We knew a vaccine was coming.
So why weren’t we better prepared to distribute it?
That’s the question that hangs over the disastrously slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. For months, officials have touted a vaccine as the key to conquering coronavirus. Now that it’s here, the government’s leisurely approach to getting shots into arms is downright infuriating.
It begs the question: Why has the vaccine rollout been so slow?
And what can be done to speed it up, and prevent millions of doses of the vaccine from expiring before they’re used?
When I wrote my Sunday column on the sluggish state and federal vaccination process, I could see that the plodding pace was a problem, but I didn’t really understand what was causing it.
Now, after a few more days to read and think about it, I have a better sense of why we’re in the unfortunate position of having to play vaccine catch-up, much like a football team forced to rally after falling behind early in the game.
And we are behind.
On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the new, highly contagious strain of coronavirus that prompted UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to issue harsh new lockdown orders has been detected in Saratoga Springs.
It’s a discovery that underscores the importance of getting the COVID-19 vaccine into as many arms as possible, as quickly as possible. Right now, the virus is spreading more quickly than the vaccine created to stop it.
In his daily press briefing, Cuomo expressed frustration with the vaccine rollout, called on hospitals to ramp up vaccinations and threatened to hit them with $100,000 fines and disqualify them from receiving doses in the future if they failed to do so.
He also proposed making it a crime to sell or administer the vaccine to people who are trying to skip ahead in line, and warned that providers could lose their licenses for administering the vaccine to people who aren’t eligible to receive it.
It’s tough talk, and it might sound good, but it’s also dangerously wrongheaded.
Speeding up New York’s vaccine distribution requires loosening the state’s complicated eligibility requirements, not tightening them. Threatening hospitals with harsh penalties and fines for giving the vaccine to the wrong people will only make them more skittish about administering the vaccine and hamper distribution.
As the journalist David Dayen has observed, “The negative outcome of ‘jumping the line’ is one less person among 330 million who can take up a hospital bed. The benefit of getting the damn shots out far outstrips any other consequence.”
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be making an effort to get the vaccine to at-risk populations and front-line workers, or to ensure that lower-income people also have access to it.
Ideally, the state would be working to get the vaccine to high-priority groups while also ramping up mass vaccination events to ensure that it reaches the broader public. With over 100 New Yorkers dying of COVID-19 every day, making it easy to get the vaccine should be the priority.
Cuomo also made the questionable decision to use hospitals to distribute the vaccine, even though county health departments have been preparing for a mass vaccination event for years.
This decision, first reported by the Albany Times Union, seems increasingly misguided given how poorly the state’s vaccine rollout has gone. Perhaps greater involvement from county health departments would help.
Finally, there’s no denying that New York’s struggles have been compounded by a lack of leadership from the federal government, which has left states largely on their own to muddle through the vaccine distribution process.
That’s too bad, but it doesn’t absolve the state of responsibility for a vaccine rollout that’s been a slow-moving disaster, inadequate, disorganized and lacking in urgency.
We need to do better.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.