I have a friend. I’m sorry, I promised I wouldn’t name him, and in a moment, I think you’ll understand why. He works in finance. He has more money than I do—a lot more—and he subscribes to one of those concierge doctors on the Upper East Side, the kind who charge you $25,000 a year, give you their cellphone number and promise to answer by the second ring anytime you call.
“My doctor got me the vaccine,” my friend said excitedly. “The Pfizer one.”
He’s always bragging about his doctor.
“I got the first shot on Wednesday,” my friend continued. “I go back Jan. 27 for the second one.”
I think this is appalling, affluent people jumping in line in front of health-care workers, first responders, nursing-home patients and others with a far more urgent need to be vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, the sometimes deadly virus that causes COVID-19. But for the first time ever, I was also feeling jealous of my friend and his snap-to-attention internist.
Up until now, I’d always assumed these mercenary medical servants were mostly hype, profiteering off the anxieties of the rich without offering much practical benefit in return, other than the prospect of avoiding the minor unpleasantries of a crowded waiting room. OK, the not-so-minor unpleasantries. I’d always thought of their patients as status-conscious suckers, like the people who cough up mammoth fees for platinum and black charge cards, even though the bill still has to be paid every month.
Well, I still think that, though I’d sure like to get that little jab in my arm.
So, yes, like many New Yorkers, I find myself torn. I’m in what Manhattan psychotherapists—the concierge and the regular kind—call “a place of moral conflict.” I want the vaccine, and it’s awfully slow in getting to me. But I can’t easily justify what I’d have to do to get it. At least I know what’s fueling my inner conflict. And isn’t understanding causation the first step to resolving conflict?
I asked my friend how his doctor got his hands on the scarce vaccine, which is being rolled out in New York, as in states across the country, in a carefully calibrated way. We are now in phase 1A, front-line hospital workers. In phase 1B, the roster will be expanded to include first responders, a larger pool of medical workers and people over 75.
He said his doctor got it through a hospital that has more doses than its employees have signed up for. If he didn’t take it, he said, his doses might very well have expired and gone to waste. If that sounds to you like questionable self-justification, you’ll get no argument here. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo clearly understands the machinations.
Here’s the New York governor, who’s already published a book about his own COVID leadership, suddenly being swamped by a cold-weather wave. And things are looking scary again, not just in his state but all over.
Nationwide, the pandemic’s five deadliest days have come in the past two weeks. Four-thousand is now the daily number to beat. New York deaths aren’t running nearly as high as they were in April, when we topped 1,200 in a couple of awful 24-hour periods. But California and other states are more than making up the difference. And the local indicators are getting dicey again. Our positive-test rate is shooting up, and so are the hospitalizations, two signs of more dying to come, while the vaccines arrive as slowly as a late-night G train.
Despite the horrors elsewhere, New York remains America’s undisputed COVID capital.
When you stop and take a look at them, the numbers are truly staggering. More than 25,000 deaths so far in the city. More than 38,000 statewide. We still have to use that imprecise construction—“more than”—because as soon as we write down a figure, it’s already out of date. And with a total of more than 467,000 laboratory confirmations in the city, almost one in 20 New Yorkers can now say, “Yeah, I’m positive” — the ones who are still around to say anything.
Coronavirus update: More than 4,000 U.S. lives lost to COVID in a single day
And now there’s fresh reason for alarm. The dreaded new strain, far more contagious than the old one, is just arriving from England. “In the U.K., it overtook everything in three weeks,” a worried-sounding Cuomo said earlier this week.
If that happens here and the medical system is overwhelmed, the New York governor warned, “then we have a real problem, and we are shutting down again.”
The immediate challenge, he said, is hospital staffing. They have the beds. They have the breathing machines. They have the masks, the gowns and the gloves. What the hospitals don’t have are enough nurses. Or enough respiratory technicians. Or enough emergency-room and ICU doctors. And with so many other parts of the country overwhelmed by their own desperate COVID surges, there won’t be many rescue teams flying in from Denver, Minneapolis or Birmingham.
And the state’s hospitals “are still lagging” in getting their own staff to take the vaccine, Cuomo warned. Like that hospital where my friend’s doctor got his supply from? I can only assume.
At an earlier time, New York mobsters used to say that pilfered goods “fell from the truck.” Now, they are “extras from the emergency room.”
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.