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Dec. 15, 2020, 2:37 p.m. EST

Amid a second outbreak of the coronavirus, New York starts the slow, laborious task of vaccinating millions

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Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

On Monday morning, one of America’s first Pfizer /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE +2.58% vaccine doses was administered by Northwell Health, New York state’s largest health care provider. Intensive care nurse Sandra Lindsay was injected in Queens in the historic event. 

The injection signals the beginning of the slow, laborious task of vaccinating millions of people in America’s most densely populated city, as New York battles a second, potentially devastating, wave of the virus. 

“Today is V-Day in our fight against COVID-19, ” said Michael Dowling, Northwell president and CEO. “This truly is a historic day for science and humanity.” 

It follows the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorization on Saturday to utilize the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use. New York City will receive 170,000 doses in the initial delivery of the vaccine this week.

“Thank God, the cavalry is coming,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio during a briefing last week.  

It is a cavalry that could not have come fast enough in a pandemic, which has claimed over 300,000 Americans and 1.5 million lives globally

But with New York City experiencing a second wave of cases, prompting the decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio to close down indoor dining again in the city from Dec. 14, what will the vaccine’s arrival mean for the average New Yorker? 

Initially, for the general public at least, not a lot. With limited doses available, the vaccine will be distributed to health-care workers on the front line and nursing home residents, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Combined these two groups make up roughly 4% of New York state’s population.

Each person having the Pfizer vaccine will need two injections at 21 days apart. 

“It makes sense to start with these groups because of their risk exposure,” said Carri Chan, an expert on hospital operations and professor at Columbia Business School. 

Nursing homes have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic: residents and staff have made up roughly 39% of COVID-19 fatalities across the U.S., according to an AARP report. Meanwhile, Chan believes it is “ethically responsible” to protect high-risk health-care workers who are caring for the sickest COVID-19 patients. 

“But, perhaps, more critically,” she adds, “staff is the bottleneck resource in treating patients with COVID-19. If our frontline staff are infected and unable to work, this jeopardizes the health system’s ability to care for the ever-increasing demand of COVID-19 patients.” 

What will happen next — and who will be next in line — is less clear. 

“I don’t believe a clear plan has been set up,” said Awi Federgruen, chair of the Decision, Risk, and Operations Division of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. 

Federgruen argues that a combination of different factors should enter into deciding who is next in line: “Age, comorbidities, family size, household size, the nature of the person’s work — if they can’t work from home but need to work in a public arena. These are all factors that ought to go into some risk forum, by which one could then rank people. So that it’s not one single measure or one single metric that can be applied.” 

New York state has indicated that it might next vaccinate essential workers (for example transport staff, grocery shop workers and police officers) and high-risk groups who have pre-existing conditions or are older. 

Cuomo has also highlighted the toll that COVID-19 has taken on Black and Latino communities in New York, who have died at twice the rate of whites. 

“We will have a very aggressive outreach plan that gets to Black and Latino communities, poor communities, using churches, using faith-based organizations. I’ve been working with the Urban League and the NAACP to do just that,” Cuomo told WAMC Northeast Public Radio last week. 

Meanwhile, de Blasio has said that vaccination could be prioritized for residents of 27 New York City neighborhoods, mostly made up of minority communities, which have been disproportionately affected by the virus. 

James Krellenstein, an organizer of the COVID-19 Working Group-New York, a coalition of health-care workers, advocates prioritizing additional vulnerable populations who are often forgotten. 

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