New York State

Vaccine scramble leaves many Westchester residents seeking doses elsewhere

Confusion in the county has led many to book vaccine appointments in New York City.

A woman gets vaccinated at Calvary Baptist Church in White Plains.

A woman gets vaccinated at Calvary Baptist Church in White Plains. Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

It took about two days of constant phone calls, emails with friends and acquaintances and social media posts for Margo Schlanger to figure out how to successfully secure a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for her 82-year-old father. The first day he became eligible for a vaccine, the Westchester resident filled out a form on the state website that pulled up a list of possible vaccination sites. But calls to each location proved unsuccessful – they were confused why they were listed, had no doses at the time or didn’t respond. He couldn’t get through to the state’s hotline for advice.

Ultimately, with Schlanger’s help, he succeeded in securing a slot through New York City’s vaccination website, using a business address in the city to get an appointment in Upper Manhattan. “I'm pretty networked and I tried everything I could think of, and finally got to something that worked.” Schlanger told City & State. “But it wasn't the first thing I tried. It was the fifth or sixth or seventh thing I tried.”

Plenty of other Westchester residents have looked beyond the county’s borders to get vaccines. Stella Carey, a private school teacher who works and lives in Dobbs Ferry, said a colleague sent her an email advising her to set up an appointment through New York City’s website once eligibility opened up to teachers. She successfully got an appointment in the South Bronx that same week. “I wasn’t sure if I was eligible to go there, but they had a whole bunch of questions that you had to answer about eligibility, and there wasn’t anything in there about (having) to live in the city. And I did have to put my zip code, so I figured they would tell me if I wasn’t eligible there.” 

More than one-quarter of people getting vaccine doses in New York City came from elsewhere in New York or even out of state as of Jan. 11, according to The City. Meanwhile, New York City residents often find that they cannot find an open slot for vaccination anywhere in the city. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has since pledged to tighten residency requirements at city-run sites, though city workers who live elsewhere still are encouraged to sign up there. Facilities operated by the state such as the Javits Center are open to all state residents. 

“Everyone I know from Westchester who's managed to get vaccinated has gotten vaccinated in (New) Jersey or in the city,” said Schlanger, who lives in Michigan but grew up in Westchester. A Putnam County-based columnist for The Journal News, a newspaper which covers the Lower Hudson Valley, also wrote he had little luck finding an appointment at the state-run Westchester County Center and managed to snag one in the South Bronx. 

The scramble across the tri-state area for vaccines illustrates the confusion, inefficiency and inequity that has marred the vaccine distribution process. While traveling for the vaccine isn’t unique to Westchester residents nor are the technological challenges for users, the county’s website provides more limited information than other counties in the New York City metro area. Nassau County and Suffolk County both have landing pages with direct links to appointment sign-ups at state facilities and other locations. Nassau also updated its page on Jan. 19 to inform residents about the unavailability of appointments because of smaller vaccine doses. Westchester County’s website, on the other hand, doesn’t list vaccine providers or explicitly explain where to apply for an appointment, though it provides a link to the state’s website. At the time of this writing, the site was last updated on Jan. 14. It states: “If you have been redirected here from the New York State ‘Am I Eligible?’ tool or are looking for information on how to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine, please be advised that we will post links to register for our upcoming vaccination clinics here when vaccine becomes available.”

Westchester County Executive George Latimer said he has been giving the public instructions to go to the state website and hotline for appointments through twice weekly updates, social media and through its department for seniors, though he added he would reexamine Westchester’s website. Beyond two vaccination sites which are at least partially operated by the county, Latimer also could not say how many vaccination providers were operating in the county since most of the distribution responsibility has fallen to the state.

Latimer said the confusion and problems surrounding vaccine distribution have been aggravated by poor coordination on the federal level and limited vaccine supply. “The demand for the shots far exceeds the supply,” Latimer noted. “So, immediately, (there was) a bottleneck ” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday that New York state is already on track to running out of supply this week at its current vaccination rate. 

Robert Amler, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice and vice president for government affairs at New York Medical College, compared the vaccine distribution to a traffic jam. “The more that the people in charge can put systems in place to make the traffic signs clearer, to open some more lanes if they can, or at least straighten the lanes so they're not as curved and torturous, the more they can do to open things up, and allow people to see what's ahead … the more relaxed people will become.”