Why no state-run COVID vax site for Rockland: Politics, ignorance or lack of need?

Citing high rates of virus and population density, state Assemblyman Michael Lawler said, “If those are the criteria, Rockland County would be at the top of the list. So what is the criteria?”

Nancy Cutler
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Rockland residents and its political class have been wondering why the county still lacks a state-run mass vaccination site for a county with one of the state’s highest COVID fatality rates and a continued onslaught of active cases. 

“I truly don’t know,” said state Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick. “It may be just stubbornness.”

Or politics, speculated Rockland County Executive Ed Day.

“I am not even going to comment on the possible political motivations,” said Day, a Republican who brought up speculation by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s fellow Democrats that the governor could view Day as a future election rival.  

When asked, Day said he’s not interested in running for governor. He says his focus is on running for his third term as county executive in November. But, he added, “I have many people who have asked me about that.” 

County Executive Ed Day lights a candle during an interfaith memorial ceremony outside the Allison-Parris Rockland County Office Building in New City on Tuesday, March 16, 2021.

Assemblyman Michael Lawler, a Republican in his first term, didn't think it was a binary choice. “I’d say both” politics and ineptitude play a role, he said.

As of Friday, there were 2,014 active cases of the virus in the county and 51 hospitalizations. Rockland has registered 910 COVID-related deaths since the virus was tracked here in March 2020; there have been a total of 41,729 cases of the virus, the equivalent of 12.8% of the population.

"Follow the data and follow the science has been the mantra ... throughout this pandemic," Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski said. "Currently the positivity rate remains extremely high and the virus is spreading."

As of Thursday, the county's seven-day average positivity rate – the percentage of COVID tests that showed positive for the virus – was the second-highest in the state at 5.5%. The state's seven-day positivity rate was 3.26%.

Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, left and Senator Elijah Reichlin-Melnick announce legislation that would mandate a state-run vaccine site for counties with populations over 300,000 at a press conference in New City March 1, 2021.

'Significant gaps'

State health officials point out that Rockland's COVID vaccination rate – 24.4% have received their first dose as of Friday – aligns with the state average of 24.6%. But in certain communities where the virus has hit hard, including Monsey, Spring Valley and Haverstraw, the inoculation rate lags.

"We have significant gaps in vaccination percentages in the county and pockets where this virus continues to rage on," Zebrowski said. "There is no data and no science that says Rockland does not need a state site."

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State Health Department officials have repeatedly said that Rockland County – the smallest geographically outside the five boroughs – is within close proximity to a state-run site at the Westchester County Center. Another state site at SUNY Orange opened Friday. From mid-county, those trips take 25 minutes and 54 minutes by car, respectively, during low traffic periods.

State health department officials also say NYSDOH has worked to get extra vaccine to the county’s health department – Day confirmed this effort – at every opportunity.

 “Let me be extremely clear about this: public health is above partisanship," Cuomo administration spokesman Jack Sterne said. “And vaccine allocation decisions are based solely on analytic criteria, not politics.”

Pat Alvarez, 67, of Nanuet, was among hundreds people who waited through a snow storm for COVID-19 vaccines at the Westchester County Center in White Plains Feb. 7, 2021. The line stretched around the building and at times took people 2 1/2 hours to receive their vaccine.

But Reichlin-Melnick weighed in on that statement.

"There isn’t a rational reason that the eighth largest county outside of New York City doesn’t have a vaccination site three months into distribution,” he said.

Reichlin-Melnick and Zebrowski have sponsored a bill that mandates state-run vaccine sites in any county with a population of more than 300,000. Rockland is the only county that matches those parameters. 

Zebrowski said he has been tabulating Rockland's COVID data and has turned it over to the Assembly's Health Committee to get the legislation moving. 

'Too thin-skinned'

While Day’s full dismissal of a gubernatorial run falls a bit short, he said that he’s maintained a solid relationship with the Cuomo administration.

“I have both praised the governor and criticized the governor,” Day said.

“I have no reason to believe, in a direct way, that he has a problem with me. But as the evidence mounts with ignoring Rockland’s dire need, maybe there is something to this,” Day said, citing speculation he said he's heard from unnamed Democrats.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo discusses an anticpated era of recovery of New York from the COVID pandemic during a March 18, 2020 presentation.

Unlike Lawler and even members of Cuomo’s own party, Day hasn’t called for the governor to resign amid scandals. Day said he supports due process and thorough investigations into accusations of sexual harassment; management of COVID at nursing homes and possible obfuscation of death tolls there; questions about the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge construction; and other issues.

Day added that in politics, it's important to not be “too thin-skinned.” 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is vaccinated at the mass vaccination site at Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem on Wednesday in New York City.

Sen. James Skoufis, whose Senate district includes northern Rockland, said he could not "speculate on potential political motivation or retaliation."

But, the Democrat added, "The fundamental point remains: Rockland County needs and deserves a state-run vaccine site. It's a matter of both fairness and public health."

Lawler, whose district includes parts of Orangetown and Ramapo, called the Cuomo administration’s vaccine distribution “a disaster” and Rockland's lack of a state-run mass vaccination site was proof.

“If those are the criteria, Rockland County would be at the top of the list. So what is the criteria?” Lawler said, citing the county’s high rates of virus and population density.

What's in Rockland?

State health department officials cited pop-up vaccine clinics that serve Black and brown communities traditionally at risk for high rates of virus and poor outcome. 

The Cuomo administration has hosted pop-ups in Spring Valley and Haverstraw (including one this week).

But in an exchange about Rockland's vaccination access, state officials last week referenced a pop-up event at Ossining’s Open Door health center. 

Ossining is just a couple miles across the Hudson from Congers. But it’s nearly 15 miles from the Stony Point landing of the Bear Mountain Bridge and almost 14 miles to the South Nyack landing of the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. That particular pop-up also was a closed POD, meaning it was open to local residents only.

“It’s such a strange non sequitur,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “If having sites in Westchester was equivalent to having a site in Rockland, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

Reichlin-Melnick is thrilled his Westchester constituents can access vaccines. And the Westchester County Center is accessible for the river towns, he said, but “for most of the county it’s not very close.” 

Sterne from the governor's office said the state must deal with the resources it has.

“In an ideal world, we could stand up mass vaccination sites in every county," Sterne said in an email exchange. "But we live in a world with limited resources – especially vaccine doses – and we have to choose locations that create geographic equity within regions of the state.”

Dr. Debra Kirschner-Lanzkowsky gets one of the first Covid-19 vaccine shots at the Department of Health in Pomona Jan. 5, 2021.

Reichlin-Melnick countered: “It makes no sense if you were to sit down and figure out where vaccines should go and you see a county with a high infection rate that should be a county that should have a vaccination center.” 

Day was more blunt.

“I firmly believe that the people making decisions have not a clue about what they are providing," he said. “They have no understanding of the damage in Rockland County, clearly.”

Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland