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After weather, logistical delays, local vaccine rollout gets underway

Valley Stream Pharmacy owner and manager Azzam Elcheikh said his shop has received around 100 coronavirus vaccines a week. He hopes to hire additional staff and increase that number.
Valley Stream Pharmacy owner and manager Azzam Elcheikh said his shop has received around 100 coronavirus vaccines a week. He hopes to hire additional staff and increase that number.
Peter Belfiore/Herald

The first 100 doses of coronavirus vaccine arrived at Valley Stream Pharmacy in the first week of February, and 100 more came the second week, according to owner and manager Azzam Elcheikh.

But in the third week, the batch of inoculations — another 100 — that Elcheikh had requested from New York state never came. Severe winter storms across much of the Midwest, he said, snarled deliveries for much of the country, including his small Rockaway Avenue pharmacy and medical- supplies shop, dealing a setback to the nationwide vaccination effort.

“The previous week I did 100, and the week after I did 100, but I’m still waiting, because they’re delayed because of the storm,” he said, noting that there was a statewide shortage of the vaccines.

It would be only temporary, though: By Monday, Elcheikh reported that he had received 100 vaccines for first doses and another 100 for people who had already been inoculated. He said he expected another shipment later in the week to make up for the backlog.

Now comes the continuing challenge of scheduling appointments. Unlike CVS and Walgreens, which are contracted by the state and federal governments to distribute vaccines, and began doing so the second week of February, Elcheikh must request doses directly from the state each week.

He has so far asked for 100 doses a week, which he said was about what he believed would match demand and the shop’s capacity to inoculate. Any unused doses must be reported to the state after seven days, he said.

But demand has far outstripped his initial expectations. He inoculates only the 65-and-older crowd, but since announcing his shop would carry the vaccines, Elcheikh said he has received about 50 calls a day requesting appointments, and it reached the point that he was forced to change his answering machine to direct people seeking coronavirus vaccines to the pharmacy website, where they can enroll in a list, thus freeing up the phone lines for people seeking regular prescriptions. Appointments are given on a first-come, first-served basis.

Elcheikh said he hoped to hire extra help to administer vaccines and increase distribution, but with the new shipments in, he said it’s been challenge to follow up and schedule appointments with people who have applied for a shot through his site.

“It’s hard with scheduling,” he said, noting the logistical challenges of contacting an older population. “These are elderly people.”

So far, he believes he has the only locally owned pharmacy in Valley Stream currently providing vaccines against Covid-19. He would appear to be correct.

In a survey of pharmacies in the neighborhood, workers at Crescent Pharmacy on Central Avenue said they do not provide immunizations, while Dale Drugs on West Merrick Road and Valley Pharmacy on Roosevelt Avenue are attempting to sign up for distribution through the state.

At Valley Stream RX Inc. Pharmacy, also on Rockaway, pharmacist Mark Peter Wejchert said the distributer that his shop uses for pharmaceuticals is only authorized to deliver coronavirus vaccines in nine states. New York is not one of them.

“We want to get into it,” he said of the vaccine. “We have a physician authorized to do it.”

Wejchert was critical of the rollout. “It’s all politics,” he said, noting that he originally believed his pharmacy would receive vaccines by the end of the second week of February. “They haven’t figured out how to get it down to us yet.”

Still, he said he looks forward to the day when his shop will be able to provide them. “I like doing vaccines,” he said. “. . . The sense of touch has a strong calming effect. They know they’re not going to die tomorrow.”