As Southern Tier Vaccination Rates Level Off, Strategies Shift

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — While more than half of all Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, county health officials in the Southern Tier worry COVID-19 vaccination rates have leveled off far below where they need to be to reach herd immunity.

Vaccine No-Shows

Unfilled and missed appointments at county vaccine clinics have heightened those fears.

(April Franklin/WXXI News)

According to Annmarie Flanagan, Director of Public Health for both Schuyler and Yates Counties, people not showing up for their second dose has been a problem in both places.

Each week, Flanagan said, between nine and 14 doses are held as a result of no-shows at clinics.

“That would be nine to 14 people not coming back for their second dose, or it could be we opened a vial thinking 10 more people will show up to a clinic and then only nine do, or maybe one does and we still have nine doses left,” Flanagan explained.

The vaccine comes in vials with 10 doses each and once a vial is opened, those doses will expire within hours.

39.6 percent of the population in Schuyler County and 38.1 percent of Yates County had received at least one dose as of Wednesday. Flanagan said the counties work to find people to vaccinate on the spot whenever appointments are missed, but added that it can be a challenge to get them in quickly, especially for second-dose appointments.

“Some are concerned about the side effects from the second dose of the vaccine if it’s Moderna or Pfizer,” Flanagan said in an interview last week. “Some have just gone on vacation or have decided not to come.”

Vaccinating As Many As Possible

Flanagan said reaching herd immunity is her primary goal, but that can come only when most of the population is vaccinated against the virus, making it difficult to get and spread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), experts don’t yet know what percentage of people would need to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

Estimates have ranged from 70 to 90 percent. During a Congressional hearing on the president’s vaccination plans last month, leading infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said rather than focus on reaching an arbitrary percentage of the population, communities should push to get as many people vaccinated as possible.

“As we do that, you will see the type of infection, the dynamics of the outbreak, get less and less and less,” Fauci told members of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Health officials in the Southern Tier, however, said it has been harder to fill appointments for vaccine clinics in the last few weeks, even with eligibility expanded to all New Yorkers 16 and older.

Darlene Smith, with the Steuben County Health Department, said the decline in progress is alarming.

“If we weren’t having the difficulty getting appointments filled up, I’d say, ‘We’re doing great. We’re on the right track. We’re going to get there,’” Smith said. “But this early in the process of vaccine administration, to have difficulty filling appointments is concerning.”

As of Wednesday, first-dose vaccination rates in Steuben and its neighbors ranged from 30 to 40 percent of the population.

Smith said many Steuben residents who aren’t vaccinated yet are hesitant to get it before others do or are waiting for the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Use of that vaccine, however, went on pause after six cases of a severe and rare blood clot were reported in people who had received it.

In Tioga County, 31.1 percent of the population has received at least one dose, according to Katie Wait, with the Tioga County Health Department. She said many county residents call looking specifically for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The county has primarily been allocated doses of the Moderna shot. Wait said that has made filling appointments for some clinics more difficult.

“A lot of people were holding out for that, and understandably — it’s very attractive. It’s a one-and-done. Two weeks after your administration date you’re considered fully vaccinated,” Wait said. “You don’t have to worry about the logistics of scheduling a second dose or coming in for a second dose.”

Still, Tioga health officials are encouraging residents not to wait for any one type of vaccine to protect themselves.

Shifting Strategies

In Broome County, County Executive Jason Garnar said the percentage of the population getting vaccinated leveled off at a little over 44 percent in the last two weeks. As of Wednesday, hundreds of appointments for a clinic at SUNY Broome were unfilled.

“Now we’re getting into the harder to reach populations, the people who are a little more hesitant,” Garnar said during a COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday.

To make getting the vaccine more accessible and approachable, the county will accept walk-in appointments at its SUNY Broome clinic on Thursday, April 22.

It’s a strategy employed statewide. Starting April 23, people age 60 or older will be able to walk in and get the shot at 16 of the state’s mass vaccination sites, including at the SUNY Binghamton site in Johnson City, according to an announcement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday.

In the last week, the City of Binghamton, Schuyler County and the Guthrie COVID-19 clinic in Sayre, Pennsylvania all began accepting walk-ins at select hours.

“We didn’t have the supply to do this earlier,”said Rebecca Kaufman with Broome County’s Public Health Department. “As soon as we got vaccine[s], the appointments were filled, so it didn’t leave any opportunity for a walk-in.”

“Now, most counties are feeling like they have the extra doses, and if there are people who just don’t want to commit to the appointment, but would rather come when available, we’re going to make it work,” Kaufman added.

She also said that the county is working to partner with employers and school districts to target specific groups, including students 16 to 18 years old who are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. Those clinics have not yet launched.

In Schuyler and Yates counties, Flanagan is reaching out to event venues along Seneca Lake to promote the shot to people planning to attend celebrations in the coming months, and planning education initiatives to meet the most rural communities.

“Education is the key to moving us forward,” Flanagan said. “But sometimes there is resistance to that education.”