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The New York state Capitol in Albany

ALBANY — What had been intense demand for COVID-19 vaccinations has waned across upstate New York and available appointments are now plentiful.

County health leaders are scrambling to locate people who, for a variety of reasons, have delayed getting the doses. Ideas for incentives are being kicked around, and striking arrangements with employers seeing benefits in encouraging the inoculations are also being discussed.

“Unfortunately, due to cultural norms, social influences or political views, the long lines and wait lists we saw in January, February, and March have led to recent short lines or appointments going unfilled,” said Dr, Kevin Watkins, president of the New York State Association of County Health Officials.

Watkins, who is also the Cattaraugus County health commissioner, discussed the phenomenon of vaccine hesitancy Tuesday at an online conference organized by his group and the state Association of Counties.

According to the latest state data, 31.9% of New Yorkers have now been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. That leaves the state far shy of reaching the 85% target that some experts say is needed in order to bring about herd immunity, which would severely reduce the risks posed by the contagion.

The ongoing threat could throw a wrench into expectations that the nation can return to a level of normalcy this summer after attempting to curb the spread since early last year. 

Speaking to New York county officials, Dr. Brian Castrucci, president of the de Beaumont Foundation and epidemiologist, a philanthropy, urged the crafting of public health messages that are “simple, relatable and repeatable.” That was the same advice he said he received from Frank Luntz, a veteran pollster who has organized focus groups on national issues.

Another key is to use messages that rely on factual information, Castrucci said. “Misinformation will fill any silence that we leave,” he said. “The truth is a very narrow lane at the end of the day. Misinformation, you can drive a truck through.”

Castrucci said the vaccines were carefully reviewed by scientific panels, though those reviews were accelerated due to the health crisis. “We cut the red tape,” he said. “We didn’t cut corners.”

A CBS News poll released this week indicated 60% of those sampled this month indicated they plan to get the COVID-19 shots or have already had them, up from 55% last month.

Another 22% of those polled this month said they won’t get vaccinated, the same level reported by the survey in March. There was a slight drop in April in the group replying “maybe” as to whether they would get the shots -- 18%, down from 22% in March.

The poll suggested reaching herd immunity could be an uphill struggle, with those signaling they won’t get vaccinated or are hesitant to get the shots indicating they remain concerned about whether the vaccines were properly tested as well as about potential side effects, with recent news about blood clots linked to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine often cited.

Some counties are planning setting up smaller clinics in rural towns in the weeks ahead.

Daniel Stapleton, director of Niagara County Public Health, said staffers at his agency administered some 4,000 vaccinations two weeks ago. This week, he said, the plan calls for providing about 1,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine to people lined up to get their second shot.

Dispatching teams to Gratwick Hose in North Tonawanda and holding clinics at schools in outlying areas and rural towns are also being planned, Stapleton said.

“We realized the slowdown was coming,” he said. “We will have a gradual decrease in the size of the clinics. But they are being targeted” to reach people who live a distance from health care facilities.

Linking gains in getting people vaccinated to the lifting of restrictions may help to motivate more people to be more accepting of getting the shots, said Sara Ravenhall, director of the state Association of County Health Officials. She cited Tuesday’s announcement by the Centers for Disease Control that people who have been fully vaccinated no longer are required to wear masks while outdoors as a move that could encourage more individuals to get inoculated.

But she also acknowledged counties have seen demand for the shots decline this month. “We have a long road ahead of us,” Ravenhall told CNHI. “Now we need to turn our attention to individuals who may have concerns or questions about the vaccines. Each county and the leaders within those counties are going to be messaging. about the benefits of getting vaccinated, and answering any questions that community members may have.”

She said it is also important that people who have been vaccinated to share their experiences with family members and friends to help alleviate any hesitancy in getting the shots.

With demand for vaccinations ebbing, state officials said Tuesday that state-run mass vaccination sites will be open to all individuals 16 and older beginning Thursday, even if they have no appointment.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jgmahoney31@gmail.com.

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