When vaccination workers showed up to work Saturday morning at the George Westinghouse vocational high school in Downtown Brooklyn, they noticed something was off about the schedule: Only about ten people were signed up to get a shot immunizing them against COVID-19. Normally, according to two people who work there, there are hundreds of people scheduled to get a shot on a Saturday, and there were about 650 available doses ready to go into people’s arms. By the end of the day, only as many as 40 people got a shot.
“Last time I did this, I probably vaccinated 70 people,” Sonni Mun, a former physician who volunteers at the site, told Intelligencer. “I vaccinated three people today before I left.”
They weren’t alone. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees the city’s immunization drive, throttled the number of available appointments to give out to people across 15 popup sites it manages this weekend, in an apparent attempt to balance out a supply shortage from last week that led to thousands of cancellations. Department representatives even forbade workers at vaccination sites from reaching out to community groups in order to give out more shots. But, workers say, the city bungled the overall planning, not telling them about the change in schedule, and ended up leaving potentially thousands of doses in freezers at a time when New Yorkers are scrambling to get appointments for shots.
“We’re still not good at allowing people on the ground to improvise, if that’s what it takes to get shots in arms,” Councilmember Mark Levine, who chairs the City Council’s health committee, told Intelligencer. “This is a war in which we can’t lose a single day, and good for the staff who was ready to do that work. But I think we need to explicitly empower them to do that. Unfortunately, that didn’t appear to happen today.”
The slowdown comes as New York City has struggled to get its vaccination program off the ground: About 550,000 residents, or 5.4 percent of the city’s population, have received shots, according to data compiled by The City. And last week, a supply shock led to widespread appointment cancellations across the state and even delayed the opening of CitiField and Yankees Stadium as 24/7 vaccination hubs.
The Saturday snafu was so widespread it attracted the attention of mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, who tweeted that “there are dozens of staff with hundreds of doses to be administered but only a handful of appointments and patients showing up.” Dr. Dara Kass, a physician who works at a site in Bushwick, also tweeted, “Walked into our shift today to hardly anyone scheduled.”
When reached for comment, DOH officials initially told Intelligencer that the number of scheduled appointments made available this weekend was kept low in order to accommodate people who had to reschedule due to a wave of cancellations last week due to a shortage of vaccine doses delivered to the city.
“Our DOHMH sites have been open today to accommodate a limited number of rescheduled appointments from last week,” Patrick Gallahue, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, wrote in a statement. “Supply remains limited and we will use every dose at sites through the weekend.”
Workers at two different sites, however, blamed bureaucratic red tape for the slowdown, and complained that communications issues throughout the week had led to widespread confusion. Mun said that she and others had received an email Thursday from a Health Department official not to show up this weekend. “I do not have many details at this time, however I do believe this is not due to a vaccination shortage. Shifts from February 1 onward will be proceeding as planned,” according to the email, which was obtained from another worker at the site. That directive was reversed the next day. “What a mess,” a manager for the Medical Reserve Corps of volunteers, wrote in a follow-up.
On Saturday, roughly 30 workers and volunteers showed up at the site in Downtown Brooklyn, only to find the number of appointments limited to a handful. When nurses and other volunteers sought to reach out to local community groups that they knew to bring people in for shots, DOH employees forbid them from doing so, according to three people.
“They were very much like, ‘No, we’re not allowed to do that,’” Mun said. “But I get the sense that every pod leader was basically like, we’re getting no direction. We’re screwed. We have hundreds of doses. We have staff here. What are we supposed to do?”
DOH confirmed it did tamp down the number of vaccination appointments this weekend, apparently to avoid double-booking. “We did direct staff onsite not to reach out to community-based organizations or standby lists so that we could manage this function across the network,” Gallahue said. “We need to centralize that work … so that we don’t end up scheduling two people for the same dose of vaccine.”
Not everyone complied, though. At a site in Bushwick, which initially had seven appointments and roughly 500 doses to give out, workers reached out to community groups and ended up administering a few hundred shots, according to one person who worked there.
The confusion led to misinformation getting transmitted across Twitter and Instagram, with people saying incorrectly that the site would take in people who weren’t already approved by the state to get vaccines. “For anyone who works in retail or restaurants or public-facing jobs in NYC, 400 Irving is taking walk ins today for the vaccine. They have zero appointments today bc of a system change. Go get vaccinated! Don’t let them go to waste,” one Instagram post said.
“My own feeling is there’s no higher imperative than getting shots in arms. And you shouldn’t leave a dose in a vial, or an unused appointment slot,” Levine said. “If staff was prevented from doing that, then that’s just more precious time lost when we’re already far behind.”
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to clarify DOHMH runs 15 sites.