’s 20 million residents to be vaccinated at the current rate.
“So you’re telling people today, ‘You are eligible,’ but you’re also telling people, ‘We don’t have enough doses to reach you for the next six months,'” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “Is that helpful? I think not. I think it creates more frustration and more fear.”
The New York Department of Health said in a statement Monday that filling appointments quickly is “good news.”
“New Yorkers are showing that they trust the vaccine and want to get vaccinated as soon as possible. The challenge is that we can only vaccinate as fast as the federal supply allows,” she said. “We ask for your patience as we have the largest single vaccinations in the state’s history. In the meantime, keep wearing your mask, be smart, safe and ready when a vaccine becomes available for you.”
Everything indicates that the federal government will accelerate the distribution of the doses to states in the coming weeks, said Dr. Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. The Trump administration announced earlier this week that they will begin releasing almost all of the vaccine doses they have kept in reserve so that people can get the second shot needed for full immunization. And other vaccine manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson could soon get approval and increase supply.
“The demand definitely exceeds the supply,” she said in a telephone interview on Thursday. Kates and her team are closely monitoring plans to distribute government vaccines. She said situations similar to New York are playing out across the country, including Los Angeles County and several Florida counties.
“If you look at the whole group of people who the federal government says should be vaccinated, that’s more people than the manufacturers say they have doses for,” Kates said.
About 53 million Americans are older than 64 years and 110 million people between the ages of 16 and 64 have comorbid conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If every state chooses to adopt the new federal recommendations, millions of people will stand in line for months, Kates said.
In the first few weeks of the rollout, government plans for who would be eligible for the vaccine varied widely. Kates said the new recommendation appears to be an attempt to bring more states into line with federal guidelines, but she added that it was confusing since the CDC’s original recommendation was published less than a month ago.
“Now, less than a month later, they come out and say something completely different and almost throw it away,” she said, adding that changing policies adds complexity for state officials. “There has to be a balance between fixing problems and following guidelines.”