Ulster seniors face difficulty navigating vaccination process

The county-run vaccine site at Kingston High School. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

by Cloey Callahan and Will Dendis 

Seniors, who face the highest risk of death from Covid-19, have thus far confronted the most convoluted process for signing up for a vaccine, needing to navigate among various local pharmacies, each with its own way of doing things.

But next week, thanks to expanded eligibility, Ulster County residents of any age who have an underlying condition will have the option to be vaccinated at one of the two county-run sites in Kingston and Ellenville, which have a single, relatively straight-forward signup and notification process.

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Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan said the vaccine rollout process has caused “great anxiety and concern” thus far.

“The state has directed and decided that, at least at this time, for seniors 65-plus, those doses do not come to us…the state has decided to directly give those to the private pharmacies,” he said. “I’ve been very clear with the state consistently that I disagree with that approach. I think that directing these to all of these private pharmacies makes it much more difficult in an already difficult process for our seniors to navigate.”

Starting Monday, February 15, seniors with underlying health conditions will have the option to be to be vaccinated through the county health department’s sites at the Kate Walton Field House at Kingston High School or at Ellenville High School. Those over 75 will be moved to the front of the line, along with essential workers who have underlying health conditions. Yesterday, Ryan released a chart showing prioritization by group and when each group might expect to be vaccinated, given the current rate of doses being delivered to the county each week. (That is a conservative assumption, given that it’s widely expected the production will increase significantly by spring.)

A complete list of eligible underlying health conditions is shown at the end of the story. They include relatively common conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes type 1 or 2, and obesity (BMI greater than 30, which translates to 175lbs for a person 5’4” or 210lbs for a person 5’10”).

Ryan suggests anyone over the age of 65 to seek appointments with pharmacies as well as the county health department, though for the time being the latter is only supposed to vaccinate those with underlying health conditions.

You can sign up for the county’s vaccine notification list here. You’ll receive regular email updates and, when eligible and doses are available, info on how to make an appointment.

 

‘Frustrating to say the least’

According to data shared Ryan yesterday, 60 percent of the fatalities from Covid-19 in New York State have been suffered by those aged 75 and above. If the threshold is lowered to 60 and above, the share of fatalities rises to 88 percent. In light of the risk, it seems reasonable to expect that seniors would be not only be prioritized for vaccinations, but that the process of determining eligibility, having some idea when one is likely to be vaccinated, and making the appointment itself, would be streamlined.

But the opposite has been the case. While healthcare workers are getting vaccinated through work, and certain groups of essential workers under age 65 can use the simpler county health department system, those over 65 are being steered toward local pharmacies, each using a different system; some require users to create accounts while others offer no indication that Covid-19 vaccines are being offered. The existence of more than a half-dozen different locations, all of which could possibly have openings at any given time, means a senior seeking a vaccination (or, as is often the case, a friend or family member on their behalf) needs to check each one regularly.

(There are also state-run vaccination centers, but none between Westchester and Albany.)

Fatalities by age group.

We asked local seniors about their experiences.

Lois Brayton, of Saugerties, has been working with computers for over 30 years. However, she has yet to secure an appointment, despite filling notification lists at the state and county level and with a local pharmacy.

“I’m 74 and have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – this would be a death sentence for me to get Covid,” said Brayton. “I can’t imagine how a senior citizen who isn’t connected online and computer literate or has a family member living with them who is computer literate could possibly maneuver the system.”

Even being computer literate, she wasn’t entirely sure if she filled out the notification applications correctly. She described the process as confusing.

“If you’re a senior citizen and trying to get a vaccine, you are trying to save your own life,” said Brayton. “You are trying to get a vaccine that is going to give you the confidence that you are much less likely to get this virus.”

Her suggestion is for senior citizens to be vaccinated by their primary care physicians instead of a pharmacy or county site, as long as they have the refrigeration capabilities.

“That would be the one thing a senior would probably have access to and yet the state is not dispensing vaccines to private physicians,” said Brayton. “Who would a senior trust more than their own doctor?”

(Although we have heard reports of residents being vaccinated through their primary-care doctor, official guidance from the state and county doesn’t mention this. This disconnect between anecdote and publicly-stated government policy is surely adding confusion to an already bewildering process.)

New Paltz resident Alan Feuer, 72, hopes that the supply of the vaccine will catch up to the demand soon.

“My feeling is this is going to play out just like the toilet paper shortage,” said Feuer. “People are getting crazy, worried and frantic but suddenly the supply will catch up with the demand and it’ll just be a memory.”

Feuer said he is waiting for the process to become simplified before bothering to seek out an appointment.

“When you don’t know who to call and where to call – I’m not going to waste my time on that,” said Feuer, who is generally healthy. “When it becomes available, I will get it.”

Kelly Legg Webber of Saugerties was able to get vaccination appointments for her three relatives over the age of 70. Her luck came on Saturday at midnight (February 6) after trying numerous times.

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“I happened to be wide awake on a Saturday night at midnight and I said, you know let me go on the Walgreens website,” said Legg Webber who tried first to get an appointment for her father. “My father, who’s 86 years old, doesn’t have the internet, a computer or smartphone. He couldn’t do anything but rely on a phone call.”

She said she was shocked to find openings at the Walgreens in Saugerties. Because she already had set up a Walgreens account for her father, she was able to secure an appointment quickly.

“You need an email for every single person,” said Legg Webber. “You can’t take one account and add three people to it. I was rushing trying to get my mother an account and then I had to do my brother-in-law. I was worried by the time I got to him I wouldn’t find an appointment, but I managed to scoop everyone an appointment by 12:30 a.m.”

The need to create account is a barrier for some. Legg Webber said without her help, her older relatives would not have been able to secure appointments.

“What they’re saying and what’s actually happening are two totally different things,” said Legg Webber about the state government. “It’s frustrating to say the least.”

 

Online assistance from the Office for the Aging

Seniors who need assistance are directed by the county to call its Office for the Aging, 845-340-3456. While the office cannot make vaccination appointments, it can help residents who do not have internet access register for Ulster’s vaccine notification list.

The Office for the Aging asks for patience. Its flier says, “we cannot tell you when they will call you, or schedule you, or email you.”

“We do not know when vaccines are going to be available,” it continues. “We do not have access to any lists or databases. We have no control over where the vaccines are going.”

Susan Koppenhaver, director of the Office for the Aging, said the office has been getting hundreds of calls every week from seniors who do not have access to the internet.

“All we can do is help them register because they don’t have access,” said Koppenhaver. “The folks who designed this [vaccination rollout] kind of left them off. It’s not just them, it’s folks who don’t have access to the internet, period.”

The Office for the Aging has helped over 1,000 people who are over 65 and don’t have access to the internet to join the notification list.

“I can’t do anything else unfortunately,” said Koppenhaver. “We would love to be able to have our own senior [point of dispensing] at some point that would make it a little easier for the much older, less able folks to get in, but we don’t have any vaccines or anyone to administer them.”

The office can assist with getting on the county list, but not with making appointments at pharmacies.

“My understanding with the pharmacy process is that you have to sign up on the pharmacy website, and you must have an email,’ said Koppenhaver. “If they don’t have email, there is no point for them to sign up because they can’t communicate with them. That’s a bit of a drawback on the part of the pharmacy in my opinion.”

 

Pharmacy allocation

The following Ulster County pharmacies each received 100 doses this past week from New York State:

  • Rite Aid, 485 Broadway, Kingston
  • Walgreens – 316 Broadway, Kingston
  • Walgreens – 201 Plaza Road, Kingston
  • Walgreens – Simmons Plaza Road, Saugerties
  • Walgreens – 50 N. Main Street, Ellenville
  • Walgreens – 3732 9W, Highland
  • Catskill Pharmacy – 6401 US-209, Kerhonkson

The signup process varies for each. For Walgreens, you’ll need to create a pharmacy account. While creating one isn’t necessarily complicated, it is an additional step to the process and requires an email, which not everyone has. After creating an account, you have to complete a short screening to see if you’re eligible. Afterwards it allows you to choose a location and time for your vaccination appointment. One benefit to Walgreens is that you can schedule the appointment for dose one and dose two at the same time. Online it says the appointment availability updates hourly.

A visit to Rite-Aid’s Covid page yielded less concrete info. Several states and New York City are listed, but there’s no reference to Covid vaccine appointments being available at stores elsewhere in New York State, such as Kingston. The Kingston store’s number is (845) 338-4155.

Catskill Pharmacy appears not to have a website. Its phone number is (845) 626-0900.

The county list of local pharmacies also includes Top’s (New Paltz) and Village Apothecary (Woodstock), though neither are listed as having received new allocations from New York State in recent weeks.

Neal Smoller of Village Apothecary, who was vaccinating seniors in Woodstock before larger pharmacies had their programs up and running, said on February 12 that he is expecting some doses this week, “which will be earmarked for specific [points of dispensing] addressing inequities. I’m assuming we won’t be getting big chunks of doses for a few more weeks.  The CDC will be sending to us as well as NY, so hopefully by end of March we’ll be rocking and rolling at high volume again.”

Ryan said Smoller was “extremely effective” at equitably distributing doses received previously. “We were excited that that was happening,” he said. “And then the next week the state decided — I don’t know why and we’ve asked but not been given any answer — to shift away from him and to give 100 each to these national chains. And I just gotta be honest, I think that’s absolutely the wrong approach.”

So far, Village Apothecary has vaccinated 1200 residents. It is now in the process of providing second doses to that group, which it expects to complete in two weeks.

Neal Smoller of Village Apothecary administered the second dose of the vaccine to a group of residents this week at the Woodstock Community Center. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

Smoller’s mention of receiving vaccines from the CDC is a reference to a new program. Up to now, states have been handling distribution to county health departments, pharmacies, and healthcare providers. Starting February 11, in addition to the state allocations, the federal government began sending additional vaccines directly to pharmacies. The first shipment included one million vaccine doses to around 6,500 retail pharmacies, according to Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s Covid-19 response coordinator. The program will expand to deliver vaccines to as many as 40,000 drugstores and grocery stores across the nation.

“Millions of Americans turn to their local pharmacies everyday – for their medicine, flu shots and much more,” said Zients. “Pharmacies are readily accessible in most communities with most Americans living within 5 miles of a pharmacy.”

 

Expanded eligibility

Beginning February 15, New York State residents with the following conditions/co-morbidities will be eligible to be vaccinated:

  • Cancer (current or in remission, including 9/11-related cancers)
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Pulmonary Disease, including but not limited to, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), asthma (moderate-to-severe), pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, and 9/11 related pulmonary diseases
  • Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities including Down Syndrome
  • Heart conditions, including but not limited to heart failure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathies, or hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) including but not limited to solid organ transplant or from blood or bone marrow transplant, immune deficiencies, HIV, use of corticosteroids, use of other immune weakening medicines, or other causes
  • Severe Obesity (BMI 40 kg/m2), Obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 kg/m2 or higher but < 40 kg/m2)
  • Pregnancy
  • Sickle cell disease or Thalassemia
  • Type 1 or 2 diabetes mellitus
  • Cerebrovascular disease (affects blood vessels and blood supply to the brain)
  • Neurologic conditions including but not limited to Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia
  • Liver disease

To show they have comorbidities or underlying conditions, New Yorkers must provide documentation, either a note from their doctor or medical records indicating the condition/co-morbidity they have.

In Ulster County, the expanded criteria means 120,000 residents are now eligible. The county has received 12,000 doses since December. This past week, the allocation actually declined, from 1900 to 1500.

There are 2 comments

  1. Leah Wesselman

    I am BEYOND OUTRAGED at the complete incompetence of our governing bodies to get vaccines to Ulster county, and in particular, to our SENIORS. There are 189,000 Ulster co residents, and there were allotments of 600 vaccines to 6 different pharmacies in one week??? My mother is 88 years old and is on a wait list until OCTOBER because she isn’t in bad health?!?! 600 vaccines…600. Population 189,000..
    This distribution “plan” is showing people that if you don’t live in either NYC or Albany, YOU DON’T MEAN ANYTHING. I go on the state site daily and see there are no appointments available anywhere between Albany and NYC…EVER. Just for one minute imagine the stress and worry of the elderly in our areas.
    STEP UP, CUOMO. DO SOMETHING!! EXECUTIVE RYAN, DO SOMETHING!! The elderly are waiting, and may die if you don’t act…

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