Additional reporting by Claudia Irizarry Aponte

The health network operating a COVID-19 vaccination center in Washington Heights announced Wednesday night that it’s limiting all new appointments to New York City residents, after THE CITY found the site doling out scarce doses to suburbanites. 

Effective immediately, all new slots will be reserved for residents of the five boroughs,  with a minimum of 60% going to people from Washington Heights, Inwood, Northern and Central Harlem and the South Bronx, NewYork-Presbyterian said in a news release. 

The announcement came less than a day after THE CITY reported access issues plaguing the facility — which Gov. Andrew Cuomo had touted as an antidote to the health care disparities laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“People have to see those sites are really for them, and they’re not being somehow left out of sites in their own community,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday morning. 

When THE CITY visited the Fort Washington Armory Tuesday morning, suburban retirees inquired about parking while Spanish-speaking city residents faced higher hurdles to get in the vaccine center for people 65 and over.

Despite its location in Washington Heights — a neighborhood that’s 69% Hispanic and where Spanish is more commonly heard on the street than English — no guides or security guards stationed outside of the armory Tuesday spoke Spanish.

Instead, staff relied on THE CITY to help translate for multiple people seeking information on where to go or how to book an appointment at the armory, a popular track-and-field venue in pre-pandemic times. 

By midday Wednesday, at least one security guard working the line outside the Fort Washington Avenue armory spoke Spanish. 

Under the new booking policy, existing appointments — including those for the second dosage of the vaccine — will be honored, the health care provider said. 

NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia University Irving Medical Center employees who work in the patient care setting will continue to be vaccinated, regardless of where they live, according to an email sent to staff obtained by THE CITY. 

Other vaccination centers should adopt similar standards, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) tweeted following NewYork-Presbyterian’s announcement.  

‘A Targeted Approach’

NewYork-Presbyterian’s turnaround came after de Blasio had downplayed concerns that more than a quarter of the city’s scarce vaccine doses were going to people living elsewhere, saying that nearly all went to city and health workers. 

At a Wednesday press briefing, de Blasio said he wanted NewYork-Presbyterian to do more to reach Washington Heights residents.  

“That should be the focus of that center, period. There’s plenty of people who want the vaccine in the community. That’s who the opportunity should be focused on,” the mayor said. 

In his own Wednesday news conference, Cuomo floated the prospect of limiting vaccination slots to residents of areas where coronavirus transmission rates continue to rise or where access is inadequate. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo gives an update in Albany on the coronavirus outbreak, Jan. 27, 2021. Credit: Mike Groll/Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Office

“A targeted approach can make sense,” he said. 

“You have people chasing this vaccine all across the state. You have a site open up, you’ll have people who will drive 100 miles to a site to get a vaccine. That’s a statewide phenomenon. But I do not have a problem with restricting the site when you are targeting a problematic community, by positivity [rate] or lack of coverage,” he added. 

Since its launch in December, New York’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts have been marred by problems. 

The state’s health department website crashed, and many complained of calls to vaccination hotlines dropping. 

New Yorkers vying for an appointment have had to toggle through multiple websites and hotlines run by the state, the city, pharmacies and health care providers to try and book a slot.

Medical providers were forced to throw out vaccines earlier this month because of the state’s strict guidelines on who qualified or face major penalties.  

The New York State COVID-19 Vaccination Hotline is only available in English, despite a sizable chunk of the population speaking Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Russian. A Department of Health spokesperson said additional languages will be added “soon,” declining to provide a timeline. 

‘A Pending Disaster’

Officials representing communities surrounding the armory and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center offered their own ideas for improving access.

State Sen. Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan) argued that residents with uptown zip codes should be given priority in the borough until more vaccines become available. 

The de Blasio administration has not yet delivered on a promise to release data about which New Yorkers are being vaccinated, in which neighborhoods — after removing those statistics from a city website not long after inoculations began. 

But Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are twice as likely to die from COVID as white or Asian New Yorkers. Meanwhile, Hispanic people make up the largest share of local COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and death, according to city health data. 

“This is really a pending disaster,” said Levine, who chairs the City Council health committee. 

While Levine urged more vaccination sites, he sees future replays of the armory situation as inevitable — unless steps are taken to set aside a portion of appointments for residents living near a vaccination center.

New York shouldn’t wait until the vaccine demographic data is released to build a robust community engagement effort, similar to the city’s $40 million Census outreach campaign, Levine added. 

“We need a similar effort, even a larger effort, so we are empowering groups on the ground and that needs to be ramped up immediately,” he said.