'We couldn't give it away': COVID vaccine supply surpasses demand in NY, counties say

David Robinson
New York State Team

Waning demand for COVID-19 vaccinations in New York has ignited desperate pleas from some local officials to have any adult walk in to vaccine clinics and get a shot.

While just weeks ago vaccine supply shortages had New Yorkers crisscrossing the state looking for appointments, some county leaders now find themselves flush with thousands of doses in search of more arms.

Broome County officials recently offered up free Jim Roma’s Bakery sandwiches and chips to entice people to get vaccinated at an American Legion.

At the end of the day, just 71 out of 100 shots were taken.

“Even with a free lunch, we couldn’t give it away,” Broome County Executive Jason Garnar said, noting a vaccination clinic allowing walk-ins Thursday also managed to unload just 95 out of 500 shots.

Marysol Rosales, left, and her husband Juan Rosales, right, wait 15 mins after Juan received his COVID-19 shot at a vaccination clinic in St. Patrick's School's gymnasium in Newburgh, NY on March 24, 2021.

The striking turnaround threatens the push to vaccinate between 70% and 90% of New York’s population to effectively starve the coronavirus of people vulnerable to infection and end the pandemic.

So far, about 8.7 million New Yorkers, or 43% of the population has been at least partially vaccinated, as authorities sounded the alarm of struggles ahead in reaching the rest of the state.

“In order to return to normal, we NEED to get our population vaccinated,” Monroe County Executive Adam Bello wrote Wednesday on Twitter, revealing only 300 of the 4,000 shots available at county-run sites had been reserved at that point.

Bello promptly opened Monroe’s county-run vaccine sites to walk-ins as health officials statewide raced to adapt strategies, launching outreach targeting vaccine hesitancy and pop-up clinics in hard to reach communities. 

“It was just last month there was this talk of almost this Hunger Games-style race to get vaccine appointments, where the appointments were gone online within minutes,” Bello said in a press briefing.

“That’s just simply not the case anymore,” he added.

More:NY to allow 'walk-in' shots at COVID mass vaccination sites for ages 60 and older

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How vaccinations declined at counties statewide

An elderly resident at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx, N.Y., gets a COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 21, 2020.

Amid the vaccination declines at many county sites, state officials last week also quietly ended a “use it or lose it” policy, which had forced them to exhaust vaccine inventory each week or face being cut off, at least temporarily, according to Stephen Acquario, executive director of the state Association of Counties.

For many of the counties outside New York City, the coming week is expected to be crucial to better understanding what challenges lay ahead to regaining vaccination momentum.

Dozens of county and health officials have also reduced the number of doses requested this week, with many asking for thousands fewer shots, Acquario said.

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Concerns are acute in some rural communities that previously fell behind in the vaccination race amid prior supply shortages.

Steuben County in the Southern Tier, for example, was among 10 rural counties lagging the statewide vaccination pace earlier this month. Now that it is has access to more vaccine doses, the depth of the problem has come into focus.

“We’ve scaled back the size of our clinics so we’re not trying to fill unrealistic slots,” said Steuben’s Public Health Director Darlene Smith, noting the county’s weekly request is dropping to 50 doses per day from 300.

The rural Genesee and Orleans counties, near Monroe, had 840 leftover vaccine doses recently out of 2,300 available shots for the week, officials said, adding they planned to use the doses at upcoming clinics.

In response to the drop-off in demand, many counties leadership have launched efforts to host more vaccine clinics at businesses and community centers to target specific workers and demographics.

Some are also requesting more Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine doses, which are approved for use in ages 16 and above, to reach more teenagers with vaccinations. The Moderna vaccine is approved for ages 18 and above.

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How COVID vaccine pace slowed in NY

Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited the Yonkers Police Athletic League Center on April 21, 2021, to announce an expansion of access to COVID-19 vaccines.

While counties recalibrated vaccine clinic strategies, the state-run vaccination effort has also evolved, including the addition Friday of walk-in shots for ages 60 and older at select mass vaccination sites.

“It was inevitable that you were going to hit a point of hesitancy,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday during a press briefing.

Vaccine demand statewide, however, remained relatively stable as state-run vaccination sites continued to book shots for coming weeks, Cuomo added, despite drop-offs at locally run sites.

COVID: Here are the NY state mass vaccination sites allowing walk-ins for ages 60-plus 

Before the decline in demand at local sites, New York state ranked 12th nationally in its pace of vaccination during the prior week.

Further, New York had been consistently administering between 85% and 90% of the vaccine doses it received from federal government each week in recent months, according to statistics released by the governor’s office.

The pace of vaccinations overall statewide had also steadily climbed since mid-March, but suffered a slight decline after health officials paused the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on April 13 due to rare but dangerous blood clots.

The seven-day tally of vaccinations in New York declined to about 1.4 million for the week ending April 18, down about 4% from the prior week.

Nationally, the pace of vaccinations also showed signs of slowing last week, as recent lows in daily vaccination numbers raised alarms amid new national advertising campaigns to address vaccine hesitancy.

Meanwhile, about 20% of Americans continued to say they are not at all likely to get the vaccine, a number that has held steady this year despite making progress from late 2020, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll in April.

Experts and authorities, however, asserted many of the Americans still mulling vaccination fall within two main categories: A wait-and-see group concerned about side effects and those discouraged by barriers to getting shots.

While health experts push to dispel misinformation and remove barriers to shots, such as providing free public transit, some leaders noted success may hinge on the right mix of trusted vaccine ambassadors — from national health officials to local faith leaders and neighbors.

“The people who are vaccine hesitant don’t care about what I have to say,” Garnar said. “They are the type of people who will listen to what their friends and family say, so it’s about how we encourage people to do that.”

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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached atdrobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud