NYC vaccination pods are "ghost towns." Say, "we blew it"

Nearly all areas of the country have set up what have come to be known as “pods” (points of dispensing) where people in approved categories can make appointments to receive the COVID vaccine. Each state and municipality has its own system for organizing and operating these pods, but some are clearly not working as well as others. That’s been the case in New York City for most of the past month. After seeing some initial successes, the pods in the Big Apple have, according to workers operating them, turned into “ghost towns.” Workers are standing by and ready to go but they either have no customers or no vaccines to administer… sometimes both. This has led to increasing levels of frustration among both the public and the people who are sitting in these outdoor locations in the middle of the winter with nothing to do. (NY Post)

The city’s 15 vaccination hubs were ghost towns last Saturday, and the city Department of Health is refusing to reveal just how bad distribution went.

One DOH staffer stationed at the Hillcrest High School hub in Queens on Jan. 30 said he did nothing all day…

He said there were about 70 workers on hand — some earning overtime pay for 12-hour shifts — and about 10 people to vaccinate.

One City Council member was notified of these events and went to investigate. He tweeted a video of the idle workers at his local pod and unleashed his anger on the city’s Department of Health.

I have some experience in this issue, having a close family member who was hired by a contractor that’s operating some of the pods. The two differences between the situation in New York City and what we’ve seen is that we’re considerably further upstate and the pods here are run by the state, not the city. Both of these factors play a role.

When this system was first set up, the state, under Governor Andrew Cuomo, set up a pod system covering most of New York. Gothan set up their own system of 15 pods run by the city’s Department of Health. But it’s the state that controls the receipt and distribution of the vials, so the initial supplies have been going to the state pods first and there isn’t always enough left over to send to all of the city pods. At the center where my relative works, they’ve kept fairly busy, with enough appointments being made to operate up to a dozen vaccination stations for twelve hours per day. There are lulls, of course, but they’ve never hit the “ghost town” level.

The city’s pods are in even worse shape, however. One worker at the pod shown in the video above said that they had as many as 700 doses, but almost no appointments. They asked if they could start vaccinating walk-in patients, but they were denied permission. (In New York you can face heavy penalties for vaccinating people out of turn.) This means that they wind up spoiling and discarding some number of doses on a regular basis.

Also, it’s the contractor connection that explains how you’re seeing all of those workers standing idle over lengthy shifts. Both the state and the city awarded lucrative contracts to companies who wanted to operate the pods. They were designed to offer a very good pay rate for these temporary positions and long operating hours to give as many patients as possible a chance to be vaccinated. (My relative is making $27 per hour to do data entry of contact information for tracing purposes. They get overtime at time and a half several days each week.) Those contractors don’t get the full benefit of the state’s largess if they don’t bill all of the hours and keep the facilities active, so they wind up working twelve-hour shifts and just sitting around even if there is nobody to vaccinate. In short, there is virtually no incentive to operate the pods in the most efficient and economical manner possible. And why would you when you’re just doling out taxpayer dollars?

What this all comes down to is a botched distribution system and rigid rules for who is allowed to make an appointment. People are showing up at some of these pods in the city asking to be vaccinated and they are being denied, even though there are plenty of doses available and workers ready to immunize them. Parts of this problem are fixable, but it’s going to require better management and leadership than what is currently being observed.