A Chase for the Elusive COVID-19 Vaccine

Operation Warp Speed is definitely warped

| 19 Jan 2021 | 12:42

New York City lags far behind in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. The most recent data show that the city had used only 52% of its vaccine allocation. There were 876,550 doses (including both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) received by NYC but only 455,787 doses had been administered. The other areas of New York State were well into the 90th percentile of doses available to usage. Something is wrong with this picture.

We know the federal government has been sadly unprepared with no plan to get the vaccine into peoples’ arms. Operation Warp Speed is definitely warped. The scientists figured out rather quickly how to develop and produce the vaccine. But, what good is it if there is no overarching process to administer it as quickly as possible to as wide of a berth of folks as possible? Trump and his acolytes were too busy denying an election result and fomenting an insurrection to care about the virus’s effect on the country. Leave it to the states was their default response.

Hence, the scramble to obtain the vaccine is on. I, like many other New Yorkers, was hopeful to get that first dose, especially since they lowered the age to 65 and expanded other categories (I am 69 and qualify according to the latest iteration of phase 1). I had experienced my own bout with COVID-19 early in the pandemic and had an unusual relapse last June which landed me in the hospital for a week.

I have checked out well in my post hospitalization follow-ups. A recent antibody test placed me in the moderate to strong range. Still, the vaccine would be an added boost (no pun intended).

So, I decided to enter into the vaccine sweepstakes. Earlier I had logged on to the Mount Sinai website and was able to make an appointment for the end of this week. That was before they started canceling appointments because they had run out of supply. Where is the Defense Production Act when we need it?

Myriad Websites

A city that in 1947 managed to vaccinate 5-6 million of its residents against smallpox in a matter of weeks has no centralized system to guarantee the equitable and immediate distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine. The myriad websites, balkanized hospital system and lack of a clear public information campaign have left us on our own. The system is not set up for us technological Luddites.

Somewhat serendipitously, I received a call last weekend from a friend who had heard that the New York City Department of Health and Mental health (DOHMH) had opened up a 24/7-vaccination site at its main headquarters at 125 Worth Street. She asked if I had any interest in going in the evening to see if we could get the vaccine as a “walk-in” without an appointment. I was looking for an activity on another quiet pandemic filled Saturday, and suggested we not wait but head down to Worth Street in the afternoon and take our chances.

It was a quintessential New York experience. The line was not very long and seemed filled with mostly middle-income anxious New Yorkers. In fact, those waiting on line were told they would have to wait to see if there were any extra vaccines. There was a very friendly DOHMH staff member who called on those who had made appointments to proceed into the building.

I admit to being struck that the appointment holders all seemed to be under the age of forty. “I thought they weren’t eligible,” I pondered. True, they could have been teachers or other essential workers. Still, the skeptic in me couldn’t help but conclude that the younger tech savvy crowd knew how to game the system.

That same patient DOHMH staff person was going down the line – pen and paper in hand (no Ipad or other electronic device) taking the names and phone numbers of those waiting. He drew lines on his paper – real old school – to separate the names. There is no way I thought that the list would amount to anything.

We waited an hour and decided to pack it in and head home. “Oh well,” we tried. There was little chance we would ever hear from the DOHMH office. Little did I know I would be wrong.

Home in the early evening, locked down for the night in my pajamas, the phone rings. “We have a number of no-shows and there are vaccines available,” the person on the line said. “Can you get down here in 25 minutes?” I was off to the races. I changed back into my jeans, grabbed my coat and headed to the #2 train to Chambers Street.

I made it on time. The city had hired a group called Affiliated Physicians to administer the vaccine– leave it to the private sector. That’s how it’s done in modern America. The city staff and contracted workers had been working 12-hour shifts. They seemed tired yet upbeat. They could not have been nicer or more caring. There was a sense that they were part of something historic – protecting the citizenry from the virus. I left with my vaccine card and told I would be contacted in 28 days for the second shot.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder – how will seniors get access to the vaccine? What about the communities of color that have been so hard hit by the virus? How do you navigate the system if you don’t know how to use the technology? “Is this any way to run an airline?” I don’t think so.