TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—While Tompkins County has received commendation on the statewide stage from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, supply chain difficulties continue to hinder mass COVID-19 vaccination distribution, with state and federal supply slow to be delivered locally.

To date, 8,336 people have received their first vaccination dose from the Tompkins County Health Department, while 4,490 people have received their second dose, meaning only the latter is fully vaccinated. While that number is impressive compared to other counties across the state, the health department recently stated that they have not been able to vaccinate all those eligible, with Cayuga Health System stating a month ago that its vaccination clinic could theoretically handle as many as 2,000 doses per day compared to weekly distribution just in the hundreds now. Had that number been allotted to the county, nearly 40,000 people in Tompkins County could have received at least their first vaccination dosage by now—and that’s if the clinic did not run on weekends.

This data proves that the slow burn of distribution is not a county issue –– with just a day or two of targeted clinics per week to give out state-allotted doses, Tompkins has administered 100 percent of its supplies over the last several weeks.

County Administrator Jason Molino has even issued a challenge of his own to the state government: during last week’s Tompkins County Legislature meeting, he revealed that he has thrown down the gauntlet to Cuomo, appealing to the governor’s penchant for competition.

“I made a challenge to the governor that we can vaccinate so well that if they gave us 10,000 vaccines, I’d let him pick any one of his 20 sites and we would do it faster, better, more equitably and more efficiently,” Molino said. “I’m waiting to hear back from him, I’ve sent that note several times to our governor’s rep, but have not gotten a response. So if you happen to see him, let him know we’re waiting for a response and we’re ready to challenge him.”

Molino said that if Tompkins County was successful with the bet, he would want the governor to guarantee 10,000 vaccines per week locally. Jokingly, Public Health Director Frank Kruppa quickly added that Molino had not consulted with the health department before issuing such a challenge.

In interviews, Molino and Kruppa both blamed the spotty vaccination clinic schedule on the same thing: supply.

“Once we start getting more supply, we’ll be able to vaccinate more people quicker and reach out to more members of the community,” Molino said. While he said that the vaccination distribution is going as well as possible locally, they are hamstrung by the problems with supply from the state government, and by extension the federal government.

The hope is that some of the lag time will allow the county to prepare the infrastructure for wider vaccination distribution, if and when they have the supply to justify opening different sites for vaccines.

“While the supply itself may be limited, I still think there’s a lot of other things in motion on the operation that are gaining momentum that will be able to educate folks, identify barriers in advance, how we overcome those barriers,” Molino said. “So that when supply does open up, we’re ready to move forward as quickly and as promptly as we can to administer as much vaccine as we can.”

Optimistically, that will include opening more vaccination sites around the county. Molino and Kruppa weren’t prepared to name specific sites, but Kruppa has long said that they will be able to expand their administrators beyond the mall site.

“Where and how we do distribution or administration of the vaccine will depend on priority populations, it will depend on how much vaccine we’ve received, and on uptake of the vaccine that we’ve already seen,” Kruppa said, stating that there will be a focus on serving groups that haven’t been as included in the priority populations that are eligible before that point.

Kruppa confirmed to The Ithaca Voice that Cayuga Health Systems CEO Dr. Martin Stallone had discussed making the vaccination site at the Shops at Ithaca Mall be classified as a state site, which would have increased the number of vaccines delivered there per week, but that the state had declined. That would have significantly increased the amount of supply coming into the county, but it would have come with certain other challenges as well.

“Yes, there’d be a lot more vaccine coming and a lot more people going through,” Kruppa said. “But there’d be a lot more people that aren’t Tompkins County residents going through as well, because the state sites are essentially a regional location. Many of the folks that are going to the one in Binghamton are not from Broome County. It’s just a different model in the approach.”

Hope could be on the horizon, as Cuomo announced on Wednesday that two new mass vaccination sites, using federal government workers, will soon open in New York City, doling out 3,000 vaccine doses per day. Upstate sites will be announced soon as well, according to the governor.

New York State has continued to expand eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccination with the latest rollout starting on Feb. 15. Following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Cuomo has opened up the coronavirus vaccination to those with certain comorbidities. Of course, whether or not there will be enough doses to go around is the looming question, as the county hasn’t even had enough to distribute to the newly-eligible restaurant worker population, which is a sizable contingent of people locally.

“It’s given the counties the authority to expand, if they feel they need to, to use up their Phase 1B essential worker allocations each week,” Kruppa said. “I can tell you, we’re not there yet. (…) We will move forward with additional groups once supply allows us.”

Additional solace could come from the very point that Kruppa and Molino have belabored, in the fact that Cuomo announced on Tuesday that the federal government had agreed to raise New York’s vaccine allotment by five percent. That would signal a 26 percent increase over the last two weeks.

Matt Butler

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