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City and State Officials to New Yorkers: Figure Out New COVID Boosters Yourselves, Thanks

New York's mighty public vaccination machine has been reduced to some tweets and links to a federal website.

7:02 AM EDT on September 8, 2022

Governor Kathy Hochul receives a new COVID booster from a nurse wearing a mask at a clinic in East Harlem on Wednesday.

Governor Kathy Hochul receives the new COVID booster in East Harlem on Wednesday. (Governor’s Flickr)

If you're wondering whether you should get the new COVID-19 booster for the most transmissible Omicron strains, or if you've already made up your mind and want the shot, New York state and New York City aren't offering you much assistance. 

The websites for both the NYC Department of Health and the City's public hospital system lack any information on the new bivalent booster shot, which was approved by the FDA and recommended by the CDC a week ago. [Update: At 5:55 p.m. on Thursday, NYC DOH added a section on the new boosters.] The City has not made a noticeable push to educate New Yorkers on them, though the City's health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, went on TV a week ago to discuss them, and the DOH made a tweet on Thursday morning.

Governor Kathy Hochul got her new booster in front of the cameras at a clinic in Harlem on Wednesday, the same day she lifted the mask mandate on public transportation. The press release from the governor's office directs New Yorkers to vaccines.gov, a federal government website. It also lists a toll-free number you can call, as well as a texting service that you can use ostensibly “to find nearby locations offering updated COVID-19 boosters.” When Hell Gate used the texting service, we were given the location of an urgent care; we called the urgent care, and were told that they did not yet have the updated booster, and to “try next week.” 

Instead of turning to the government entities that vaccinated and boosted millions of people over the last year and a half, New Yorkers are now supposed to be getting their new boosters from private pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens, or clinics that have been able to obtain doses.

COVID vaccine rates are pretty high—nearly 80 percent of the city's population has two doses. The coronavirus is not killing or sickening as many people as it was a year or two ago, but it's still doing plenty of both, and it continues to pose serious threats to New Yorkers who are immunocompromised or at risk for long COVID. We've been "sliding into the long pandemic defeat," as the Atlantic’s Ed Yong put it, for quite some time now. But the erosion of New York's extremely robust public testing and vaccination apparatus is jarring. Our authorities are now treating COVID variants like the influenza virus, something to get once a year, perhaps from your primary care physician, or a pharmacy.

That's not what our government should be doing, according to Dr. Jay Varma, a former public health advisor to Mayor Bill de Blasio and currently a professor in population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine. 

"COVID-19 is still different than the flu in that the virus is mutating at a rate much more rapidly than the flu. While that process will not last forever, it is clearly still happening," Varma wrote to Hell Gate in an email. "For that reason, I still think it’s important for state and local health departments to take steps to 'boost' the booster."

Varma recommended that the government have a campaign of "aggressive advertising," and mobile outreach vans in areas of the city with lower vaccination rates and greater vulnerability. "These should also be positioned in front of schools to capture both students and family members," Varma said. He also recommended the City and state institute special clinics at high congregate settings, like nursing homes and homeless shelters.

But currently, New York state isn't administering the new boosters. A spokesperson for the state health department directed us to the governor's Wednesday press release. The section of the state DOH's website about COVID boosters doesn't mention them [Update: As of 5:55 on Thursday, it does]. The last state-run vaccination sites, including the one at Aquecduct, closed at the end of June, as demand declined. (The state DOH noted that any of the new boosters obtained and distributed by the state to third parties will be made available free of charge.)

Hell Gate asked the City's public hospital corporation, NYC Health + Hospitals, if they'd be administering doses of the new vaccine. "We are working with our clinical team to make the updated booster available to all New Yorkers. You’ll receive a press release as soon as it happens. Stay tuned," Annais Morales, a spokesperson for H+H, wrote back. But is H+H even going to be offering the boosters, we asked in a follow up email? "All of these details are still being worked on. Thanks for your patience."

The mayor's office referred us to a spokesperson for the City's health department, Patrick Gallahue. 

"Newer boosters mean potentially more protection, which can blunt the impact of future waves. Updated bivalent booster vaccines are arriving throughout the week and will be available through private providers, hospitals, FQHCs, pharmacies and urgent cares," Gallahue wrote to Hell Gate. "Right now, New Yorkers can check with their providers to see if they’re offering bivalent vaccine but, as more vaccine arrives, it will be on https://vaccinefinder.nyc.gov/."

When we asked why there was no information about the new booster on the website, Gallahue noted that it was being updated "as we speak," though as of the publication of this blog post, we haven't noticed any changes.

The Mayor's Office said that Eric Adams spoke about getting a new booster shoot soon, while he was seeing children off to their first day at school.

This story was updated at 2:41 p.m. with more context from the state DOH.

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