The number of people battling significant symptoms from the flu and respiratory syncytial virus has been coming down since its peak in January, as these infections have run their course.
“This year, we experienced the most severe flu and RSV waves in decades, and our COVID wave wasn’t small either,” said Sean Clouston, associate professor of Public Health at Stony Brook University.
The number of these illnesses was high as people no longer wore masks in places like schools and after people experienced lower-than-usual illnesses in the months before the mask mandate was lifted, creating fertile ground for viruses to spread.
“The most likely reason that the current flu and RSV seasons have improved is that we have had such a bad season earlier on that we have hit a natural ceiling on the ability for these diseases to successfully infect more people,” Clouston said in an email.
As for COVID-19, the numbers of people who have developed significant illnesses has continued to decline as well, through a combination of the natural immunity people have after their bodies successfully fought off the infection and from the protection offered by the vaccine and boosters.
Doctors added that the vaccine and natural immunity hasn’t prevented people from getting infected, but they have helped people avoid severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms.
“All these people who run around saying, ‘My vaccine isn’t working because I got reinfected,’ are missing the point,” said Dr. Bettina Fries, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Medicine. “It is working. It doesn’t protect you from infection, but [it does prevent] a bad outcome.”
Indeed, during the most recent COVID surge during the winter, Fries said the hospital continued to care for patients, most of whom recovered.
Amid discussions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health organizations throughout the state and country about the timing of future booster shots, local health care providers indicated the increasing likelihood of an annual COVID booster.
Fries said we will get to an annual vaccination for COVID, adding, “It’s the same as we see with the flu.”
In general, people aren’t rushing off to get an updated COVID booster.
“To maximize the protective value of the vaccine while minimizing the number of vaccines you use, people should likely get the vaccine two weeks before they anticipate heavy exposure,” Clouston said.
For most people, that would mean getting the shot in early November to prepare for larger indoor gatherings, like Thanksgiving and the December holidays.
In a recent article in the journal Lancet, researchers conducted an extensive analysis of COVID reinfection rates.
The study dealt only with those people who had not had any vaccinations and addressed the effectiveness of natural immunity from preventing infections and from the worst symptoms of the disease.
Prior infections in general didn’t prevent people from getting reinfected, but it does “protect you from getting a really bad disease and dying,” Fries said.
Even with the number of people contracting COVID declining, the overall population of people battling symptoms of long COVID, which can still include anything from loss of smell and taste to chronic fatigue, continues to increase.
“There’s a plethora of symptoms of long COVID,” Fries said. “We’ll have to figure out how to classify this and hopefully come up with better therapy. Right now, we can only symptomatically treat these patients.”
Dr. Sritha Rajupet, director of the Stony Brook Medicine Post-COVID Clinic, explained in an email that some patients who have lost their sense of smell or have a distorted sense of taste have tried a process called a stellate ganglion block “after several case reports and early research have shown that it could be helpful.”
In such a procedure, doctors inject a local anesthetic on either side of the voice box into the neck. Rajupet said that “additional research and clinical trials still have to be performed.”
Newborns and COVID
As for children infected with COVID soon after birth, doctors suggested that the impact has been manageable.
“The great majority of young children who contract COVID do quite well and recover fully,” Dr. Susan Walker, pediatrician with Stony Brook Children’s Services, explained in an email. “The impact on their development from having actually experienced COVID illness is minimal.”
Children hospitalized with more significant illness from COVID might experience temporary developmental regression which is common in children hospitalized for any reason. The developmental impact seems more tied to social isolation.
“Children born during the pandemic spent their first years of life rarely seeing adults or children other than those in their immediate family,” Walker said. “The result is that many of these kids became excessively stranger anxious and timid around others.”
The lost social opportunities, the pediatrician said, resulted in delays in the personal/social domain of development. She added, “The good news is that kids are resilient and, in time, with appropriate social stimulation, [these children] should be able to regroup and catch up developmentally.”
Elections have ended and the newly elected and reelected officials are going to have to cope with a disturbing fact: people don’t trust government. This change in attitude has been a long time coming. It didn’t just happen suddenly. I know, I have lived through the change.
Trust started to fall apart with the Vietnam War. Maybe it even started earlier than that, with the assassination of President Kennedy.I was in my early 20s then, just graduated from college, newly married, in my dream job, looking forward to an unbounded future filled with joyful events. The nation was at peace, there was a young and vigorous president talking about making life better with civil rights legislation, women were speaking up for themselves, it was a hopeful time.
Friday afternoon, a sunny day, business lunch in a midtown Manhattan restaurant with a television on over the bar in the distance, a movie playing about a president who had been shot in the head. But wait. Wait! It wasn’t a movie, it was a news broadcast from Dallas interrupting the regular programming, it was our president, everyone standing up, crying, paying their checks, rushing back to their offices, trying to deal with the unthinkable.
How could this happen? How could Secret Service let this happen? In our country! A president, the President of the United States, could not be protected! Our bubble of safety was bursting, slowly, excruciatingly. Lee Harvey Oswald shot on television while under arrest. In what could you trust?
Who killed Kennedy? All kinds of conspiracy theories, the Warren Commission, an end but never a certainty. Was the government lying to us? Was there a cover-up?
Next came the Vietnam War. First only “advisors,” then military, then body counts, always more Viet Cong than Americans lay on the battlefields. Promises of progress and victory by the government, as casualties and numbers drafted rose. This even as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara privately expressed doubts of victory as early as 1966. But President Johnson was afraid of losing the 1968 election should the United States withdraw. Instead we lost thousands of young men, all of which eventually was revealed to the public. Protests were the order of the day, and more violence, including the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy and the chaos at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What’s happening to the nation’s authority figures?
We rolled right into Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. Our President accused of being a liar and a crook. What’s left to believe in? President Jimmy Carter held hostage by the Iranians, the Iran-Contra deception of Ronald Reagan’s second term, Bill Clinton making Monica Lewinsky a household name around the globe. Then the Weapons of Mass Destruction lies by the senior administration officials manipulating us into the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Whom to believe?
Whom to trust? Each lie, each governmental deception blew away more trust, leading to the climax: the disbelief in the COVID-19 vaccine. Even when ex-President Donald Trump urged his audience to get vaccinated on Aug. 21, in Cullman, Alabama, one of the areas struggling to cope with COVID cases and hospitalization, he was booed. “But I recommend take the vaccines,” Trump said. “I did it. It’s good. Take the vaccines.” After that experience, he hasn’t again mentioned vaccination at a rally. But the reaction wasn’t partisan. They were, like Trump, all Republicans who had come to hear him, It was symptomatic of the larger distrust in government.
I was in my early teens when I received the polio vaccination. Polio was a dreaded disease by parents the world over, more so as I remember, than COVID-19. Like today, we were discouraged from assembling in groups or joining crowds. The virus attacks the brain and spinal cord, leaving paralysis and even causing death. When Jonas Salk and his colleagues created the vaccine, we all lined up to take the shot. It was the Eisenhower years. We believed our president.
Those vaccines have eliminated polio from most of the world. That’s what approved vaccinations can do.
Dr. Sunil Dhuper’s actions speak as loudly as his words.
The chief medical officer at Port Jefferson’s St. Charles Hospital is planning to get a booster for the COVID-19 vaccine this Thursday, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized Friday, Sept. 24, the additional shot for a range of adults, including those in jobs that put them at an increased risk of exposure and transmission, such as frontline health care workers.
Earlier, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration announced Sept. 22 that “a single booster dose” was allowed “for certain populations” under the emergency use authorization, although the EUA “applies only to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.”
Dhuper received his first vaccination in January and would like to raise his immunity.
“I am very eager to get the booster dose,” he said in an interview. “I reviewed scientific data from all over the world — from the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom — and I had reflected that, after six months after the second dose, it’s time to get a third dose.”
While St. Charles and other hospitals haven’t required a booster, Dhuper believes that state and national guidance will likely recommend it before too long.
“Over time, I do anticipate people may begin to get severe infections or get hospitalized” if they haven’t enhanced their immunity with a booster, he said. “It would be prudent to get the booster dose in the arms of those who are fully vaccinated.”
Stony Brook University Hospital is providing boosters to employees and to eligible members of the public.
Meanwhile, Northwell Health and Huntington Hospital are deliberating how to proceed and will announce a decision soon, according to Dr. Adrian Popp, chair of infection control at Huntington Hospital.
While boosters are available for education staff, agriculture and food workers, manufacturing workers, corrections workers, U.S. Postal Service employees, grocery store workers, public transit employees and a host of others, the overall infection rate in Suffolk County has stabilized over the past few weeks.
Decline in infections
As of Sept. 25, the seven-day average rate of positive tests in the county fell below 4% for the first time since Aug. 15, dropping to 3.9%, according to data from the New York State Department of Health.
“We think the numbers might have plateaued,” Dhuper said. That decline coincides with the increasing number of people who are vaccinated. In Suffolk as at Sept. 29, 1,043,478 people (70.7%) have received at least one dose and 950,058 (64.3%) are fully vaccinated, according to Covid Act Now. Anybody who is at least 12 years old is eligible to be vaccinated.
The number of COVID Patients from Huntington Hospital has fallen in the last month, dropping to 20 from about 30, according to Popp. Five patients are in the intensive care unit at the hospital with COVID.
Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, described the downward trend in the seven-day average as “great news,” but added that such an infection rate is “not close to where we need to be to say we have turned a corner.”
The current infected population includes children, as “more kids are getting infected,” she said, with children currently representing 25.7 percent of all new COVID cases nationwide.
With the FDA and CDC considering approving the emergency use authorization that provides one-third of the dosage of the adult shot for children ages 5 to 11, Nachman urged residents to vaccinate their children whenever the shot is available to them.
“There is no advantage to picking the right age or dose for a child,” she explained in an email. “If they are 12 now, get that dose. If they are 11 and 8 months [and the CDC approves the vaccine for younger children], don’t wait until they are 12 to get a different dose. Get the dose now that is available for that age.”
When younger children are eligible for the lower amount of the vaccine, Dhuper also urged them to get that lower dose, which he feels “offers a good level of protection for the foreseeable future.”
Nachman said she sees the issue of weight or age bands regularly in pediatrics.
“The take-home message is to not play any games and treat the child at the age or weight that they are now and not wait for them to be older or heavier,” she suggested.
As for the next month, Dhuper cautioned that the county may show another peak, particularly with the increase of indoor activities where the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant is more likely. At this point, concerns about the Mu variant, which originated in South America and was much more prevalent in the United States and in Suffolk County in June, has decreased.
“We were seeing 5% of the cases in New York state were Mu variants and the remaining were Delta,” Dhuper said.
Popp estimated that the Mu variant constitutes between 0.1% and 0.3% of cases.
The World Health Organization has urged wealthier nations like the United States not to administer boosters to their populations widely before the rest of the world has an opportunity to vaccinate their residents.
Dhuper said the United States has contributed 500 million doses to the rest of the world this year and plans to donate about 1.1 billion doses to the rest of the world in 2022.
“I hope that other upper and middle income nations can do the same, so we can get [the shots] in the arms of those who need them,” he said.
Popp urged people to recognize that COVID is a global disease.
“We in the U.S. will not be safe until the epidemic is cleared in other parts of the world as well,” he explained in an email. “I believe it is in our national interest to help other countries fight the COVID epidemic.”
Popp said the United States has plenty of vaccine, with enough for boosters and to vaccinate those who haven’t gotten a shot.
Thanks to vaccines for COVID-19, the percentage of positive tests recently dropped below 1% for the first time since the third week of October.
“That’s a big deal,” said Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner for the Department of Health Services in Suffolk County.
Indeed, Adrian Popp, chair of Infection Control at Huntington Hospital/Northwell Health and associate professor of medicine at Hofstra School of Medicine, said the infection rate was closer to 10 percent in the middle of the winter.
The current positive tests represent a “really low number,” Popp said.
Infections are coming down even more than they did last year amid the economic shutdown because of the vaccine, Pigott said.
Pigott added that the vaccines have proven effective against the most predominant mutated form of the virus, B117 or the UK variant, which is also the most common mutation throughout the country.
“We haven’t seen evidence of resistance to the vaccine,” he said. “The vaccine is working against it.”
The number of people hospitalized with the virus also has been declining in recent weeks. Throughout the county, under 150 people were in the hospital battling symptoms of the disease that caused the pandemic. That’s down from a high of 863 on Jan. 19.
The age of those hospitalized is generally younger than the people who needed urgent medical care in 2020. They are in their 40s and 50s, and they generally don’t stay in the hospital for long.
Because they are younger and healthier, even if they are hospitalized, they generally are discharged sooner, Pigott said.
“I expect we’ll be under 100 soon,” Pigott said.
Indeed, area hospitals reported lower numbers of Covid patients. As of May 10, Stony Brook Hospital had 42 COVID-19 patients, with 13 in the Intensive Care Unit.
As of the same date, Huntington Hospital had 17 COVID-19 positive patients.
The population of people who are older than 65 have generally embraced the opportunity to receive vaccinations. Pigott said about 80% of this population in Suffolk County have been vaccinated.
The elderly, who were among those representing the larger groups hospitalized or killed by the virus, were the first group eligible to receive the vaccination. Children as young as 12 are now eligible to receive a vaccine.
The medical community has been wondering how to “cross this barrier” to encourage more people to receive a vaccine that could continue to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus, Popp said.
Popp urged medical professionals to have conversations with each person to figure out why he or she might be reluctant. He attributed some of the fears of the vaccine to misinformation spread on the Internet or over social media.
Popp recognized that some of those who are unwilling to consider the vaccine don’t have a personal or regular connection with a member of a medical community they trust.
He suggested that doctors and nurses should visit people at cultural centers and schools.
Among workers at Huntington Hospital, the rate of vaccinations has slowed and is about 73%.
“We did quite well” to get to that point, but the hospital “can not go much further” without overcoming some resistance, Popp said.
Pigott said that the halt in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on April 13 tamped down on the vaccination rate.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration stopped the use of that vaccine pending an analysis of rare side effects, the county “never recovered momentum.”
Pigott said he has participated in webinars and has encouraged people to gather information to make informed decisions.
“The best you can do is show the numbers,” Pigott said, as the number of people who are over 65 who have been hospitalized has declined dramatically as a result of the use of the vaccine.
Reopening in stages
Employers throughout the county have been monitoring the health of their workers and keeping track of the vaccination rate.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has been working its way through various phases of reopening, from phase 1, which occurred on June 1 and involved bringing back most of the scientists, to phase 2 in late September, with the return of more administrators, to phase 2A, which started May 3 and involved bringing back even more people.
The lab, which has historically hosted well-attended scientific meetings that bring together some of the best researchers from around the world, has not yet entered phase 3, when it would be open without any restrictions.
On any given day, the lab probably has 60 to 65% of its staff working on site, according to John Tuke, the chief pperating officer.
“We aspire to be 100% vaccinated, but we’re realistic to know that that’s probably not going to happen,” Tuke said. “Before we move into phase 3, we’re going to want to see that percentage be very high.”
The lab is hoping to bring some conferences back in the fall on a limited basis.
In the last week, the lab tested 400 people, with one test coming back positive. The highest the positivity rate ever got was around 1%.
The percentage of people who have received the vaccine at CSHL is in the low 80s.
While the lab has restrictions on travel, it has made exceptions for staff members to travel through requests to the director of research, the president of the lab or to Tuke.
BNL, meanwhile, continues to have about a third of its staff on site, while most of the staff continues to work remotely. Like CSHL, BNL is not requiring staff to be vaccinated.
BNL is not planning any in-person events this summer or fall. The lab has slightly expanded user access to facilities on a case-by-case basis. BNL has had 10 positive tests in the past month.
At Stony Brook University, about 82% of health care workers have been vaccinated, while 77% of students are vaccinated, with 16% looking to get it sooner rather than later, according to a spokeswoman. As with other SUNY and CUNY schools, Stony Brook will require a vaccine for everyone who returns to school in the fall.
Stony Brook is no longer requiring fully vaccinated people to wear a mask outdoors, except in crowded settings or venues.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) is encouraging residents to get their COVID-19 vaccines.
On Thursday, April 29, he joined Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, Dr. Shaheda Iftikhar, deputy commissioner for the Department of Health Services and Holly Rhodes-Teague, director with the Suffolk County Office of the Aging outside the H. Lee Dennison Building to announce the second phase of the county’s “Take Your Shot” campaign.
With vaccine hesitancy on the rise, the multi-media campaign will utilize TV, radio and targeted digital advertisements to address misinformation and build trust for those still on the fence.
Bellone said at the press conference that as of April 29, there were 271 new cases of COVID-19 within the last 24 hours out of 15,628 tests.
“That’s a positivity rate of 1.7%,” he said. “That is huge.”
He added the last time the county saw a number nearing the 2% mark was at the start of the virus’ second wave back in the fall around Halloween — before the Pfizer vaccine became available.
“We are below 2% positivity, but we’re back in that 1% range where we were throughout the summer last year, when we were still dealing with the pandemic with no vaccines,” he said. “So, this is significant.”
Bellone noted maintaining the lower number is proof that the vaccines are working.
“We want to get to the point when we say this virus is behind us once and for all, and the vaccines are the key to reaching our goal,” he said. “You need to be doing everything that we can to get people vaccinated to #TakeYourShot.”
The first phase of the Take Your Shot initiative was originally launched late last year in an effort to foster public awareness and designed to encourage county residents on the importance of receiving the COVID-19 vaccines.
The second phase launched last week will continue to help remove potential barriers for people getting the vaccine.
“As of yesterday [April 28], more than 660,000 residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Suffolk County,” he said. “That’s nearly 45% of our residents. While we’ve made tremendous progress over the last few months, at this point, there are no excuses, vaccines are available to everyone 16 and older.”
Right now, the Pfizer vaccine is the only shot eligible to teenagers, and Bellone said he’s encouraging high school juniors and seniors to do their part.
“We have a lot of school-related activities that are opening up and coming back — prom, graduation — and we’re very excited that those are going to happen,” he said. “Getting vaccinated is a way to reduce the spread of the virus and make those big gatherings safe.”
Bellone had another message to young people.
“You have a stake in this county,” he said. “You can be part of the effort to completely defeat this virus in and help save lives.”
The county also announced walk-in vaccination appointments available at select county vaccine pod locations.
“Our residents are busy, they want flexibility,” he said.
Started on April 29, residents can visit the Selden campus at Suffolk County Community College and get their vaccines anytime between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.
“We’ve seen promising progress,” he said. “As more of our economy continues to open up, we want to return to normalcy.”
On April 6, Stony Brook University administered 1,400 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to students living on campus. The mass vaccination day fell on the first day that New York granted eligibility for those 16 of age and older.
“I’m so thrilled that the eligibility came much earlier than we ever expected,” said Rick Gatteau, vice president for Student Affairs at SBU and dean of students.
The administration sent out an email to residents last Thursday with a link to sign up. Within two hours it was filled, and there is currently a waitlist of 500 students waiting for the next session.
The event took place in the newly constructed Student Union building, where students arrived at their assigned time and were guided through the process by dozens of volunteers. They will return for their second dose on May 4.
“I felt compelled to get the vaccine”, said Victor Shin, a sophomore chemistry major. “I’m hoping that the campus will open up very soon and we can head back toward in-person learning.”
By the end of the day, 30% of on campus residents received a vaccine. With the semester wrapping up in a few weeks, the administration is hoping to vaccinate all students who are interested so that the second dose falls before the last day of classes May 4.
“The fact that we’ve had such a huge turnout is reflective of our students’ interest in getting the vaccine,” Gatteau said. “We’re a big STEM school focused on research, and students know the value of the science and research that went into it, which is similar to their own career pursuits.”
Residents were selected first due to their risk of transmission by living in close quarters in dorms. The next group to be offered a spot will be commuter students who travel to campus and those who are fully remote but live on Long Island.
“Even if it was never required, I think we’d get to our herd immunity number just based on interest,” Gatteau said.
The decision of whether or not vaccination will be required of students returning to campus in the fall is still up for deliberation by the State University of New York administration. This week they announced that in the fall, 80% of classes will be held in person.
A new COVID-19 vaccination site finally opened at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, where the vaccine’s mass distribution will be given out to hundreds of residents in the upcoming weeks.
The latest expansion will help Long Island recover from the consistent 4% positivity rate that surged to a height of 12% during the second spike of the coronavirus outbreak in February.
“The numbers have declined since, but they are not declining any further at this point,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said March 24. “We have undoubtedly hit a plateau and are stubbornly maintaining this approximate 4% positivity rate.”
Predicting the positivity rate would drop down to 1% by March, Bellone said his predictions did not happen. The hospitals are still hovering around 400 COVID patients and even with vaccine quantities increasing, officials are continuing to see the positivity rate at a steady level.
According to Bellone, the reason for the consistently high percentage in COVID cases is due to warm spring weather creating an overall eagerness to leave quarantine, making opportunities for locals to catch the virus.
“The fact that many people are getting vaccinated and that spring is here, people are rightly feeling optimistic and positive,” Bellone said. “That is leading to more people coming out, which is a positive thing, but we do need to be cognizant of the fact that the virus is not gone and that there are still risks.”
So far, the county has vaccinated more than 400,000 residents with at least their first dose, but expects to see a rapid increase in vaccination supply in the upcoming weeks.
Despite the positive outcome of Suffolk County opening up its latest mass vaccination site, other areas on the Island, such as the Twin Forks, remain some distance away from distribution points. Bellone said he is aware of the problem.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to get to every corner of the county,” he said. “We even took a plane to Fishers Island to make sure we can get residents, who are isolated, the vaccine.”
In my daily conversations with a range of people over the last week, I have heard stories I thought I’d share, as a reflection of the reality of our lives.
The first involved a discussion with Joe about his vaccination. Joe had been trying to sign up for a COVID vaccination for weeks. He thought he’d landed a coveted vaccination appointment at Jones Beach. Driving out there for a 6 p.m. appointment, he drove in circles.
The site had the wrong address, he said. In addition, even the correct address, which had a phone on-site that wasn’t working, naturally, was closed that day because the winds were too high.
“Who would put tents up on Jones Beach?” Joe asked, his voice barely rising but his frustration evident from the time wasted trying to get a vaccination that would allow him to do a job that required interacting with the public. “If you want to build a tent, put it somewhere that’s not as windy. It wasn’t even snowing.”
Fortunately, Joe, who spent more time the next day sharing his experience with a vaccination operator, was able to schedule a make-up appointment much closer to home.
The next day, I spoke with Matthew, who is worrying about his son Jim, who is a sophomore in college. Jim, you see, has already received a COVID warning. A second warning or infraction could send his son home, which would, as Matthew put it, “not be good for anybody.”
As it turns out, Jim has a girlfriend, Sarah. Normally, that wouldn’t be such a cause for concern for his parents or for the university. Still, with his girlfriend living in a different penitentiary, I mean, dormitory, Jim is not allowed to visit with Sarah.
The problem is that Sarah, who is an excellent and committed student, not only works hard at school, but also inspires Jim to expend considerable additional academic effort.
If Jim stops seeing Sarah, which he may do to comply with school rules designed to protect the campus from spreading the dangerous virus, he will miss time with his close friend, while he will also likely not study as hard.
My friend Matthew advised Jim to be careful and comply with the rules, although I could tell that he felt his own return on the investment he spends for college will likely be higher if Jim spends more time with his studious friend.
Finally, I spoke with Paul, a friend who regularly attended conferences before COVID shut all those events down. Paul traveled at least four times a year to meetings all over the world, visiting interesting places but, more importantly, speaking with people in his field.
One day in 2019, Paul was sitting in one such conference and was taking notes. As the conference ended, he and the man sitting next to him, whom he’d never met, struck up a conversation. The man suggested a follow-up effort to the work that might help the industry. Realizing he had the ability to do exactly what the stranger suggested, Paul asked if the man would mind if he used the idea. The stranger was delighted and a friendship, and an idea, was born.
I asked Paul how much he missed conferences and if he planned to attend them when the world reopened.
He said he would not only jump at the chance, but might even attend conferences he wouldn’t have previously considered, just to benefit from such random and potentially beneficial interactions. His only hesitation is that he hasn’t gotten his vaccination yet. He wondered what I thought about driving out to Jones Beach.
The first responders of 9/11 have officially been put on the list as eligible to receive the vaccine this past Monday, but some feel the responders have been left on the back burner throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the coronavirus vaccine slowly becomes more available to Long Islanders, John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation who is also a 9/11 responder and advocate, explained how he thinks compromised 9/11 responders who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, among other long-term illnesses, should not only receive eligibility but be a priority for the vaccine as well.
“Yes, absolutely, compromised responders should get priority for the vaccine,” Feal said. “On September 16, [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head] Christine Todd Whitman said the air was safe to breathe and the water was safe to drink. It created a relaxed atmosphere where people didn’t feel the need to wear their masks anymore. If they weren’t lied to, then I wouldn’t see them as a priority, but definitely see them on the list. However, these men and women were lied to, and they got very sick.”
Weeks ago, Feal began urging members of Congress, Gov. Andrews Cuomo (D) and state senators to help the 9/11 responders who have not been getting vaccinated.
He doesn’t believe responders should be able to jump the line or take away the vaccine from others who need it. However, there are still affected responders who are sick from two decades ago and are too afraid to leave the house as they are already in danger from their previous illnesses.
“All of these responders who have debilitating illnesses from the toxins left in the air after 9/11 deserve to be included in the 65-and-up group,” Feal said. “The fact that they haven’t been included, is proof that America has tried to move on from that horrific day.”
Despite what the foundation has been able to accomplish throughout the years, not everything can be accomplished without some help from the federal and state governments. Feal explained how he’s spent more than a decade talking to elected officials who haven’t shown much urgency when it comes to aiding the 9/11 responders in the aftermath they have had to face.
His passion and determination for 9/11 responders is shown through his work. So far, 13 pieces of legislation have been passed in various legislatures, according to him, and a memorial park built in Nesconset. The foundation has also donated over $5 million to 9/11 responders and organizations.
“My mother raised me to never back down from a fight, but to also be respectful,” Feal said. “When we got our first bill passed we were like the little engine that could, and now 13 bills later we’re like that big engine that did.”
News of the COVID-19 vaccine was met with immense excitement and demand after the pandemic ravaged for almost a year with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel.
Excitement stifled among New Yorkers, many say, as the distribution of the vaccine supply in New York state has been filled with supply issues, appointment cancellations and an online portal that is difficult to navigate.
Distribution began with health care workers in December (Phase 1a) and on Jan. 11 (Phase 1b) expanded to other frontline workers such as teachers and police officers, along with anyone ages 65 and older.
This seems to have been when the demand surged out of control. Long Islanders have been trying to access the portal to make an appointment only to find available appointments to be both miles and months away, leaving residents to consistently call the New York State hotline, hoping for a cancelation and appointment to open up — a process especially challenging for elderly residents. As of Feb. 8, the state has received 2,808,825 vaccinations and administered 2,228,567. On Long Island, 82% of the vaccine doses distributed have been used. There are about 7 million eligible residents throughout the state.
On Feb. 15, those with certain comorbidities and underlying conditions will be eligible to sign up for appointments.
“The entirety of our week seven allocation was delivered to providers yesterday and already New York has administered 90% of its first doses while prioritizing fairness and equity,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said in a statement. “Week after week we exhaust our vaccine supply and are basically left waiting for the next week’s delivery. This is not unique to New York. It’s happening in states across the nation because the previous administration grossly mismanaged and politicized the vaccine distribution process from the beginning by not ordering enough vaccines from manufacturers. With new leadership in Washington, the light at the end of the tunnel is in sight but we must manage our expectations. Production of the vaccine alone will take six to nine months. In the meantime, we will continue to distribute the supply we do get quickly and fairly as we have from the start.”
To try to find out the best way to go forward, TBR News Media spoke with a bipartisan group of local elected officials to ask what we can hope for in the future, where they think the biggest problems are in the distribution chain and whether or not they have received the vaccine.
Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY1)
“We need to make it easier, not harder, for New Yorkers to get the coronavirus vaccine who want it,” Zeldin said in a statement. “New York’s rollout has been an unmitigated disaster: Unused coronavirus vaccines sitting in freezers for weeks, doses ending up in the trash, local health departments overwhelmed with vaccine demand, thousands of appointments canceled, New Yorkers showing up to appointments only to be turned away and more. While these drug companies need to continue ramping up the production and distribution of vaccines, the state needs to ramp up its strategy, rules and communications.”
“While I believe vaccine distribution should be prioritized to those who need it most — the elderly, frontline workers and more — as soon as the doctors say it’s my turn, I won’t hesitate to get it.”
When asked about the state health department lacking vaccine supply from the federal government he said, “Drug companies need to continue ramping up production and distribution, but when these vaccines get to states around the country, they need to be put into people’s arms effectively and efficiently, not thrown in the trash.”
Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point)
Bonner said that the issue with the distribution is at the federal level. “President Biden [D] said throughout the entire campaign that he had a plan [for vaccine rollout] and clearly he doesn’t,” she said. “Never make campaign promises that you can’t keep.”
Bonner has been working with her elderly constituents to try and guide them to the New York State website, or to the hotline.
“Seniors have lost so much throughout this pandemic,” she said. “They really need to be able to socialize and go out again. We need to work together for our seniors, and to get the schools and businesses open.”
Bonner has not yet received the vaccine, as she wants elderly people to receive it before she does.
County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai)
Anker has sent letters to Cuomo, as well as U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) seeking answers for the failures in the vaccine rollout.
In a letter to the governor dated Jan. 11, Anker conveyed the frustrations of senior citizens and essential workers trying to get appointments immediately after the Phase 1b distribution, only to find out they were already booked
“As the Suffolk County chairwoman of both the health and seniors committees, I am writing to acknowledge my frustration and concerns regarding the disbursement of the COVID-19 vaccine in the county,” she wrote. “With my district having one of the largest senior populations in Suffolk County, I offer the suggestion of providing accessible locations, including community on-site availability, to our senior communities who are more at risk of COVID-19. While I appreciate the many Suffolk County staff members doing their best to facilitate the vaccination process and the patience and cooperation of the residents eagerly awaiting their turn in getting inoculated, I ask that a more cohesive process be implemented as soon as possible as we move forward in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Anker wrote to Cuomo again Feb. 3. “Since the county is not able to provide vaccinations to our senior citizens under New York State executive order 202.91, it would be helpful to have a comprehensive list that outlines all locations, including pharmacies and other vaccination sites,” she said. “Without this information, we as elected officials cannot provide our constituents, in particular our senior citizens who may not have the ability to register online, with accurate information and guidance about how and where to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Anker also stated in the letter the Suffolk County Disabilities Advisory Board advised her that accommodations were not being made for disabled people at state-run vaccination sites. For instance, the New York State COVID-19 vaccine form, which patients are required to fill out before receiving the vaccine, does not have a braille version nor is it compatible with screen reading software for the blind. Anker also reached out to Schumer and Gillibrand on Feb. 3. expressing concern with the limited federal supply of the vaccine being distributed to the county.
“Currently, the vaccinations that are available are a mere fraction of what our constituents need, and the current climate is getting more desperate. Increasing vaccinations are not only the best way to combat the pandemic, but paramount to keeping our large population of seniors and others healthy,” the letter read.
“I say I’m like a dog with a bone,” Anker said. “I will not let this go until I’m assured that this process is fixed. I don’t want to wait a week. I don’t want to wait a month. I know that we may not have the vaccines right now, I understand that,but while we’re waiting fix the process.”
She said she has been working with local pharmacies to try and get them a supply of vaccines, as well as local senior communities to figure out their vaccination plans.
Anker has not yet received the vaccine but said that she “probably will” once she is eligible.
County Legislator Nick Caracappa (R-Selden)
“I believe I share the same view as many residents of Suffolk County in that the initial rollout of the vaccine was a disaster, with the short supply and limited venues of distribution,” he said in a statement. “Recently, this office has aligned with other county, town and state officials in demanding that the governor stops ignoring the needs of Suffolk County. Additionally, I’d love to see the New York State health commissioner and local government agencies collaborate to expedite supply and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine to our frontline workers, essential workers and vulnerable senior citizens.”
“The time is now to get our residents a sufficient supply of the vaccine to combat this deadly virus once and for all,” he added. “I encourage all those who are eligible for the vaccine to sign up as quickly as possible. Although I haven’t received the vaccine to date, I intend on doing so once I qualify in accordance with New York State guidance.”
When asked to expand on what he meant by the governor “ignoring the needs of Suffolk County,” as well as how specifically the state health department and local governments could collaborate, he said, “The governor should have sent more doses to Suffolk County and more specifically to Brookhaven Town. County and town agencies have the venues available to provide ample locations to receive these much-needed vaccinations and easing the overcrowding we are experiencing at the limited locations currently available. We should work collectively with the state, county and town to arrange for these vaccines to be expedited and administered to those who need them. We all knew this vaccine was coming but the preparation to distribute was completely mishandled.”
State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket)
“New York’s vaccination rollout and its online system for determining eligibility and booking appointments has resulted in a great deal of anger and frustration for residents anxious to get vaccines for their parents or themselves,” Englebright said in a statement. “We need to have a simple, more user-friendly system for signing up online forvaccines.A universal preregistration system where eligibility can be approved, and appointments allotted as doses arrive would save us all a lot of time and angst.”
Although he has yet to be vaccinated, he knows the importance of getting it to Long Island seniors.
“It makes little sense for residents of retirement communities to make appointments and travel separately to mass vaccination centers when medical teams can bring vaccines to them. For seniors who have their homes in the community and, soon, residents with comorbidities, there should be pop-up vaccine centers run by hospitals or the County Department of Health at local libraries and senior citizen centers. Elected officials on the state, county and town levels could help get the word out to their local communities.”
County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket)
Hahn shared constituents frustrations regarding the New York State online registration system and expressed regret that she is limited in what she can do to reform it as a county legislator. She called the process of seniors trying again and again to get an appointment without success as “dehumanizing.”
“I feel their pain,” she said.
Hahn has been working with the county to establish distribution locations within the community for when supply is more abundant.
She has not received the vaccine, as she is not yet eligible but said she will when she is.
Smithtown Town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R)
Wehrheim said that he signed a letter to the governor Jan. 14, in coordination with the Suffolk County Supervisors Association asking that essential town workers be vaccinated. He said that a lot of town workers were exposed to COVID-19 in recent weeks and he was concerned, but if they were still quarantined when the storm hit, town workers would still be quarantined.
“The majority of our employees still are not included in any vaccine schedule as of today, endangering our abilities to provide essential services like senior meal delivery, animal shelter staffing, duties of the town clerk and the functions of our building departments,” the letter read. “Should these workers be included in a phase in the near future … allow us to help the process by setting up vaccination sites in each of our towns and by including municipal workers in the next phase of vaccine rollout to ensure that our essential services are not disrupted.”
Wehrheim said that he had not yet heard back from the governor. He also has not personally received the vaccine.
Smithtown Town spokeswoman, Nicole Garguilo, said the town has received approval from the county to use Nesconset and Branch Brook elementary schools as vaccine distribution sites as supply becomes more widely available. “If the county doesn’t get the number of vaccines from the state that they require, they’re not going to greenlight any other vaccine distribution sites,” she said.
Another roadblock is the fact the site needs to be staffed with certified vaccinators, a process that takes four-to-six weeks. While the site must be supervised by a nurse practitioner, physician’s assistant or a licensed physician, pharmacists, midwives, EMTs, medical students, podiatrists, dentists, dental hygienists and students in medical studies programs can get certified to give the vaccine, pursuant to New York State guidelines.
Garguilo said the town is working on partnering with a private pharmacy or hospital in order to streamline the vaccine process. The town’s priority would be to get vaccinations for teachers, as well as seniors in assisted living communities who live on a fixed income and are generally not technically savvy.
“That would make the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time,” she said. You would give the schools everything they need to get back to in-person learning and you would help the people who have those who are in that high-riskcategory that have suffered the most through this pandemic,” she said. Ideally, they would have “targeted vaccine weeks” in which they would focus on vaccinating the schools, and the senior population, one at a time.
State Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James)
Mattera said the “whole” problem with the vaccine distribution is a lack of federal supply being delivered to the state. “Every CVS, every Walgreens, every pharmacy, just like with the flu shot, could go and get the supplies and give it, our residents could go right around the corner from their home to go and make this easy … the problem is the federal government releasing as many [vaccines] as they can.”
When asked what he thinks the realistic timeline for the vaccine to be widely available is, Mattera said, “I really wish I could answer that. If I had the crystal ball, I guess I would be a hero. I just really feel the more companies that the FDA approves … there’s going to be more that’s going to be distributed out there.”
He is specifically optimistic for the Johnston & Johnson vaccine, which will be administered in a single dose. He also said that he has not personally received the vaccine, as he “wants everyone else to go” first. He emphasized the importance of following social distancing measures and wearing a mask to continue to curb the spread of the virus.
County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga)
Trotta said the state should have granted eligibility to a smaller population, such as those 85 years old and over, studied the backlog, and then opened it up to other groups such as teachers.Cuomo “created the panic,” he said. Trotta added the state was “giving people the hope that they’re going to get [the vaccine], and in doing so “clogged the system up.”
“Anybody with common sense would never do that,” he said.
Trotta has not yet received the vaccine because he is not yet eligible, but he was able to secure his parents an appointment at Jones Beach after spending hours on the computer attempting to secure one.
“Everyone was very nice,” he said. “The National Guard’s running it. It went very smoothly, and it could have all been like that if they would have just opened it up slower.”
State Assemblyman Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills)
“The COVID-19 vaccine is a light at the end of the tunnel and our best hope for recovery from the pandemic for our health standpoint and for our economic recovery,” Stern said in a statement. “I share the frustration that my neighbors feel about the scarcity of vaccines, difficulty securing appointments and a hard-to-navigate system. New York has been receiving 250,000 vaccines a week for the entire state, which has 19 million residents, seven million of whom are eligible under current CDC guidelines. This is clearly inadequate and totally unacceptable. Our new administration in Washington is actively working to procure and produce more vaccines, vials, syringes and to develop logistical support to enable the states to vaccinate at least 150 million Americans by the end of March. Our office has been working with our partners in state government to ensure that we receive our fair share of vaccines and that residents are kept informed about how they are vaccinated when they are eligible. I have not received the COVID vaccine and like my neighbors, will wait until it is my turn. It is in all of our interests to have as many of our neighbors vaccinated as soon as possible to bring an end to the pandemic.”
County Legislator Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills)
“Suffolk County is ready with the infrastructure and personnel necessary to help vaccinate the public,” she said in statement. “The problem we’re facing now is that we don’t have enough vaccines. Recognizing that demand is clearly outpacing supply, I will continue to advocate for increased supply from the state and federal governments so we can reach our goal of vaccinating 75% of our eligible residents as soon as possible.”
Berland said she is “neither eligible for, nor has she received, the vaccine.”
State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport)
“What we’ve seen so far has been problematic,” Gaughran said. “The biggest issue is twofold: One is the lack of supply coming out from Washington, and what I think made it even worse was that the state was told it was going to get a supply that it never got; and two, the rollout itself, including at the state level, has been problematic.”
He acknowledged that there have been issues with the state website crashing, and appointments being made when there was a lack of supply.
“It’s been a mess, but I believe it’s going to get significantly better,” he said “I think you’re going to see an addition to the large state-run sites, large county-run sites. Eventually it will be distributed even more on a community-by-community basis.” He is hopeful that the senior population can be vaccinated within “the next month or so.”
Gaughran added he has pushed for additional community pop-up distribution sites, as well as a plan to vaccinate seniors that are “shuttered in their homes.” He also acknowledged seniors are having difficulty navigating the vaccine website and there needs to be a solution to make it more accessible. He said that he worries that once the vaccine becomes more widely available, people are going to be making cancelations to try and get an earlier appointment which could create a “bureaucratic nightmare,” and feels as though there needs to be a system in place to prevent that from happening.
The state senator said that he has not yet received the vaccine, as he is not a member of any occupational group that is eligible, nor is he over 65.
“I’m waiting for millions of other people to get the vaccine before it’s my turn,” he said. “But once it is, I’m going to sign up.”
County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport)
Spencer said that his office has been getting calls from seniors, who are having trouble getting on the phone, or going on the computer to make an appointment.
“For seniors that may be less tech savvy, to go online and make the appointment is not so easy for them,” he said. “My wife was able to do it for her parents, but she had to do it, they would never have been able to do it. Sometimes the website is down, sometimes the hotline is down, so I think that that’s probably one of the biggest things is expanding that infrastructure once you’re actually doing the vaccines. I think this is almost as much as an IT job as it is a health department job.”
Spencer stressed the importance of making sure the vaccine is going into underserved areas, not only in the United States but around the world.
“I believe there’s a lot of nationalism that’s going on right now. People are like, ‘We’ve got to get enough vaccines for people in our country,’ and I can understand that, but there’s definitely been some reports that if we don’t vaccinate in a lot of our third-world countries, it will becomenot only a humanitarian crisis, but it’s an economic crisis too.”
Spencer is focused on ensuring that vaccines get to communities of color hard hit by the pandemic.
“If we don’t get enough vaccinations in areas where there are Hispanic and African American populations, where they may be in close quarters there’s less opportunity for social distancing, we’re not going to be able to control the virus as effectively,” he said. He added that he is advocating to place vaccine sites in communities like Brentwood, Huntington Station, Central Islip and Gordon Heights that are walkable.
Spencer has not yet received the vaccine but will do so once he has “the opportunity.”
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