Across New York State, medical providers in recent weeks had the same story: They had been forced to throw out precious vaccine doses because of difficulties finding patients who matched precisely with the state’s strict vaccination guidelines — and the steep penalties they would face had they made a mistake.
On Saturday, state health officials responded to the outcry over discarded vaccines by again abruptly loosening guidelines as coronavirus cases continued to rise.
Now, medical providers can administer the vaccine to any of their employees who interact with the public if there are extra doses in a vial and no one from “the priority population can come in before the doses expire,” the new guidelines read. A pharmacy’s “store clerks, cashiers, stock workers and delivery staff” could qualify, the guidelines said. California last week took a similar step.
This is the second time in two days that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration has loosened the restrictions around who can get vaccinated in New York State. On Friday, the governor announced that medical providers could vaccinate a wider range of essential workers and New Yorkers 75 years and older starting as early as Monday.
The new, more forgiving guidelines highlight the difficulties the state has had in balancing the need to vaccinate vulnerable populations quickly with the imperative to prevent fraud and favoritism in the vaccine distribution process.
Marc Molinaro, the executive of Dutchess County, north of New York City, and a critic of the governor’s vaccine distribution effort, said the new rules were “a smart move.”
“They’re unwinding little by little a tangled mess,” he said.
A spokesman for the state health department said the new guidelines are the culmination of a weekslong process.
“This guidance lays out and clarifies what we have been discussing with hospitals for weeks regarding how to maximize their doses to make sure that no vaccines are wasted,” said the spokesman, Gary C. Holmes. “We want no confusion and want to make sure that everyone understands the procedures.”
Neil Calman, who runs a vaccine clinic as head of the Institute for Family Health and has had to discard unused vaccine doses, hailed the rule change, as well as another change that he said allows both registered nurses and licensed practical nurses to administer the vaccine.
But he argued for yet more loosening of the rules to allow for vaccinations of at-risk patients with conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease who are younger than 75 years old.
“We’re seeing them in our office, and it just seems like we’re turning them away today just so we can call them back in a week and say, ‘Now you can get your vaccine,’” Dr. Calman said.
The new guidelines speak to the challenges of administrating a mass vaccination program in a country whose health care system includes public and private hospitals, pharmacy chains and clinics.
Mark Levine, the chair of the New York City Council’s health committee, noted on Twitter that websites for vaccine appointments include one for the city’s public hospital system, a different one for the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and another for Costco.
“For community clinics, 7 have their own different websites, 4 require calling, and 1 is by email,” he added.
He called for a unified scheduling system for all of New York City.
New York City was expected to launch a new website on Sunday to address those concerns.