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NY Counties Seek Cooperation From Cuomo To Carry Out Vaccinations

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaking in Albany Dec. 2, 2020.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaking in Albany Dec. 2, 2020.

County leaders in New York say their health departments have been developing vaccination plans for years, and can help smooth the rocky rollout of the state’s COVID-19 vaccination program, but they need more cooperation from Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration. The county executives, in a Tuesday news conference on Zoom, say their health departments are required by state law to have mass vaccination plans, and they have been updating them regularly, with test runs of their systems and investment in staff training. But they say Governor Cuomo and the state health department are not providing data they need, and are leaving them out of key meetings. They say that makes it more difficult to coordinate the distribution of the vaccines in their communities, when the doses arrive.

The head of the bipartisan New York County Executives Association, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, says it will greatly speed up vaccinations, if the state utilizes the counties’ expertise.

“We have the plans in place,” Molinaro said. “Activating them, using them and implementing them is a logical step that is necessary uniformly across the state of New York so that counties and the public aren't getting different messaging or a different plan in each community. Those plans exist. We're ready to do it." 

Molinaro was the Republican candidate running against Cuomo, a Democrat, in the 2018 gubernatorial race.

Cuomo in December assigned hospitals the job of administering the initial doses of vaccines for frontline health care workers, and said the major hospital in each region would also be responsible for later stages of the vaccination program, when more New Yorkers become eligible. But the governor said this week that more than three weeks after the first shipments arrived, less than half of the initial vaccine doses have been used, and many hospitals are falling far behind in vaccinating essential health care workers.

Cuomo says hospitals that don’t use up their doses by the end of the week face fines, and he continued on Tuesday to threaten that underperforming hospitals won’t get any more vaccines in the future.

“Going forward we’ll just distribute it to the hospitals that do a better job,” Cuomo said.

The county executives say the hospitals were never set up to carry out large vaccination plans, and that state officials should be working with the health care centers to try to work through the problems.  Molinaro says it’s not fair to penalize them for failing to do jobs that they aren’t prepared for. 

“This philosophy that ‘the beatings will continue until morale improves’ is not an effective tool to getting the job done,” Molinaro said. “We can get the job done if we don’t have those obstacles placed in our way.”  

Cuomo on Tuesday for the first time laid out plans to have other entities besides hospitals administer the vaccines. He now says the vaccine will eventually be available at 3,762 sites, including private doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and urgent care clinics. And he says county health departments, and community centers will also be included.  

“We’ll be supplying all of these outlets with the vaccine, to do the distribution, when we get to the general public,” Cuomo said.  

Cuomo senior advisor Rich Azzopardi said, in a statement, that the state needs to take the lead and coordinate all of the county plans with the state response to “avoid 63 different counties going in 63 different directions.”  

Cuomo is also asking major labor unions, including police, firefighters and teachers, to organize their own vaccination programs for their members.

Andy Pallotta, the President of the New York State United Teachers union and a WAMC commentator, says they are “open” to working with the state to do that, and believe teachers should be given priority access to the vaccine. 

The governor in a briefing with reporters, was asked in how members of the public can sign up for the vaccine, or prove that they are eligible for a shot when their turn comes. Cuomo says those details have not yet been worked out.

“We’re not there yet,” he said.

He says it will be at least another month before the state has enough doses for all of New York’s two million health care workers and can then move on to other groups.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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