Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan on Tuesday has apologized for the city’s dysfunctional rollout of monkeypox vaccinations, saying the city lacks the public health infrastructure and federal support to properly meet demand.
“Today shouldn’t have happened,” Vasan told Errol Louis on “Inside City Hall,” in reference to the city’s vaccination scheduling website going down on Tuesday less than a half hour after announcing more appointments were made available. “We apologize.”
“We’re working to develop really stable vaccine appointment infrastructure for the days and weeks ahead, and we’ll be making some announcements shortly about that,” Vasan added.
After the appointment website crashed, elected officials from across the city criticized the health department’s efforts to get New Yorkers vaccinated against monkeypox. Council members Erik Bottcher, Chi Ossé, and David Carr called for an oversight hearing. State Sen. Brad Hoylman, the only openly gay state senator until 2021, called the rollout “absolutely shambolic.”
The health commissioner said the country was unprepared for monkeypox to arrive despite it being endemic in West Africa. According to Vasan, the federal government’s focus was on bioterrorism implications, not public health.
“Which explains why we had such little supply of vaccine,” Vasan said, adding testing and treatment tools are lagging as a result.
“We certainly need a lot more vaccine and a lot more supply to get to the effected community that really is demanding their health and their human rights, as they should,” the health commissioner said.
The city and state are focusing on vaccinating gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men as the disease is primarily spreading in those communities.
As of Tuesday, the state reported 238 cases of orthopoxvirus, which the state Health Department calls “likely monkeypox” because of the symptoms and “rarity of all orthopoxviruses, generally.”
According to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services, the population of the United States spends over $4 trillion a year on health care. Only three cents of every dollar goes to public health infrastructure, Vasan said.
“Something fundamentally has to shift about that before we have the kind of public health infrastructure that is ready to respond on a dime in moments of urgency,” Vasan said, adding that the city had been successful in getting millions of New Yorkers vaccinated against COVID-19. “We can do it when we marshall the efforts and the resources.”
Rise in COVID-19 cases
Vasan also discussed the state of COVID-19’s spread in New York City, as cases rise with the prevalence of the BA.5 variant. He argued cases today are less likely to be severe than when the disease first emerged and compared the current rise in cases to the original Omicron variant surge this winter, in part due to vaccinations and treatments being widely available.
“We’re just at a different stage in this pandemic,” Vasan said. “We’re somewhere in between emergency response and endemicity.”
“I don’t know where we are in that journey, but I know that we’ve got a lot more at our disposal today than we did at the beginning,” the health commissioner added.