Photo: Taylor Brandon

By Bifen Xu, Jeanne Pinder and S. Mitra Kalita

A supply-demand crunch for kids’ vaccines is leading some providers to turn away families rather than open a vial and potentially waste unused doses. 

On Sunday, Nov. 21, at least six children who arrived at a mobile site in Queens Village, one of the city’s undervaccinated zip codes in eastern Queens, were refused the Pfizer vaccine. The incident joins other reports of a rocky rollout among the newly qualified ages 5 to 11, as vaccine providers balance a surge in demand with the logistics of storing and allotting doses. 

A similar scenario hampered vaccine distribution in the spring among those 12 and up. New York state authorities finally changed the original guidance and assured vaccine providers that “responsible wastage” was okay. “While enrolled providers must continue to follow best practices to use every dose possible, it should not be at the expense of missing an opportunity to vaccinate every eligible person when they are ready to get vaccinated,” said the memo, dated May 13. 

Here we are again. 

In Queens Village, the six children were turned away from a mobile vaccine van after 3 p.m., according to staff on the ground from the three news organizations that coordinate the van and outreach to nearby communities. The three organizations are Epicenter NYC, ClearHealthCosts and TBN24 and have been working in the neighborhood as part of a grant through the Fund for Public Health in NYC and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 

The Pfizer vaccine approved for children is one-third the strength of adult doses and comes in vials of 10 doses. Unused vaccines must be discarded six hours after opening the vial, according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By all accounts, though, America has a vaccine surplus, putting it at a significant advantage over much of the world. The refusal to open new vials and other sites running out of vaccine do raise questions of whether there is a shortage of pediatric vaccine or a failure to plan. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed efforts to vaccinate children, namely through clinics across the public schools. The program has been very popular—families report waiting in lines for hours; one father said he could have run the marathon in less time—and often run out of doses. Some schools are adding additional days to meet demand but it’s also leading to logistical hopscotch as authorities try to allocate doses among schools, pediatrician offices, health clinics and walk-in mobile sites such as the one in Queens Village all wanting to vaccinate children as quickly as possible. 
The kids vaccine van is in addition to the van for ages 12 and up that has been set up twice weekly since Sept. 22 at Wayanda Park. More than 1,000 vaccines have been administered from the pop-up site, helping move Queens Villages overall vaccination rate from 50% in August to 64% as of this past weekend.

Lifelong journalist Jeanne Pinder is founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts, a digital media startup that demands price transparency from the US healthcare system. After taking a buyout from the New York...

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

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