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Health care officials frustrated over low COVID vaccine supply

The Biden Administration looks to increase supply of COVID-19 vaccine, with major pharmacies playing a key role.

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — As the Biden Administration looks to increase supply of COVID-19 vaccine doses in the coming weeks, major pharmacies such as CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid will be playing a big role in getting more people vaccinated.

At Niagara Falls High, about 200 people got their second dose of the Moderna vaccine Wednesday. Niagara Falls Memorial is running this clinic.

Hospital officials tell us first doses from the state have dried up, something that's been echoed by county health departments in Niagara and Erie counties and grocery stores such as Wegmans and Tops.

"It's been a while, it's been about a week and a half since we've received any initial first dose vaccines," said Joe Ruffolo, the CEO and president of Niagara Falls Memorial. 

Usually, doses of vaccine come in on a weekly basis.

"It's very frustrating because as we have shared, we have been doing community COVID testing since May, and we've been going into the most vulnerable areas testing those who are disproportionately affected by the virus. And now to complete the cycle, we want to get back there and vaccinate," Ruffolo said.

Supply is expected to tick up. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the state expects supply from the federal government to increase by more than 20 percent over the next few weeks.

This comes as major pharmacies prep to get additional doses of vaccine from the federal government. Rite Aid, Walgreens and CVS will be getting more shots in arms.

"Our stores are already training the staffing. They're already making the space or merchandising moves in the stores to accommodate these clinics, so we're definitely ready to go not only for this initial rollout but also as it expands again," said Ed Campbell, a region director for CVS.

CVS says appointments will be made available on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week at locations across the state, including in Hamburg and Batavia, with vaccinations starting next Thursday.

"I think we're comfortable that we've pressured-tested our website. We use it exclusively for COVID testing appointments, which at this point we've executed over 10 million," Campbell said.

In talking to the spokespeople from the major pharmacies and according to press releases, appointments will be made available online, or by calling a hotline. Walk-ins will not be accepted.

Campbell said CVS is ready to serve anyone in Phase 1a and 1b, and that accommodations can be made for seniors. 

"I can tell you from first-hand experience, our staff is ready is willing and ready to support any of our patients that come into the stores whether that’s to show them how to use the website or give them the critical information they need," he said. 

The major pharmacies have not released a final list of addresses where appointments will be made available. 

"We are proud to partner with the federal government and participate in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. During the first phase of this program, federal health authorities will determine the allocation of doses, while state and local jurisdictions will continue to define their own eligibility requirements. Vaccine availability and eligibility requirements are constantly evolving. The best source for authoritative information on access and eligibility is at our website, www.riteaid.com/covid-19, and state and local jurisdiction Department of Health websites,” Chris Savarese, a spokesperson for Rite Aid said. 

"We are working with our pharmacy partners to finalize the list of participating pharmacies. Pharmacies are currently prioritizing New Yorkers age 65+ for vaccination," said Jeffrey Hammond, a spokesperson for the New York State Health Department. 

Once supply increases, Niagara Falls Memorial says it will do a combination of honoring cancelled appointments and making new appointments. So far, the hospital says it has vaccinated 3,600 people.