Rural NY Counties Say Vaccine Allocation Only Improved This Week, If At All

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — More vaccines are coming to the Southern Tier, but some rural counties say the allotments they receive from the state still are not enough to vaccinate the growing group of eligible New Yorkers.

Health officials in Chenango County said they are still getting the same number of doses they got when the vaccine first became available. Weekly shipments from the state are typically 200 or 300 doses and are designated for specific groups.

Isaiah Sutton, with the Chenango County Health Department, said the vaccines they receive are reserved for essential workers and people living in congregate care settings, per the state’s instructions.

Only 45,000 residents live in Chenango County. Roughly one in five people are over the age of 65, according to 2019 population estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. But Sutton said the share of vaccines allocated by the state is not enough for the county to open up appointments to other eligible groups, like seniors and people with underlying health conditions.

Rural counties say they’re receiving too few vaccines to meet the demand. (Photo provided by Binghamton University)

As of Wednesday, the county had a waiting list of more than 1,500 people who are 65 and older. Sutton later said the county is beginning to see a large number of people who have been vaccinated at other outlets, like mass vaccination sites and pharmacies, and are removing them from the waitlist.

“We really hope that we’ll begin receiving additional allotments so that we can become a larger player in that group of vaccinators, but until then we want folks to get vaccinated wherever they can,” Sutton said.

The county will hold a clinic to vaccinate people age 60 and older with 100 doses on Monday, but that number is only set aside for the county’s seniors every couple of weeks. Sutton said it puts a brake on the ability of the Chenango health department to vaccinate.

People 60 and older can also obtain the vaccine at pharmacies, but there are only two in the entire county that have doses: Bartle’s Pharmacy in Oxford and Walgreens in Norwich. Sutton said four other pharmacies applied to receive doses, but had not acquired any as of Wednesday.

In a statement, New York State Department of Health spokesperson Erin Silk said the recent authorization of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires a single shot, will help the state expand its supply to counties.

“The state and the counties share the same goal – to get vaccines into arms regardless of the vaccine site location,” Silk wrote. “We are encouraged that the recent uptick in the newly authorized J&J vaccine will help alleviate some of the demand, particularly in rural areas. Allocation of the federal vaccine continues to be based on regional population of those who are eligible to receive it.”

Silk noted the vaccination rate of Chenango County is not far behind the statewide total: 19.2 percent of the county’s population has received at least one vaccine dose, according to the state’s vaccine tracker, while 20.4 percent of New Yorkers have received the first shot.

But neighboring Broome County, a more urban hub in the Southern Tier and host of the only mass vaccination site in the region, has vaccinated nearly 25 percent of its residents with at least one dose. County officials there received a shipment of 1,170 Pfizer doses and said appointments are becoming more readily available to larger eligibility groups, like seniors and people with health conditions.

Broome County is close to four times the size of Chenango County, but based on anticipated vaccine allocations reported by each county this week, is receiving nearly six times as many vaccines as Chenango County. That’s in addition to what the county’s pharmacies receive from the state, which is a separate allotment, and what is available at the Johnson City mass vaccination site.

Two hours away in Steuben County, things are starting to look up. County Manager Jack Wheeler said they received a “tray” of Pfizer doses, or 1,170 vaccines. They are using the shipment to vaccinate seniors over the course of three clinics this week.

“This week really is the first time that we have seen what I would, in my own humble opinion, say is an adequate vaccine supply,” Wheeler added.

In Steuben County, 15.7 percent of the population has received at least one dose. Wheeler said residents have traveled to Rochester and Binghamton when vaccines were not available in the county. With harsh winter conditions and a lack of public transportation corridors in some rural parts of the county, he added, getting there has proved challenging.

The state plans to open a mass vaccination site in Steuben County at Corning Community College in the coming weeks, as well as one on the SUNY Oneonta campus in Otsego County. Those will reduce necessary travel for Steuben and Chenango residents, respectively.

According to Sutton, the Oneonta site is expected to open in a couple of weeks, although the state has not announced a firm date, with appointments seven days a week and 1,000 vaccines a day.

“Those discussions are happening now,” Wheeler said of the Corning site. “My hope is in the near-term—in weeks, not months.”