In-Depth: Questions and answers as NYS targets nursing homes with COVID vaccine

Governor Cuomo announced that New York is receiving 170,000 doses in first rollout
This May 4, 2020 photo from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the first patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, receives an injection. Photo credit (University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP)

ALBANY (AP/WBEN) — New York plans to prioritize nursing home residents and staff members when it begins distributing the first doses of a vaccine for the coronavirus, hopefully this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.

The state expects to receive 170,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine by Dec. 15, if the pharmaceutical company gets the federal government’s OK to make it available to the public on an emergency basis, Cuomo said.

The Democrat said New York expects at a later date to receive at least 40,000 more doses of a vaccine made by Moderna, if it gets federal authorization.

That would be enough to cover the state’s roughly 85,000 nursing home residents and 130,000 staff members, though Cuomo said he expects not all residents and staff members will agree to take the vaccine.

Remaining doses could then go to New York’s next priority: congregate care facilities and then some of the roughly 600,000 health care workers who treat patients in emergency rooms and intensive care units.

Cuomo said New York is awaiting the next step from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to consider this month authorizing emergency use of two vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna. Each requires two doses, and it’s estimated that at most 20 million doses of each vaccine will be available by year’s end.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said there's roughly 4,000 nursing home residents in the county, though he's not quite sure what the distribution logistics will look like on the first rollout.

"I don't know exactly the date in which it would be received and the total amount that would be received in Erie County," said Poloncarz. "We do know it would go to these healthcare areas first, but I'm waiting for more information on that."

Both Cuomo and Poloncarz made similar mentions that distribution of this vaccine will simply be a gargantuan and relatively unprecedented undertaking by federal, state and local governments.

"This nation had done about 130 million COVID tests over the past nine months - we have to do 330 million vaccines...twice," said Cuomo. "This state, more testing than any other state in the United States, we have done just about the population of the state, doing everything we could, and that's taken us nine months."

"This is going to be a very intensive process, a logistics and labor-intensive process, that is going to be one of the biggest operations that this community has ever seen," Poloncarz added. "We're treating it as if it's a war-like endeavor because we are at war - we're at war with a virus."

New York, like other states including California, has launched a task force of scientists and health experts who will review the vaccines for safety and efficacy and to ensure public confidence. Cuomo has said their review won’t delay distribution.

The governor launched another task force to come up with a plan to distribute it, and has called for more federal funding to cover the vaccines’ estimated $1 billion cost.

Cuomo’s announcement won immediate praise from groups representing long-term care facilities, which saw thousands of residents die in the worst weeks of the pandemic last spring.

“This virus is the greatest public health threat our country has faced in most of our lifetimes and the governor’s announcement today acknowledges that our residents and dedicated health care workers are on the front line of this pandemic,” said Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association and the New York State Center for Assisted Living.

And the leader of the state’s hospital industry agreed: “I strongly agree that this is the appropriate prioritization of the first doses, with hospital staff and other health care workers not far behind,” Greater New York Hospital Association President Kenneth Raske said.

The number of people hospitalized with the virus statewide now stands at about 3,900, up 78% from two weeks ago. New York hospitals and nursing homes reported nearly 400 deaths over the past seven days.