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State-run COVID vaccine site opens at UB, but it may already be too late to book an appointment

Tom Dinki/WBFO News
Those in the 1a and 1b vaccination groups wait in line Tuesday morning outside Harriman Hall on the University at Buffalo's South Campus to receive their COVID-19 vaccine.

A mass COVID-19 vaccination site is now active on the University at Buffalo’s South Campus, one of three New York state-run sites to open on Tuesday. However, questions remain about how many doses and appointments the site can handle, as the state struggles to meet vaccine demand with a declining supply of doses from the federal government.

Relieved. That’s how Sharon Talty described her emotions after receiving her first inoculation of the Pfizer-produced COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday morning at UB’s Harriman Hall. 

Credit Tom Dinki/WBFO News
A sign directs people toward the COVID-19 vaccination site at Harriman Hall on the University at Buffalo's South Campus.

“It's so hard. I have grandkids, family. You want to be with them,” the retired West Seneca resident told WBFO. “So it'll give us some relief.” 

Talty, who is over 65 and therefore part of New York state’s 1b vaccination group, said the on-campus process was easy. She parked her car, filled out a consent form, walked inside Harriman Hall and received her shot, was monitored for about 15 minutes, and then allowed to leave. 

However, she said securing her appointment through the state website wasn’t nearly as painless.

“I feel bad for people that don't know their way around a computer because you just have to keep going back and back and back and back until finally something pops up, and you have to grab it quick,” she said. “It'll say, ‘OK, you're qualified,’ but then they bring up the sites and it'll say, ‘event full, event full, event full.’ So it's a luck of the draw to find an opening.” 

And there may not be many more openings left. The state website currently says there are no more appointments available at the UB site through April 16. In fact, all but two of the state’s 13 sites don’t have any appointments available through April 16.

New York has faced numerous setbacks with its vaccine rollout, including website crashes, cancelled appointments, long lines and even vaccine doses going unused.

State officials have blamed the federal government, saying they’ve received just 300,000 doses a week — and only 250,000 this week — despite the fact that more than seven million New Yorkers are eligible for vaccination.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, offering remarks at the opening of the UB site Tuesday, said the fluctuating supply from the federal government meant she could not say how many doses the UB site will ultimately administer.

“I can't give you numbers because it changes by the day,” she told reporters. “We can't manufacture these ourselves. We can't make them come out of thin air. So I cannot even give you a number that'd be accurate on the numbers here. We'll do as many doses as we have and as long as the supply holds out.”

Credit Tom Dinki/WBFO News
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks to the media Tuesday during the opening of the mass COVID-19 vaccination site at the University at Buffalo's South Campus.

Hochul, while acknowledging the “logistical problems,” also defended the state’s vaccine distribution. According to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker, the state has administered 77% of the 1.19 million doses it has received thus far. It has administered about 69,000 doses in Western New York.

“I think people overall would think this is going very well,” Hochul said.

Deb Skok Watson, a 58-year-old school social worker who lives in Lancaster, was able to schedule her first inoculation at the UB site Tuesday, but her husband wasn’t able to schedule his until March. 

“Everywhere in the media is saying, ‘Go get vaccinated.’ I think people want to get vaccinated, but they can't get vaccinated,” she said. 

Skok Watson, her husband and her 95-year-old mother-in-law all got infected with COVID-19 in early December. Her mother-in-law, Marie Watson, died of the virus on Dec. 22.

“I work in a school and worry all the time that they might give it to me … and then that one of us, if infected, would spread to a family member, and in our case, that's exactly what happened.” she said. 

She and her husband are hopeful they’ll have antibody protection for several months, but want to take every precaution.

“Not only do we not want to get it again, we don't want to give it to anybody,” she said.

Dennis Powell, 67, of Orchard Park, said he knows he’ll have to continue to mask up and social distance even after he gets his second inoculation in a few weeks; While the vaccine prevents most people from getting sick, scientists are still unsure whether it will stop people from getting and transmitting the virus.

“I can't relax completely, but it's still a little bit of a relief that I have a little bit of protection there,” he said.

While some are hesitant to get the vaccine, Powell believes the alternative is much worse.

“People, I guess, have had reactions, but the risk is low,” he said. “The risk for getting COVID is much worse. This is much better.”

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.