New York will lower COVID-19 vaccine eligibility from age 65 to 60 this week, and soon loosen restrictions on vaccination sites that local officials have criticized, under a plan Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday.
Cuomo said that anyone who qualifies for a vaccine will be able to be vaccinated starting Wednesday. In addition to people who qualify for vaccinations because of their age, vaccinations in New York are open to people with certain health conditions and to certain essential workers including teachers, health care providers and police officers.
The Democratic governor said promises of more vaccine shipments have made him comfortable with increasing eligibility, even with overall supplies still too low to vaccinate everyone eligible in New York.
His office had previously estimated that 7 million New Yorkers were eligible before the list grew to include millions more with underlying medical conditions.
"But the supply is increasing," said Cuomo, who spoke at a vaccination site in Syracuse. "If the supply is increasing we can then increase our distribution levels."
Local and county officials statewide, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have pushed the governor for weeks to lift restrictions on which New Yorkers can get vaccinated and where. Officials applauded Cuomo's move but also called for more transparency on exactly where vaccines are going.
"But to get our vaccination effort running at maximum speed, there's still so much more that we need," de Blasio said in a statement. "We also need more local control. That means being able to tell our sites and providers the number of doses they'll get each week, every week, so they can plan ahead to conduct outreach and schedule appointments."
Cuomo said New York will allow additional essential workers to receive the vaccine starting March 17. Newly eligible workers include public and certain not-for-profit employees who interact with the public. Public works employees, child service caseworkers, sanitation workers and building service workers are among the newly eligible workers, according to the administration.
"These are the people who are the everyday heroes," Cuomo said.
And the governor said he's lifting most restrictions on where New Yorkers can get vaccinated.
Starting March 17, nearly all vaccination sites will be able to inoculate New Yorkers regardless of why they're eligible. Current rules, for example, require local health departments to focus on essential workers and residents and staffers at group homes for people with developmental disabilities.
Pharmacies, however, will still be able to vaccinate only teachers and New Yorkers who qualify because of their age.
And some mass vaccination sites will still have geographic restrictions: the site at Yankee Stadium will still be limited to Bronx residents, for example.
About 18% of New Yorkers have received at least one dose of a vaccine, in line with the national average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's a lower percentage than New England and New Jersey.
Public health experts hope increased vaccinations will drive down COVID-19 infections in New York, which has the nation's highest number of new cases and hospitalizations on a per-capita basis over the last seven days.
The state recorded nearly 50,000 new cases over the past seven days, with upticks in Staten Island and Rockland. Hospitals in Manhattan and the Bronx have disproportionately more COVID-19 patients than the rest of the state: 1,377 as of Sunday, compared with 1,410 for the previous Sunday.
Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to use $65 million in federal COVID-19 funds to help taxi drivers who were already hurting but are in even worse shape after the pandemic.
De Blasio said the program would offer zero-interest loans of up to $20,000 for medallion owners to use as a down payment to restructure their debt, creating "a pathway to solvency." Taxi drivers have asked for help with debt from loans they took out to pay for the medallions that are required to operate a yellow cab.
But the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a union for drivers, denounced the plan.
"Mayor de Blasio's response to our debt crisis does absolutely nothing for drivers," Bhairavi Desai, the group's executive director, said in a statement. "It's a cash bailout for lenders while drivers are left to drown in debt, foreclosure and bankruptcy."
Asked at a virtual news briefing if the plan was adequate to address the needs of drivers who owe hundreds of thousands of dollars on their medallion loans, de Blasio said, "This is what we believe can be done. The stimulus funds give us the opportunity to do it. And we're moving forward immediately to help as many drivers as possible."