Mayor De Blasio Demos Walk-Up Vaccines Without Appointments To Close Equity Gaps

After Philadelphia saw a narrowing of racial inequities once a COVID-19 vaccine hub offered walk-up options, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday that he’s open to trying the idea for New Yorkers.

When asked about walk-in vaccinations during his daily press briefing, the mayor said a pilot program is underway for some elders. New Yorkers older than 75 can now seek shots without an appointment at three city sites—Brooklyn Army Terminal, Bathgate and Citi Field. Anyone escorting these senior citizens can get vaccinated as well, so long as they’re eligible for a dose.

“If we see this approach starting to work, it’s something we’d be open to doing more in a targeted manner,” de Blasio told reporters Wednesday. “We have to pilot it first because there are always concerns about making sure it works effectively, that it doesn’t end up with long lines.”

The mayor hopes the program encourages older seniors, who have sometimes struggled to navigate the maze of online booking systems. COVID-19 vaccinations have steadily climbed since the mid-December launch, with more than 4 million doses administered in New York City as of Wednesday. But from the beginning, the digital systems behind the rollout have been somewhat chaotic–from viral social media messages about leftover doses at the Brooklyn Army Terminal to crashed sign-up websites and canceled appointments.

These headaches continued on Wednesday, when a vaccine hub in the Bronx’s Co-Op City had to reschedule appointments after a “technical glitch” resulted in overbooking, according to the city Health Department. A New York Magazine reporter on the scene said 4,000 people signed up for just 1,500 doses.

Expanding walk-in access may also help close the racial divide seen in New York City, where early data revealed Black and Latino city residents were getting three times fewer vaccines than white people. Those gaps have begun to close, but not by much.

Philadelphia health officials rolled out a walk-in program in March at a Federal Emergency Management Agency vaccination site. In just two days, diversity improved among visitors to the hub, according to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer. White residents had previously received 58% of the vaccines at the site under an appointment-only strategy. That portion dropped to 36% after the switch. Black vaccine takers rose from 12.9% to 19.5%, and Hispanic visitors increased from 10.6% to 16.1% at the site. Asians’ representation increased by about 1%. The site returned to appointment-only for the residents’ second doses on March 23rd, according to FEMA.

The Inquirer noted the FEMA site’s vaccine recipients still weren’t representative of Philadelphia’s population. Black residents got half the share of doses expected for their proportion of the city, which is about 40%.

But the progress signaled a model that should be applied to other vaccine campaigns, Dr. Oni Blackstock, a physician and the founder of an organization called Health Justice, wrote on Twitter. City Councilmembers Mark Levine and Keith Powers also called for walk-in expansions.

A FEMA-run site in Brooklyn allows walk-ins to sign up for an appointment but not to take the shot itself. The governor’s office said Wednesday that people shouldn’t “show up at vaccination sites without an appointment,” particularly “due to limited supply.”

During de Blasio’s briefing, the mayor cited establishing vaccine sites in neighborhoods heavily impacted by COVID-19 and working with community-based groups and faith leaders as reasons for the city’s modest progress on racial inequities. Reluctance to get the shot has also lessened, according to the mayor. “I’m very hopeful,” he said.