• The Star Staff

New variant detected in New York amid growing crisis over vaccine rollout

By Jesse McKinley, Luis Ferré Sarduni and Emma G. Fitzsimmons

New York, the onetime center of the pandemic, faced a growing crisis Monday over the lagging pace of coronavirus vaccinations, as deaths continue to rise in the second wave and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came under mounting pressure to overhaul the process.

The small number of vaccine recipients is particularly striking in New York City, where roughly 110,000 people — in a city of more than 8 million — have received the first of two doses necessary to help prevent serious cases of the disease. That is about a quarter of the total number received by the city.

The concern over vaccinations in New York echoes problems reported during a sluggish rollout across the nation, and comes as a man in his 60s became the state’s first confirmed case of a more contagious variant of the virus. The man was recovering, but Cuomo said early indications were that the case — in the northern city of Saratoga Springs — was evidence of community spread.

“I think it is much more widespread than people know,” Cuomo said.

The confirmation of the variant in New York could complicate the planned inoculation of some 20 million residents, with criticism beginning to mount over the rollout. On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the Cuomo administration to allow the inoculation of a broader array of essential workers and New Yorkers who are 75 and older.

“There’s lots more we can do if we have both those categories approved,” de Blasio said at a news conference Monday.

The state has had a deliberate approach in distributing the vaccine; until Monday, the vaccinations were almost exclusively given to health care workers, group home residents, and those living and working at nursing homes.

That cautious approach was also evident in the state’s initial guidance to determine which health care employees should be prioritized for vaccines; the state had advised clinics and other facilities to rank employees through a matrix that takes into account age, comorbidities, occupation and the section of the facility where the person works.

State officials said that the matrix guidance was no longer current, as the governor on Monday authorized a wider swath of health care providers, and others potentially exposed to the virus, to receive the vaccine, including pediatricians and primary care doctors.

Cuomo rejected any notion that his administration was at fault for not distributing more vaccines, asserting that the problem was a local issue, and urging de Blasio and other leaders who oversee public hospital systems to take “personal responsibility” for their performance.

“They have to move the vaccine,” the governor said in Albany. “And they have to move the vaccine faster.”

The governor threatened to fine hospitals up to $100,000 — and redirect future vaccines to other hospitals — if they did not rapidly increase the pace of vaccination.

“We want those vaccines in people’s arms,” Cuomo said, adding, “This is a very serious public health issue.”

With concerns about fraud circulating and residents anxious for inoculations, Cuomo also said he would propose legislation that would impose criminal charges for facilities or health care providers that did not follow guidelines on who is eligible for the vaccine, which he described as “like gold to some people.”

State officials noted that the city’s public hospital system — NYC Health and Hospitals — had received about 38,000 vaccines, but only vaccinated 12,000 eligible employees, using less than a third of the doses.

De Blasio acknowledged that the city’s rollout had been slow, blaming the logistical challenges of dealing with a new vaccine, and said that the city took a cautious approach as it laid the groundwork for more widespread distribution.

“Now it’s time to sprint,” de Blasio said.

Avery Cohen, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said that de Blasio had stressed that city-run hospitals should “get as many vaccines in arms as possible.” But she questioned the logic of Cuomo’s pledge to cut off hospitals that are not fast enough for his taste.

“Threatening to revoke the privilege of vaccination from the city’s public hospital system is punitive and unnecessary,” Cohen said.

Other elected officials in the city have been urging a more aggressive plan of attack, with round-the-clock operations. On Monday, the mayor seemed to agree, promising three new “vaccination hubs” would open Sunday in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, and pledging to offer shots of the vaccine seven days a week and 24 hours a day when possible. The city also hoped to double the number of locations offering vaccination to 250 sites by the end of the month.

The mayor repeated his pledge to reach a rate of 400,000 doses per week by the end of the month, with a goal of 1 million doses — safeguarding at least a half-million residents — by February.

Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, has touted his own response to the coronavirus crisis, though statistics continue to bear troubling news: On Monday, more than 8,200 residents in the state were hospitalized with the coronavirus, levels not seen since early May, as deaths have topped 100 a day for several weeks. On Monday, the governor reported 170 deaths, the highest daily count since the dark days of the spring.

Over the past week, the state has seen more than 10,000 new cases per day, as the statewide rate of positive test results has also jumped alarmingly, even before an expected increase tied to holiday travel and gatherings. New York continues to be the hardest hit state in the nation, with more than 38,000 deaths.

Nursing homes in the state have been particularly hard hit — thousands of New Yorkers have died there — and Cuomo said that the state was aiming to get 85% of residents vaccinated by the end of this week.

Nearly 900,000 vaccines have been distributed in the state, according to the latest available federal data, but the estimated 300,000 people Cuomo said had been vaccinated represent only about 1.5% of the state’s population of about 19.5 million people.

The governor has delegated much of the vaccine rollout to individual hospital systems across 10 regional hubs each encompassing several counties.

But an increasing number of county executives have said they want their local health departments to have the discretion to speed up the pace of distribution, and they criticized the lack of communication under the regional hub framework.

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