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Supply shortages, registration issues: NYC struggles with vaccine distribution

Hundreds of people flocked to the Brooklyn Army Terminal vaccination site this week, only to learn the shots weren't available.
Image: New York City Opens Javits Convention Center As Vaccination Site
People wait inside the Javits Center, which recently opened as a vaccination site, on Jan. 13, 2021, in New York City.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The rumors began circulating early in the day: Several hundred extra doses of the Covid-19 vaccine were being made available to the general public, regardless of eligibility.

Hundreds of New Yorkers flocked to the Brooklyn Army Terminal vaccination site Thursday, only to find the shots were not actually available.

"I was willing to drop everything and head to a location where there was a small chance that I might be able to get vaccinated," said Bill McBain, 36, of Brooklyn, who waited in line for 30 minutes with more than 500 other people until police officers informed them there were no extra doses. "I don’t blame myself or anyone in that line. We had hope."

New York City, once the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., has been plagued by vaccine distribution stumbles, just like nearly every part of the country. From supply shortages to registration issues, a string of mishaps have impaired rollout efforts across the five boroughs.

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Though demand for the vaccines is high in New York, there is no guarantee a dose will be available for someone who is eligible, which includes health care workers, people 65 and over and those working in certain professions, such as emergency services and teaching.

The state’s Covid-19 website says vaccines are “very limited,” and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday in an interview with WNYC that the city is expected to run out of vaccines by next week because of supply constraints.

“I’m telling you, at this rate, there will not be any doses available in New York by next week,” he said. “If we don’t get a serious supply, we’re going to have to freeze the appointment system. That would be insane after all the progress we’ve made.”

De Blasio’s administration has blamed some of the bottlenecks on Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and city and state officials have bickered openly over the lags in distribution. Earlier this month, Dr. Mitchell Katz, CEO of NYC Health and Hospitals, said during one of de Blasio’s news conferences at City Hall that the state’s overly restrictive guidelines meant thousands of vaccine doses were going unused.

Cuomo subsequently widened the state’s eligibility rules, but problems remain. Residents have complained about buggy registration websites and long lines at vaccination sites.

Howard Stein, an 81-year-old Manhattan resident, stood in line for several hours to receive his first shot on Tuesday in the Bronx. Stein said staff members at the vaccination site were friendly and helpful, but there were no chairs, and several seniors resorted to sitting on the floor while they waited.

"I spent three hours on line, and if you're dealing with a population that is 75 and older, they ought to have chairs," he said. "That's just a long wait for elderly people."

Stein said his wife, who received her first dose on Jan. 8, had a similar experience at a vaccination site in Valhalla, just north of New York City.

"That was a state-run facility, but it also took a couple hours," he said, adding that while he feels "pleased as punch" that he and his wife received their first shots, he has some anxiety about what the supply shortages could mean for their second doses.

McBain, who waited in line in vain at Brooklyn Army Terminal, said he heard about the supposedly available shots from a friend who is a nurse practitioner. Despite the confusion, he does not regret trying to score a vaccine early, he said, adding that he has Type 1 diabetes and has been concerned about complications associated with Covid-19.

The rumors offered a glimmer of opportunity for his life to return to normal, McBain said.

“I think it’s representative of where we, as a community, are in this pandemic,” he said in a Facebook message.

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More than 337,000 doses have been administered in New York City so far, according to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Late last month, de Blasio said he wanted to get 1 million New Yorkers vaccinated in January, and the city had set a goal of administering 150,000 shots a week. Those milestones may soon be out of reach until additional doses are secured.

Mount Sinai said this week that it was forced to cancel some vaccination appointments because of low supply.

“If our supply increases, we hope to be able to reschedule and open up appointments again soon,” the hospital said in a statement.