TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—With confusion still lingering over the COVID-19 vaccination distribution process, an array of Tompkins County officials held a coronavirus town hall on Wednesday night to answer community questions and provide information, mostly about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Questions were mostly fielded and asked by Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, executive director of GIAC and Tompkins County Legislature chair, and Amie Hendrix, the county’s Deputy Administrator, with answers provided by Public Health Director Frank Kruppa and Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino. Most of the questioning, submitted beforehand and via the YouTube chat function, dealt with questions about registering and finding out about eligibility. Watch the full video here.

Despite their best efforts, there simply isn’t much comfort that Kruppa and Molino can offer on those points. Currently, the vast majority of vaccines are being distributed to state sites, which Tompkins County’s vaccination site is not, so both officials said that it would be wise to monitor the state website for vaccination availability (the closest locations are in Syrause and Binghamton). Those looking for public links to schedule appointments at the county site will continue to be disappointed, as the health department has organized its vaccination distribution efforts through employers. McBean-Clairborne, for her part, is also leading the GIAC-county partnership that is running a state-fueled pop-up vaccine clinic on Friday, Feb. 19 at Beverly J. Martin School in downtown Ithaca (appointments required, which are being made through GIAC).

Overall, both Molino and Kruppa encouraged people to at least attempt to find an open vaccination appointment slot at a state-run site, since they are receiving more vaccination doses to those sites than the local Tompkins County site. Those 65 and over, regardless of comorbidities, can receive the vaccine through local pharmacies if they have open availability, but those have to be scheduled through the specific pharmacies (like Kinney Drugs).

The simple, yet frustrating, answer is that without more supply coming from the federal government to the state, and then from the state to the county, there will still be a wide swath of people who grow increasingly agitated with being unable to get a vaccination appointment. Those who can’t get transportation to a state site, which do legitimately offer far more appointments than the county is able to particularly since opening up to people with comorbidities, face even more obstacles and likely weeks and months more of waiting.

Kruppa said that in-person college instructors are included in Phase 1B but are not yet being prioritized, so that the county can complete (as much as possible) other groups first, such as restaurant workers, grocery workers and P-12 school workers. Phase 1A worker vaccinations, who are in healthcare, are being handled by Cayuga Medical Center.

The best way to find if you are eligible for a vaccine is through the Tompkins County Health Department or the state’s Am I Eligible site, the latter of which shows if appointments are available at state sites (though, again, the Tompkins County site is not a state-run site and thus will not be listed on the state’s website). Kruppa said the reason why the county hasn’t just created a large list in order to tell people when they are eligible is that there have been restrictions on vaccine distribution, implemented by the state, which would have created too much red-tape for those looking for an appointment. Beyond that, at some point the list would have grown too large to manage, he said. More specifically, the two officials were asked why the county hasn’t started vaccinating everyone who is 65 and over.

“If we had that option, we would definitely be including that group, but right now the state has forbidden us from doing so,” Molino said. Currently, local health departments are not allowed to open registrations to all people over 65, though Tompkins County has said that they are prioritizing people over 65 who have comorbidities.

Since the county has so far been working its way through eligible populations by categories of employment, the county has been distributing its link registration for vaccination appointments through employers, who then distribute it to their employees. While, ideally, there will be a public link at some point so that anyone can sign up for a vaccination, state eligibility regulations and vaccine supply continue to hamstring the county’s ability to advance to that point.

“Until that time comes, if people aren’t eligible, there won’t be links available, but once they are it will be more of a public link,” Molino said.

Kruppa said the links for registration are going straight to the targeted populations, exemplified by the partnership that the county was working on with Titus Towers and the McGraw House, which house senior citizens, to sign those with comorbidities up for a vaccine appointment (though this effort has also been delayed due to the lack of a vaccine delivery this week).

“We will let people know if there is going to be a public link on our website before it is posted,” Kruppa said. Prompted by Hendrix, Kruppa couldn’t commit to a timeline when there would be more vaccine availability that might lead to a wider distribution. He did say he was optimistic that more allocations from the federal government would lead to higher allotments each week for Tompkins County. While the only mass vaccination clinic holding regularly scheduled vaccinations is at the Ithaca Mall, Kruppa said he understands that location presents a challenge to some of the population that doesn’t live close enough to it or doesn’t have transportation or time. That can be mitigated, but won’t be until supply justifies it.

“We understand that that doesn’t work for everyone,” Kruppa said, noting that the county does have other sites planned once the supply is able to meet the demand of the wider population.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com