COVID-19

NYC Drilled on Variant Response as Vaccine Limits Push State Appointments to Mid-April

State-run sites saw nearly 10,000 appointment signups an hour on Sunday, the first day people with qualifying conditions could book at those spots; it was the largest single-day registration total since the rollout began

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What to Know

  • Three million people over age 16 with qualifying underlying conditions became eligible for their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, joining 7 million+ other New Yorkers already eligible
  • State-run sites saw the highest appointment volume since the rollout began on Sunday, the day they started accepting appointments for that group; appointments are now mostly booked through mid-April
  • The emergence of more contagious strains has intensified the urgency; the U.K. variant has been found in 40 states and a CT resident is now hospitalized in NYC with the South African one

New York state and city officials are facing increasing pressure from local council members and others regarding their response to tracking more contagious coronavirus variants that have emerged as the number of detected U.K. variant cases in the Empire State and nationally continues to climb.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his team were peppered with new questions Tuesday, one day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo reported a case of the more complicated South African variant in a New York City hospital. That patient, though, is a Connecticut resident, and the governor said there is no evidence at this point of spread within New York.

Thus far, the CDC has confirmed just 19 cases of that variant in ten states in their latest count. Detected U.S. cases of the highly transmissible U.K. variant, meanwhile, have boomed to nearly 1,300 across 42 states in a matter of weeks and are likely far underreported.

Asked Tuesday what New York City was doing to better track that data -- and about its current level of concern over the variants -- Dr. Jay Varma, senior public health advisor to the mayor, said the worries are two-fold.

"This is a virus that mutates as all viruses do. What we've been most concerned about is the B.1.1.7 variant, also known as the U.K. variant, increasing in frequency around the world and the U.S.," Varma said. "It's concerning because it appears to be a lot more infectious and there is increasing data from the U.K. also showing that it is potentially more lethal. We're still trying to verify and understand that, but it's best to always err on the side of caution."

He said New York City was increasing its lab testing capacity to supplement the much larger capacity of the state's primary lab. Along with research partnerships, the city is working to understand the mutations better academically as well and remains "vigilant in its pursuit of identifying infections and controlling them," Varma said.

With new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus circulating, health experts are adjusting their recommendations for face masks. NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres joined LX News to explain why you should make sure your face mask is well-fitted and double up.

Ultimately, the core precautions that have proven to stem the spread of the virus will also curb the spread of the variants. The risk of spread from failure to take those precautions is just greater when it comes to the more contagious strains that have emerged nationally and abroad.

"The presence of the variants means do more, not less," Mayor Bill de Blasio said. "No one should let down their guard."

A handful of New York City council members say they will draft a bill to make reporting variant information a daily requirement.

Vaccines for teachers are recommended, but not required.

Concern at the national level over the variants prompted the CDC late last week to issue new guidance for reopening schools to in-person learning. Late last month, one Connecticut superintendent told parents the state department of health had warned schools to prepare for the chance of a need to switch all-remote come March, should the U.K. strain become predominant and lead to a case explosion.

Overall, vaccines are expected to protect against the variants that have emerged and the new ones that will over time. But that requires vaccination to a scale that has not been achievable yet, given supply issues -- and the pool of New Yorkers who want their protective shots continues to expand.

With new COVID-19 variants from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil now spreading, doctors are rushing to vaccinate as many Americans as possible before more mutations arise. Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a regional director of One Medical, joined LX News to talk about why vaccines are so important right now and how she encourages her patients to overcome their skepticism about it.

'Please Try Again Later:' Vaccine Shortage Leaves High-Risk NYers Frustrated

New Yorkers with certain underlying health conditions that leave them at higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 became eligible to sign up for vaccine appointments over the long weekend. Many were met with frustration, as state officials had warned would likely be the case.

The latest group to become eligible for shots in New York is made up of roughly three million people between the ages of 16 and 64. Those New Yorkers join an ever-expanding pool that now includes about 10 million people, fewer than 2 million of whom have received a first shot to date because of supply issues.

Qualifying New Yorkers could start signing up at state-run sites for appointments Sunday, a day before they were eligible to receive first shots, while those looking to get dosed at city-run sites got their first opportunity to book dates Monday.


Not sure how the process works? Or when you might be able to get an appointment? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here


New York City and New Jersey Vaccine Providers

Click on each provider to find more information on scheduling appointments for the COVID-19 Vaccine.

Data: City of New York, State of New Jersey • Nina Lin / NBC

On the state side, Cuomo said more than a quarter-million vaccination appointments were made on Day 1 of eligibility for the latest group -- the largest single-day registration total since the rollout began. New Yorkers were signing up at a rate of nearly 10,000 per hour over the course of the day, he noted.

Appointments at state-run sites are now booked through April 16 except for four locations: New York State Fair (booked through March 16); SUNY Potsdam (April 1); Rochester Dome (April 4) and SUNY Stony Brook (April 13).

"We're working hard to expand eligibility, make it easier for New Yorkers to get appointments and get shots in arms throughout the state, and the system is working," Cuomo said in a statement Tuesday. "250,000 appointments in a single day is a milestone, and we can do more—we just need more vaccine supply. We're seeing the system work -- more New Yorkers are finding out if they're eligible, making appointments and getting vaccinated. But we need more supply from the federal government to push our vaccination effort into overdrive."

Some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers -- from cancer patients to pregnant women to those with diabetes and weakened immune systems, among other pre-existing health conditions often found themselves in a tireless cycle of hitting "refresh" and "refresh" as they waited, frustrated, by their computers.

It's been two months since the coronavirus vaccine was first administered in New York. Now that millions of more people are eligible for the shots, the demand versus the supply is causing plenty of frustration for everyone. NBC New York's Pei-Sze Cheng reports.

Others tried to make appointments at retail pharmacies, which started accepting those late last week. Paul Grandinetti of Shoreham, Long Island, went that route Sunday. He thought he hit the jackpot when he was able to make an appointment at a local Walgreens. But a few hours later, he was told he wasn't eligible for the vaccine at the pharmacy even though he's in the state's new eligible group.

That's because Grandinetti is 63 years old -- and pharmacies are only vaccinating people 65 and older. For now, people like Grandinetti can only book appointments at state- and city-run vaccination sites.


Not sure how the process works? Or when you might be able to get an appointment? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here


COVID vaccination sites resume in the area after a snowstorm forced them to close for a couple of days earlier this week. New York City's health commissioner, Dr. Dave Chokshi, has tested positive for COVID-19 and has mild symptoms. New Jersey is also set to increase its indoor dining capacity. Tracie Strahan reports.

Those who tried to book appointments online at state-run sites online encountered a no less frustrating -- and perhaps at times more so -- process. They could check a box indicating they had a qualifying health condition, but repeated attempts to schedule an appointment at any number of the thousands of distribution sites often yielded a message that said, “Due to high volume, appointments can’t be made at this time for this location. Please try again later.”

"That's just disheartening all the way around," Grandinetti said. "How long do we have to keep banging away at computers to try to get this?"


See the full list of underlying conditions that qualify NYers for vaccine eligibility


A reporter commenting during de Blasio's daily briefing Tuesday said he has an underlying heart condition and tried to schedule an appointment Monday. He was able to do so -- but the date wasn't until April.

Frustration on the booking side isn't the only issue. Plenty of people and caregivers do manage to book appointments only to find out they've been postponed over supply issues. Cuomo has told local jurisdictions not to schedule appointments beyond known allocation for that reason.

Mount Sinai said on Tuesday that they had to cancel existing appointments "due to sudden changes in vaccine supply." Those impacted were to be notified via email or text, and the health provider said they would continue appointments once they have received more dosages.

Even those who are fortunate enough to book and keep an appointment encounter frustratingly long lines wherever they booked, some waiting for hours, sometimes in the bitter cold. Hundreds of seniors were stuck out in the cold Tuesday morning at the site at the Armory in Washington Heights that's run by New York Presbyterian. The hospital mistakenly sent out emails and texts to people who scheduled a second Moderna shot this week to all come Tuesday morning, at the same time.

Pharmacies began giving out vaccines Friday at places like Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS. It's a key link in the vaccine chain to immunize as may people as possible. NBC New York's Lynda Baquero and Jen Maxfield report.

Cuomo said the problem won't ease until the state gets far more than 300,000 first doses a week from the federal government. The White House is in the midst of a roughly 25 percent increase in weekly allotment to states for a three-week period, which is expected to boost supply by about 60,000 doses a week.

Those small boosts continue to come. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday the Biden administration would send out 13.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to states this week, up from 11 million last week. It will also double the number of doses sent directly to retail pharmacies, Psaki said.

While the increases are no doubt helpful and much needed, state and local officials say the weekly allocation hasn't increased nearly enough to keep up with the pool of eligible people, which continues to expand even as many of those who became eligible more than a month ago are still waiting to get their initial shots.

NBC New York's Chris Glorioso reports.

Aside from the frustrating lines -- virtually or otherwise -- there is confusion surrounding where and when to get a shot. As Grandinetti learned, just because one is eligible doesn't mean one can get dosed at any vaccination site. The state and city have a glut of options as far as where to get a shot, but there are different rules and requirements surrounding different programs. That creates confusion.

Cuomo said he expects the challenges to persist at least through April, if not June, as the unprecedented vaccine rollout navigates early glitches and hurdles.

The largest of the three eligible categories in New York to date has been Phase 1b. Those people, including people age 65 and older, first responders and support staff, grocery workers, corrections officers, educators, public transit workers and homeless shelter staff and residents, earned eligibility on Jan. 11. Starting Feb. 2, Cuomo allowed local governments to add restaurant workers and food delivery staff, as well as NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission licensed drivers, to that same category. New York City did that, as the return of indoor dining loomed.

For the first time in months, NYC restaurants welcomed back customers indoors, with 25 percent capacity. Come Sunday, the dining curfew will also be pushed back to 11 p.m. NBC New York's Ray Villeda reports.

Many restaurant workers in New York City weren't able to get their first shots before indoor dining resumed at 25 percent capacity citywide on Friday. The latest influx of eligible New Yorkers may only complicate their efforts to do so.

De Blasio has allocated half of the appointments at the newly opened Citi Field mega-site to restaurant and TLC workers (the other half to Queens residents), but last week, the site only had the supply to do roughly 200 shots a day. That is expected to ramp up considerably this week, but the "ramp up" has been far more incremental than the city's capacity to administer vaccinations.

The process is expected to accelerate in faster increments over the course of the next month and target more vulnerable communities, given stark racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in vaccination rates down to the ZIP code level.

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The two largest state-run vaccination sites to date are scheduled to open in Queens and Brooklyn next week, each with the capacity to inoculate 3,000 people a day and each benefiting from specially allocated first doses from the feds to ensure supply. Those sites are intended to serve historically underserved communities and are being developed under a new federal partnership that is expected to expand to additional sites over the next eight weeks or so.


Not sure how the process works? Or when you might be able to get an appointment? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here


New York City will also open a new site at Teachers Prep High School Wednesday. It will prioritize home health aides and the immediate surrounding Brownsville and East New York communities. Hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. six days a week. The next mega-site, one that had been delayed at Staten Island's Empire Outlets because of supply problems, plans to open the following day, on Thursday, de Blasio said. That site, like the Yankee Stadium and Citi Field sites in the Bronx and Queens, will be dedicated specifically to serving Staten Island residents.

It will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The mayor also said the city is planning to launch a three-pronged plan to expand access to homebound seniors and their caregivers. That program will include an in-home drive relying on Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine once approved, run clinics at retirement communities and inoculate 25,000 home health aides in the first month.

In honor of Black History Month, a look at how part of that history is spreading mistrust of the COVID vaccine through the Black community. NBC New York's Erica Byfield reports.

Meanwhile, first supply continues to trickle in. As of Tuesday, the city had fewer than 40,000 first dose shots left on hand. City-run sites have administered nearly 96 percent of all first dose supply they've received to date. So far, more than a half-million people who live in New York City or are eligible to be vaccinated there because of work have gotten one shot. About 412,000 have received both.

Last week, the city administered 317,227 total shots, a record weekly number since the vaccine rollout began. A daily record was set of 55,339 doses, which is more than the city's current stock of first doses on hand. De Blasio continues to say the city could do more than a half-million doses a week with proper supply.

"We need our fair share of vaccine. We're not getting our fair share of vaccine in the city right now," de Blasio said Tuesday. He said about 45 percent of the state's allocation was going to the five boroughs, which have performed about 53 percent of the vaccinations.

"If we got our fair share of the state allotment that would be at least 25,000 more vaccinations per week we could be doing," the mayor added. "We need that addressed quickly so we can keep speeding up this effort."

At the same time officials at all levels of government work to refine and expedite the vaccine rollout, the reopening process has ramped up considerably. In addition to allowing the return of limited indoor dining in New York City, Cuomo has pushed back the indoor service curfew to 11 p.m. He said over the weekend he would also apply that curfew extension, which took effect Sunday, to casinos, pool halls, gyms and other New York State Liquor Authority-licensed businesses.

Coming next week: the limited reopening of large venues and arenas with fan testing requirements for the first time since the March shutdown. The Barclays Center has already been cleared to host fans at its game Feb. 23, while the Knicks are hoping to do the same for theirs at Madison Square Garden the same day. New York City middle schools will also resume in-person learning next week -- and city officials have been prioritizing vaccine access for staff ahead of the return.

As nightlife and daily activities increase, so too must transit access. Cuomo said Monday that the four-hour overnight subway shutdown that has been in place since the onset of the pandemic will be halved starting Feb. 22.

“Hospitalizations and the positivity rate continue to decline, and with the holiday surge now in our rear-view mirror, we must keep taking steps to further re-open the economy safely and responsibly,” Cuomo said in making that announcement.

Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region

Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here

Source: ny.gov

New York's progress over the last month is reflective of a nation that is still working to climb down from the winter surge that drove record-breaking daily COVID numbers in U.S. cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Statewide hospitalizations are down to 6,620 as of Tuesday, Cuomo said, a more than 2,600 patient decline from the 9,273 admissions peak on Jan. 19. New York's rolling positivity rate is down to 3.71 percent, the lowest it's been since Nov. 28.

"The numbers continue to trend in a good direction because New Yorkers are taking this virus seriously and doing the right things to protect themselves and their families," Cuomo said in a statement Tuesday. "We are working 24/7 to get vaccines into arms as quickly as possible, and while we have the operational capacity to do more, lack of supply remains the single limiting factor."

Despite at one point being one of the hardest hit areas in the city and even the country when it comes to COVID, the new pop-up vaccine site is the first to open in northern Queens, said Rep. Grace Meng. NBC New York's Pei-Sze Cheng reports.

President Joe Biden has worked to accelerate the national rollout beyond its slow and oft-criticized start and is on pace to achieve his goal of 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office. Cuomo and others are confident that with a bit more time, the supply will ramp up to a degree where appointments can be scheduled beyond the week-to-week scenario under which providers have been operating.

The newly inaugurated president has increased the doses shipped weekly to states by a total of about 57 percent since he was sworn in, Psaki said.

To date, the U.S. has administered nearly 53 million total vaccine doses, more than 14 million of those second doses, according to CDC data. The nation continues to lead the world in both coronavirus cases and deaths, with those numbers standing at more than 27 million and 488,000, respectively, according to NBC News data.

Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press
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