Next week, New York will start the largest emergency immunization plan in its history, delivering the first doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine to 170,000 high-risk frontline medical workers just as nationwide deaths and hospitalizations reach all-time highs. New York City, which is still the hardest-hit city in the world with over 24,000 deaths, will get the largest delivery of those doses, for nearly 72,000 people, but it may still be months before the general public can get immunized. Plans for rolling out the vaccine are still changing, and not everything has been made public, but here’s what to know about getting the vaccine in New York City.
The Pfizer vaccine was approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 11, the first one to clear that hurdle. Moderna is set to deliver another vaccine for 346,000 people by December 21, pending FDA approval, with other candidates from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson still on track to get approved and distributed in the coming weeks. The Pfizer vaccine is given in two doses three weeks apart and starts working after about ten days. The Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended earlier this month that the first vaccine recipients should be health-care workers and nursing-home residents, since those groups have historically been the highest risk for contracting the disease. Governor Andrew Cuomo said during a press conference on December 9 that he broadly accepted those suggestions.
When Does the General Public Get Vaccinated?
The general public will begin to receive shots next, according to a draft of New York’s vaccination schedule. The state hasn’t published a calendar of when shots would roll out more broadly, but Cuomo has said it could be around early February. The next phase of recipients includes first responders, school employees, essential workers who interact with the public or are critical to infrastructure, lower-risk nursing home employees, and people with the highest risk of comorbidities. The third phase would include people over 65. Following that are low-risk essential workers, and then finally everyone else. The state has yet to release a full, detailed breakdown of who falls into high- and low-risk essential worker categories, so companies and industries have been lobbying to get their workers counted. For example, Uber wants drivers and the American Bankers Association wants bank tellers to qualify for the second phase.
Where Will People Get Shots?
Even though the vaccination schedule is being decided by the Cuomo administration, New York City has some control over how it distributes the vaccine, and has its own deep infrastructure in place to give and track them, said Dr. Lorna Thorpe, Director of NYU Langone’s epidemiology department and a former deputy commissioner at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. There are already about 2,700 providers where New Yorkers will be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and the city tracks its inventory and who receives it, according to the city. That includes hospitals, neighborhood doctor’s offices, and other clinics, she said. Pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens are also expected to be able to administer the vaccines in the near future. The expansion in COVID-19 testing has also helped the city expand its vaccination program, too, Thorpe said.
“They’ve been creative in the number of venues and types of venues where testing can occur, and increasingly working in partnership with local community leaders who are well-trusted by residents in specific communities to deliver testing,” she added. “That’s a compelling model over time for vaccination.”
How Will Minority Communities Get It?
Cuomo has made it a priority to distribute the vaccine into Black, Latino, and Asian neighborhoods that have so far been hit hardest by the pandemic, noting that the death rate for Black people is twice as high as white people. “We have to get into public housing, we have to partner with Black churches and Latino churches community groups. This has to be a fair distribution,” Cuomo said. New York is also collecting only names and dates of birth from the patients in order to encourage undocumented immigrants to get the vaccine.
“A lot of the times [undocumented immigrants] are afraid to go to the hospital. Is my information going to be shared? Is ICE going to be there?” Yesenia Mata, the executive director at La Colmena, a Staten Island immigrant community center, told Intelligencer this week. “We want to make sure, one, that our community is not being taken advantage of, not being left behind, and that it’s protected and there is follow-up.”
Mata added that she hadn’t heard from the city or state yet about the COVID-19 vaccine, but that it was still early in the process, and her organization works with the city already to administer flu vaccines and test for COVID-19. By Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was setting up a Vaccine Command Center that will prioritize vaccine distribution to 27 different minority communities and reach out directly to the people in those areas. “Leaders of color in this administration, in this city government, are going to be taking the lead, going out into communities, talking very personally about the fact that the vaccine is safe, and that it is important to turn the tide on the coronavirus,” he said.
Will Vaccination Be Mandated?
Since vaccines haven’t even made their way to New York, it isn’t clear whether employers will by and large mandate that workers get a vaccine before returning to offices, and it’s likely to be a patchwork of rules across industries. Employers won’t be allowed to access an employees’ vaccination records without their permission, according to the Health Department spokesman. A spokeswoman for JPMorgan Chase, one of the city’s largest employers, said they didn’t have anything to share at this point. One Wall Street executive told Intelligencer that banks are currently conducting rapid testing for anyone who wants to come into an office, but there’s been no rush to make bankers get the shot.
On Wednesday, the chief medical officer of Mt. Sinai, Dr. Vicki R. LoPachin, urged doctors and nurses across the hospital to take the incoming Pfizer vaccine — but stopped short of requiring it. “I plan to take it when it’s my turn to get vaccinated,” LoPachin wrote in an email reviewed by Intelligencer. “But at this time, vaccination will not be mandatory. That may change as the pandemic progresses — and as we get guidance from the federal, state, and city public-health agencies — but for now, we will not be mandating the vaccine.”
“A lot of people are really suspicious about everything and they don’t want to get it,” one Mt. Sinai nurse, who plans to get vaccinated, told Intelligencer.
How Will People Prove They’re Vaccinated?
The city is requiring all health-care providers to give out paper cards, made by the Department of Homeland Security, to everyone who gets vaccinated, according to a city Health Department spokesman. For people who lose the card, they can then access their own health records through an NYC health portal, though that requires an IDNYC to log in. (People without these IDs, which are different from driver’s licenses, will have to make an in-person appointment to get one.) For others who are able to get a vaccine from their neighborhood doctor, a note on official letterhead will also work.
“We are giving everybody an immunization card, a vaccination card where you can record both doses,” Colonel R.J. Mikesh, who’s leading information technology for Operation Warp Speed, said on a conference call with reporters. “Put that on your phone. It’s your record,” he added.
There are over 1 million frontline workers in New York City, along with another 1.1 million seniors, who will be among the earliest to get the vaccine this winter and spring. For everyone else, it could be the early days of summer before every New Yorker has the chance to carry around a vaccine card.