BY DEAN MOSES & BILL PARRY
Instead of lines at the betting windows, Aqueduct Racetrack now has lines of people eager for a safe bet against infection with the COVID-19 vaccine.
The racetrack’s first floor now has a state-operated vaccine hub that opened to the public on Monday, Jan. 18, providing inoculations via appointment. The Aqueduct hub, located at 110-00 Rockaway Blvd., in South Ozone Park, opened even as New York City and state face imminent shortages of the vaccine.
Over 7 million New Yorkers — including doctors, nurses and health care workers, people 65 and over, first responders, teachers, public transit workers, grocery store workers and public safety workers — are currently eligible for the vaccine.
Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that the city’s vaccine supply could be exhausted by this Friday without a sudden infusion in new vaccines from the federal government. Governor Andrew Cuomo says he is striving to ensure that the vaccines are widely and equally distributed among all communities regardless of race and income brackets, but that New York State only receives approximately 250,000 doses per week.
Nevertheless, the Aqueduct hub is a prime location in light of city data that shows South Ozone Park and the Richmond Hill have the third-highest COVID positivity rates — both are just over 15 percent.
On Tuesday morning, the mayor announced that New York City received a supply of 53,000 doses, leaving the city to distribute 116,000 doses for the week ahead. He surmised that by Thursday, the city will run out of vaccinations and by Friday, there will be absolutely nothing to give out, forcing vaccine hubs to cancel appointments for the remainder of the week.
“We will not get on the current schedule resupplied again until next Tuesday, which means for many of our sites we couldn’t vaccinate again until the day after next Wednesday. This is crazy. This is not the way it should be. We have the ability to vaccinate a huge number of people. We need the vaccine to go with it,” de Blasio said.
Despite the precarious supply of the vaccines, dispersal methods have vastly increased with both city and state run locations opening every week.
“Aqueduct Racetrack is a landmark and an institution that is universally known to the constituents I represent,” state Senator Joseph Addabbo said. “New York State selected a perfect location for this COVID-19 vaccination site and I applaud them for moving so quickly to transform a racetrack into a vaccination center.”
Whether patients are stepping off the A train platform or driving into the racetrack’s parking lot, it is hard to miss the splattering of posters pointing to the vaccine dispersal location at the Aqueduct. Drivers are directed to by members of the national guard to parking locations while those on foot can simply walk into the site.
Inside, the gambler’s paradise has been transformed into a socially distant haven. Those recently vaccinated rest for 15 minutes where people once sat clutching their betting slips and excitedly cheering on their chosen horses.
Although no bets are currently being taken — the Aqueduct racing meeting is going on without spectators due to COVID-19 — many who visited this hub feel as though they struck big, thanks to the easy process and lack of lines.
“I would have traveled 40 miles to make an appointment,” said Jeri Cavagnaro said, an elderly woman who was highly impressed with how seamless the whole visit went. Her next visit to the Aqueduct will be on Feb. 9, when she will receive a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
“I wanted to come as soon as I could. I wanted to go visit my mom. She’s 99 and she got her vaccine already. I’m heading to North Carolina as soon as all of this clears, still with the mask and social distancing. You have to believe in science,” Cavagnaro added.
With an abundance of patience, two computers, and a host of tenacity searching through the vaccination hub website, Cavagnaro and her husband scoured the web for about two hours before finally booking her appointment.
While the vaccine site has been a relatively easy experience to go through physically, the process of making an appointment was a headache for some.
Francine Ricotta was determined to get her vaccine to protect herself and her family, so she was relentless in her appointment making attempts.
“It’s a very difficult thing going online and getting the appointment and finding this place,” Ricotta said.
Richard Hekimian was worried that upon finally reaching the Aqueduct Race Track, there would be a shortage of vaccines and he wouldn’t be able to receive his. This fear was dispelled when he arrived at the location and received his dose quickly and efficiently.
“It was a concern that when we got here there wouldn’t be any supply and we would be turned away, but as it turned out there was no problem,” Hekimian said.
In the end for couples like Frank and Margaret Ferrara, getting the vaccine was a no-brainer. They both felt great after receiving their first dose and say they can’t wait for the next one.
“I just wanted to be safe and help stop the spread of the virus,” Frank Ferrara said, who felt slightly concerned about supply but his fears dissipated upon entering the vaccination site to see how fast and professionally run it was. “It was fantastic inside, quick and easy. We feel good and can’t wait for shot number two,” Margaret said.
If you are interested in receiving the vaccine and would like to schedule an appointment for your first dose, you can call he New York State Vaccination Hotline at 1-833-NYS-4VAX (1-833-697-4829) or download the app “Am I Eligible.”