CAPITAL REGION — First, the good news: The state is about to expand eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccines to 3.2 million more people, including police, firefighters, teachers and the general public over age 75.
The bad news: Immunizing those groups will take until mid-April, at the rate the state is receiving vaccine shipments from the federal government.
“Supply is the problem,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said during a briefing on Friday, at which he said eligibility is about to expand from priority 1A health care workers to priority 1B.
“Here’s the reality, to finish 1A we need one million doses and we need 3.2 million doses for 1B. At this rate (300,000 doses per week) it will take 14 weeks to do 1A and 1B. That gets you to the middle of April.”
Since the state received its first vaccine shipments a month ago, access has been limited to the front-line health care workers and residents and staff in nursing homes eligible under 1A. About 479,000 people in those categories have been vaccinated to date.
Cuomo announced that the vaccine distribution network will be vastly expanded starting next week, and starting Monday people in the 1B category can call for an appointment, though the appointment may be months away.
For now, the state is assuming no increase in the 300,000 doses it receives per week, and the amount of time vaccinations will take is “pure math,” Cuomo said. He also said vaccines will be distributed proportionately to all eligible groups, and no group — not police officers, not firefighters, teachers or senior citizens — can receive a higher priority than the others.
“The providers must follow the rules, you cannot favor one group over another, and you cannot give it to anyone who is not authorized for the vaccine, I don’t care who they are,” Cuomo warned.
Those included in the expanded distribution network will include county health departments, private doctors, pharmacy networks, and ambulatory centers, Cuomo said. He said he also hopes large health care and teacher unions may be able to coordinate distributions themselves.
Cuomo said designated distributors must vaccinate their own health care staffs first, before those staffs start giving vaccinations to the public. Unvaccinated people eligible for 1A will also continue to receive priority over those in 1B.
Access to supply, he said, will be the problem. “In the next few weeks, we will have 3,000 distribution points, but none of them will have nearly enough vaccines,” Cuomo said.
He said he is talking with the incoming Biden administration about increasing supply of the approved Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and is also hopeful additional vaccines will win the necessary federal approvals in the next few months.
On Friday, the governor — joined by the governors of California, Illinois, Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin — sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services urging quicker distribution of vaccines.
The New York State United Teachers welcomed the news educators will now be eligible, and said teachers understand vaccinations will take time.
“We understand that it will take time to immunize the millions in the 1A and 1B priority groups, and we look forward to the opportunity to learn more from the state on Monday about how NYSUT as a union can play a role in ensuring our members have reliable access to immunization,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.
After 1B, the next eligible group will be 1C — people over age 65 and those with underlying health conditions. There’s no schedule yet for when that group will be able to get the shots.
The virus meanwhile continued to take its deadly toll across the Capital Region.
Albany County, the Capital Region county hardest-hit by the virus, on Friday reported six more deaths, including the death of a woman in her 30s — decades younger than most people who have died. Another 24 people were hospitalized, bringing the total currently hospitalized for COVID in the county to 159.
“Every death is a tragedy, and we now have six more families who are mourning the loss of one of their own. But having to report the death of a resident in their thirties and the hospitalization of someone under the age of 25 years old today is also a sad reminder that it’s not just older residents that this virus is impacting,” said County Executive Daniel McCoy.
“We know that private gatherings are the biggest driver of the spread of COVID-19, and we need everyone to accept some of the responsibility of staying home whenever possible until we get the situation under control,” McCoy said.
Saratoga County officials said the county Public Health Service has inoculated 1,500 individuals eligible for 1A vaccination in just the last three days, since it first began receiving doses. To date, approximately 8,500 county residents have received vaccine through the county department or other participants in the Capital Region Vaccine Network, they said.
“We are focused like a laser on moving this process forward as vaccine becomes available,” Moreau Supervisor Todd Kusnierz, chairman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors, said at a press conference in Milton. “The county is ready to hit the ground running.”
Kusnierz called the expansion of eligibility to more people “fantastic news,” estimating there are 30,000 county residents who will be newly eligible to receive vaccine.
The state on Friday reported two additional COVID deaths in Saratoga County. Elsewhere in the region, Schenectady and Fulton counties had one additional death each.