LOCKPORT, N.Y. (WIVB) – Local health officials have been professing a consistent message in recent weeks. They say they could vaccinate more people against COVID-19 if they had the supply of doses. But it remains low right now. That’s why a number of Western New York counties are spurning Governor Andrew Cuomo’s offer to let them vaccinate restaurant workers and taxi cab drivers.
On Tuesday, Cuomo said local governments could add such workers to the list of those in the 1B prioritization group if they wished. Thus far, more than 7 million of New York’s nearly 20 million residents are eligible to receive the vaccine, including those in group 1B.
“They can do that if they think it works within their prioritization locally,” Cuomo said.
Melissa Fleischut, the president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, said they’re working to figure out which counties will include their workers.
“We’ve heard other counties, big areas like New York City that have said yes, we are going to include restaurant workers,” Fleischut said.
But that won’t happen in Erie, Niagara, or Cattaraugus Counties for now.
“Right now, we don’t have enough vaccine for our 1A and 1B priority groups,” said Niagara County Public Health Director Dan Stapleton. “So to open it up to another group when we don’t have enough vaccine to serve those groups, it sets up unrealistic expectations in terms of people being able to think they can get the vaccine just because they’re entered into our priority group.
“I don’t want to give people a false sense of hope.”
Stapleton’s department ran a vaccination clinic at the Kenan Center in Lockport on Wednesday. Four hundred people received a first-dose shot over the course of the day.
“We can do far more than we are doing here today,” said Elise Pignatora, the county’s Director of Public Health Planning and Emergency Preparedness, and POD director at the Kenan Center site.
Stapleton says if the supply existed, they could vaccinate more than 4,000 people each week. Erie County officials say with enough supply, they could vaccinate 2,200 people each day. But for the time being, they’re just focused on rescheduling 9,300 appointments that they had to cancel in late January because of low vaccine supply.
“To all those individuals who are in the new 1B group, congratulations,” Poloncarz said of restaurant workers and taxi drivers. “But you’re not going to get a dose from Erie County any time soon.”
While Cuomo did announce Tuesday that local governments could count on receiving a 20% increase in doses in the coming weeks, it doesn’t amount to much. In Erie County’s case, it means only a few hundred more doses each week. It amounts to fewer than 100 more weekly doses for Niagara County.
In Cattaraugus County, Public Health Director Dr. Kevin Watkins says when they start to see an increase in vaccine supply, they will add taxi drivers and restaurant workers to the list of people who can get vaccinated.
“As much as I appreciate the Governor allowing the expansion of priority groups in localities, the one major problem that must be tackled is the lack of vaccines,” Watkins said in an email.
Cuomo has also said counties could start vaccinating people in facilities for the developmentally disabled. Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said of Erie County’s allotment of 2,000 doses this week, 300 of those would be going to people associated with Office for People with Developmental Disabilities facilities. Of the 400 people vaccinated in Lockport Wednesday, 100 are associated with a facility for the developmentally disabled.
In a news release issued Wednesday evening, Chautauqua County officials say on January 30th, county health departments were directed to prioritize OPWDD residents and staff because hospitals were not effectively reaching this population. This happened three days before the governor said counties could expand group 1B to include those living and working in facilities for the developmentally disabled.
“Because we realized that OPWDD residents and staff are very vulnerable to COVID-19 infection and complications and need special accommodations to receive vaccine, we partnered with local and state providers to vaccinate a significant amount of their residents and staff with first doses in early January as part of Phase 1A,” said Chautauqua County Public Health Director Christine Schuyler. “We’re hopeful that we will now be able to see this through if additional allocations come for this population as promised.”
Chautauqua County is waiting for written guidance from the New York State Department of Health before deciding whether to expand group 1B.
Chris Horvatits is an award-winning anchor and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2017. See more of his work here.