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"The restriction right now is just not having enough access," Derek Anderson, Northern Weschester Hospital executive director, said regarding the COVID-19 vaccination program.

Roughly two-thirds of the physicians, nurses and other staff at Northern Westchester Hospital have received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Derek Anderson, NWH executive director.

That was one of the points the hospital chief, who is a Lewisboro resident, presented in his update on COVID-19 at the Lewisboro Town Board meeting on Monday. Mr. Andersen also addressed hospital patient levels, virus testing and other topics.

Mr. Anderson said that Northern Westchester Hospital had 35 admitted COVID-19 patients as of Monday. He said the number has been fluctuating between the low-30s and low-40s for the past six weeks, suggesting patient admissions for COVID-19 have been leveling off. In comparison, Mr. Anderson said that at the height of the pandemic last April, the hospital had nearly 100 COVID-19 patients. Throughout Northwell Health System’s network of 23 hospitals, COVID-19 patient levels have been flat or down slightly over the past week, he said.  

Mr. Anderson said the hospital’s COVID-19 testing site at the Center for Healthy Living, located at 480 South Bedford Road, Chappaqua, is conducting an average of about 250 tests per day. He said the center removed the prescription requirement for tests about a month ago and clarified that people without health insurance can get tested at the site. Mr. Anderson said in order to conserve resources, the hospital has consolidated all COVID-19 testing at the center.

Mr. Anderson said many health care organizations including NWH are experiencing a plateau in the number of vaccinated hospital workers. That’s because, for a variety of reasons, about a third of hospital workers are opting out of the program.

Northern Westchester Hospital is currently leading the Northwell Health hospital system in vaccination rate among staff, but Mr. Anderson said that performance is still not good enough.

“Even after everything that the team have been through during COVID, it just seems that the farther we get from the bedside — away from nurses, physicians, clinicians — into more of those support services, they’re more reluctant to take the vaccines,” Mr. Anderson observed.

Staff of childbearing age, or those who are breastfeeding, have expressed concerns over possible side effects from the vaccine. He added that despite the amount of education the staff receives on the vaccine, some are skeptical about the vaccine’s approval process and fear it was “rushed.”

Mr. Anderson said a lot of the staff understand that the vaccine approval was expedited administratively by the federal government, but do not fully appreciate the rigorous clinical science that went into the testing.

In response to a question from a resident about steps the hospital is taking to ensure as many staff members as possible get vaccinated, Mr. Anderson said that due to the fact the vaccine has received authorization only for emergency use, administrator are unable to mandate it for hospital staff.

“Frankly, it will take time for people to feel comfortable, and until then we don’t believe it’s our place to mandate,” Mr. Anderson said.

Mr. Anderson highlighted the hospital’s ability to keep COVID-19 patients and hospital staff working with those patients separate from the rest of the hospital. He added that there have been no instances of cross-patient virus transmission at any time during the pandemic.

Mr. Anderson said the hospital received 1,000 vaccine doses two weeks ago from the state, which have already been distributed to 998 community members in the priority groups Phase 1a and 1b. As much as Mr. Anderson said he wants to serve the local community, the hospital saw New Yorkers from all over the state come to the hospital for their vaccine.

“We had people coming from three or four hours away that somehow found an appointment on the state website and traveled,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Andersen said that in the case of extra vaccine doses, found in every fifth vial of the Pfizer vaccine, the hospital distributes them to underserved areas of the community through community partners. Mr. Anderson said that with these extra doses, they were able to vaccinate 14 vulnerable patients, 21 first responders, seven members from Neighbors Link and homeless shelters and 14 members of the Community Center of Northern Westchester.

On the morning of his presentation, Mr. Anderson said the hospital received an additional 1,000 doses of the vaccine, which will be given to health care workers in priority group Phase 1a, as per directives from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

As the hospital continues to receive and distribute more doses and looks beyond giving shots to health care workers, Mr. Anderson said he hopes administrators will look at partnerships with school districts and town governments to expand access to vaccine appointments.

“The restriction right now is just not having enough access,” Mr. Anderson said.

Following his presentation, Mr. Anderson took several questions from board members and residents.

During the question period, Mr. Anderson clarified that the hospital does not maintain a waiting list for vaccine appointments. Another common misconception, he said, is that immunocompromised individuals are currently included in one of the vaccine priorities groups. He said Mr. Cuomo did announce this in a press conference, but the state has not yet followed through with tools for vaccine sites to implement that provision.

Mr. Anderson said that over the past weekend the state issued a letter to vaccine providers mandating them to not schedule appointments until there is confirmed allocation of vaccines on-site. He said this change should correct 95% of the issue of duplicate appointments. Mr. Anderson urged anyone who has made multiple appointments and then gets vaccinated should remove their name from other schedules because duplicates are not removed automatically.

Mr. Anderson urged patience with the vaccine rollout. He said he was hopeful that bottlenecks would ease as supplies increase, which may occur soon with the approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine expected in the next several weeks.

Mr. Anderson also stressed that health risks will remain even after an individual is vaccinated. Like the flu, he said there is still a small percentage of immunized people who could contract the disease. Those who have received the vaccine can also still pass the virus to someone who does not have immunity, he said, which makes mask-wearing and social distancing vital even after a large percentage of the country is vaccinated.

Jessica Leibman is a staff reporter at The Record-Review where she covers the Town of Lewisboro the Katonah-Lewisboro School District.

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