Hoarding… and Hurting

Why we get only a trickle of Coronavirus Vaccine

by Robert Lynch; Posted January 21, 2021

“Only Jesus with loaves and fishes could handle the situation that the federal government created…”

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus press briefing, January 20, 2021

“You can’t expect everybody’s gonna’ drive to Binghamton to get a shot,”

Deborah Dawson, Tompkins County Legislator, January 19, 2021

[Second verse, much the same as the first; for an update on this story for the week of January 25th, see our story posted on the “Latest News” tab.]

There’s a reason the Motor Vehicle Bureau gets a bad rap.  We’re told Tompkins County’s DMV stands better than most.  Yet local clerks must still follow Albany’s orders.  On December 7th, I booked my mandated online appointment to renew an already-expired, pandemic-tolled, Driver’s License.  DMV gave me its soonest date, one that was a full one month and four days into the future.  When I arrived punctually that January morning, the attendant ushered me inside his locked fortress, otherwise known as the DMV’s spacious Hancock Plaza offices.  We certainly had social distance to spare.   I was among just two, maybe three customers awaiting service.  Clerks outnumbered us three to one.  That’s efficiency Albany style.

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo; press briefing, Jan. 20, 2021

Same goes for getting a vaccination against COVID-19.  State officials crow about the efficiency and effectiveness of the coronavirus distribution point our county and Cayuga Health Systems opened at the mall in Lansing.  Its staff ever-so-quickly put shots into arms.  It’s won acclaim.  We’re told New York modeled its own inoculation labs after ours.  Said Public Health Director Frank Kruppa to the Tompkins County Legislature last Tuesday, “We got the volume of vaccine that we did because we were early and we were persistent.”

Only now, we don’t.  Not one fresh drop of vaccine earmarked for any new arm reached the County-CMC inoculation site this week (Jan. 18 – 22).  The only supply we got was that reserved for second-dosing of earlier-vaccinated medical staff and first-responders.  Yes, some pharmacies may have gotten a few score of doses.  But that State-run parallel system remains so secretive and befuddled that no one’s really sure of who’s gotten what.

“The pie’s only so big,” a frustrated County Administrator Jason Molino told me in a conference call of municipal leaders Thursday morning (1/21).  But while we locally eat nary a crumb off the crust of that State-baked medicinal pastry, someone else enjoys second-helpings from what little exits Albany’s oven.  You guessed it; the glutton is New York State.

Put plainly, State Government is hoarding our vaccine.  When you or I stockpile things in short supply and keep it from others, our actions can invite troopers to darken our doors.  When bureaucrats hoard, it’s just another workday on that infamous “second floor” of the Governor’s Office.

We’ve seen this circus train before.  Remember last summer when some brave souls among us drove to Binghamton or Syracuse to access a free coronavirus test; to avail ourselves of the purportedly universal sampling that Governor Cuomo kept applauding in his incessant press conferences?  We hated the drive and devised a solution:  We cooked up our own home-grown—and home-funded—remedy.  At the urging of people like me, we debited $300,000 from our county’s treasury to underwrite a quarter-share of Cayuga Health’s free local testing service.  Just this week, our County Legislature tossed in another $300 Grand.  And yes, only today, Molino revealed that the feds have finally started to cough  up their three-quarter’s portion.  Like the legendary—though now, politically incorrect—Little Red Hen, when others don’t do their job, we do.

As it was with tests, so is it now with shots.  CMC built our vaccination-central in a vacant old Sears store up the hill.  Albany took note.  It cobbled together a half-dozen State-run vaccination sites like it. It started opening them up this week; at least six so far, maybe 20 eventually.  Yet, it goes without saying that flashy new COVID clinics don’t work too well without vaccine to fill needles.  So Albany bureaucrats fell back upon their customary solution. They pulled rank and skimmed their vaccine off the top, leaving none left for us.

“They control the supply chain,” Kruppa said of State bureaucrats, in briefing the County Legislature Tuesday night.  “So they can divert whatever vaccine comes to the state to make sure they have enough for their sites, and then the rest of us gets what’s left of the state’s allocation.”

Think of it like perishable produce at our Enfield Food Pantry.  What patrons don’t take gets given the hog farmer.  When shipments run low, but patrons line up in droves past the fire house; sorry, sows, you lose.

Governor Cuomo grumbles aplenty about short vaccine supply.  He’s alarmed by the exited Washington Administration’s ever-changing inventory totals and by his own inability to buy vaccine on the open market.  Valid to a degree, but inequitable to a fault.

“The premise was, by the federal government, when they opened it up to 75-plus and 65-plus, that they would increase the allocation,” Cuomo said in his January 15th press briefing, adding, “That hasn’t happened.  They increased eligibility; they did not increase the supply.”

To state the obvious, the Governor continued:

“What they did was like opening the floodgates of eligibility and you have a rush of 7 million people, ‘I want a vaccine. I want it now.  I was told I’m eligible,’ and that entire flood has to go through a syringe… through the point of a needle literally and figuratively.  That’s the situation that the federal government created.”

Point well-taken.   Supplies remain too low and too unpredictable.  The feds foolishly widened eligibility criteria too fast, too early.  But the Governor and those he oversees control where scarce vaccine gets sent.  And to shut tight the Pfizer/Moderna spigot, keeping inoculant from perhaps the most efficient vaccination POD in the State, smacks of unfairness; and of peremptory politics.

Could it get worse?  Yes, it already did.  Last Monday, the State sent Kruppa a stricter edict:  It forbade his Department from scheduling any local appointments for any future vaccinations until locals actually get new vaccine in hand.  In effect, the heavy-handed dictate:  Do not book names; do not place people in the queue; do not plan.  Instead, anticipate chaos and don’t you dare try to prevent it.  Yes, Albany’s own centers can supposedly schedule appointments, but Tompkins County, you cannot.

Legislator Dawson; Why Apalachin and not us?

It’s “scary,” Lansing’s Deborah Dawson told her fellow County Legislators Tuesday.  “We’re going to be getting a trickle of vaccine doses as long as the State can schedule out in advance, and we can’t.” 

Dawson added, “I get complaints all the time now from constituents and friends who say ‘why can my friends in Apalachin schedule an appointment in Tioga County?  Why can’t we do it here in Tompkins County?’  You can’t expect everybody’s gonna’ drive to Binghamton to get a shot.”

Well, Deborah, you can now also wish that friend in Apalachin a chunk of good luck.  I asked Molino Thursday what stops us, local individuals, from booking appointments at the Binghamton or Syracuse State clinics.  For that matter, what stops our county from chartering buses to take the vaccine-thirsty there?  Nothing stops us, the Administrator said, except appointments at those places are “booked until March.”

But even if that’s the case, don’t try booking a slot today.  After our conference, I tried to book my own appointment through the State’s online portal.  The website listed 13 regional inoculation centers around the state.  Only those in Plattsburgh and Potsdam would accept any appointments. All others stated bluntly, “No Appointments Available Currently.” I’m told one county official’s mom recently booked her appointment for Plattsburgh.  Her inoculation date: March 12th

The Cuomo logic behind this confusion he sought to explain in his gaggle of January 20th:

“When distributors say ‘I’m running out,’ they’re right. We want to make sure distributors don’t schedule any appointments for which they don’t have a definitive allocation, because we don’t know what we’re going to get next week, and we don’t know where we’re going to distribute it next week… Otherwise you have to cancel appointments and it adds to the chaos, which is already inherent in the system…. Only Jesus with loaves and fishes could handle the situation that the federal government created, because they created such a demand and then they never increased the supply.”

Logical, perhaps, in a stretch.  But, those closer to home define “chaos” a bit differently.

Tompkins County Legislator Mike Lane:  “I simply cannot understand why we cannot have a database…. The problem we’re having is that these people can’t even get on the list and that’s what’s making people mad….  I think there’s a problem here.  We’ve had 6-8 months to be thinking about this.  I can’t imagine they didn’t think about people wanting to get these shots and not being able to schedule anywhere so they could have a hope of getting them.”

Would the prod of municipal pressure be of any help?  Ulysses Supervisor Nancy Zahler posed that question to Molino Thursday morning. 

A Town Board Resolution?  “Yes, you can do that, Molino responded.  “I’m not going to say ‘No.’ Whether they respond to it, I don’t know.” 

Mind you, Enfield, should this bottleneck persist, expect me, your Councilperson, to craft our own Resolution for February’s agenda.

But in the County Administrator’s opinion, once vaccine supplies increase, the skies will brighten, Moderna will flow, and the problem may miraculously vanish.  Albany will unkink the hose.

“If there was five times the supply, we’d be getting a steady flow,” Molino assured me. 

If the Administrator’s prediction proves correct, our instant dilemma would prove short-lived and quickly resolved.  Albany would reopen its appointment book.  FedEx would again pull up to the old Sears store with precious cargo.  Needles would again aim for arms.  Anxiety would evaporate.  And that “second floor” would stop being its infamous, arrogant self.

Perhaps.  Yet still, remember the DMV.  Don’t expect same-day service, despite the spacious room.