Vaccines are on the way, but questions over funding and fairness linger

December 2, 2020 – Albany, NY – Governor Andrew Cuomo provides a coronavirus update during a press conference in the Red Room at the State Capitol. Photo by Mike Groll, Office of the Governor.

With the first shipment of vaccines on their way to New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is reaching out to the Trump Administration, seeking additional federal funding to distribute the vaccine and offering a compromise to break the stalemate over vaccinating undocumented citizens.   

Cuomo announced Wednesday that 170,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer would arrive in New York state by Dec. 15. Twenty-one days after that, the second shipment of 170,000 doses would arrive. That vaccine requires two doses taken 21 days apart.

Another vaccine developed by Moderna is also scheduled to be shipped to New York soon, the governor said, but the size of the batch and the arrival date was not known on Wednesday.

Earlier this week, Cuomo sent a letter to the federal Department of Health and Human Services asking the agency to support underserved communities and protect undocumented immigrants in the federal COVID-19 vaccination program.

Throughout the fall, President Donald Trump and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have been waging a public dispute over how the COVID vaccine will be distributed in New York. 

Cuomo said during an Albany press conference on Wednesday that the cost of a vaccination program in New York could cost as much as $1 billion, and to date, the federal government has not offered any funding at all.

In addition to the lack of federal financial assistance, Cuomo maintains the federal plan doesn’t address how the vaccine will reach minority and low-income communities who lack adequate health care facilities in their communities. He is also critical of the federal plan to track vaccinated persons through their drivers license numbers or Social Security numbers, which could scare off undocumented New Yorkers from getting the vaccine.

“The federal government has informed us that New York will be getting its first 170,000 doses of the vaccine in the coming weeks, and while that is certainly welcomed news, the federal vaccination plan not only overlooks the black, brown, and poor communities, but its data sharing provisions will dissuade the undocumented community from getting a vaccination,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo has also rankled the Trump Administration by establishing two separate vaccination committees: A clinical advisory task force to analyze the safety and efficacy of whichever vaccines are approved by the federal government, and a second committee — a distribution and implementation task force – to help create a vaccination program.

The governor noted that seven other states also created similar task forces to vet the federally approved vaccine for their own state residents.

Cuomo said national polling by Kaiser Family Foundation, the Pew Research Center and the Gallup Poll show that half of Americans are concerned about taking a vaccine, telling pollsters they probably would not take it.

“The cynicism is real, it exists and every poll says the same thing. The cynicism created these state panels,” Cuomo said. 

During a Rose Garden press conference on Nov. 13 to announce Operation Warp Speed, Trump New York state has not given the federal government “authorization” to distribute a vaccine in New York.

“As soon as April, the vaccine will be available to the general population, with the exception of places like New York state, where, for political reasons, the governor …. wants to take his time with the vaccine,” Trump said.

“[Gov. Cuomo] doesn’t trust where the vaccine is coming from,” the president continued. “He doesn’t trust the fact that it’s this White House, this administration, so we won’t be delivering [the vaccine] to New York until we have authorization to do so, and that pains me to say that.

“Gov. Cuomo will have to let us know when he’s ready for it,” Trump added. “We can’t be delivering it to a state that won’t be delivering it to his people immediately.. I know the people of New York want it, so the governor will let us know when he is ready. We are ready to provide it as soon as they let us know they will actually use it.”

Two days later, on Nov. 15, Cuomo took to the pulpit of the historic Riverside Church in Morningside Heights to make a speech that elaborated on the racial disparities COVID-19 brought to light and, what is going to happen in New York when the highly-anticipated vaccine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

In attendance were Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie; Congressman Adriano Espaillat; former Congressman Charles Rangel; President and CEO of the National Urban League, Marc Morial; the president of New York state’s NAACP chapter, Hazel Dukes; and Hawk Newsome and Chivona Newsome, who are the co-founders of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York.

Gov. Cuomo speaks at the Riverside Church in Manhattan on November 15.

“The Trump administration is designing the distribution plan and their plan basically has private health care companies administering the vaccine: hospitals, big drugstores, doctor’s offices, et cetera. It sounds fine, right?,” Cuomo said. “But hold on. We know that our Black and brown and poor communities have fewer health care institutions. Their communities are all too often health care deserts. That’s why we have more underlying conditions and that’s why the COVID death toll is so high for Black and brown communities. We’re not going to make the same mistake again. Period.”

The coronavirus seemingly affected more minorities than others, as health disparities made it more likely for minorities to die from the virus. Over the past 10 months, Black and Latino New Yorkers were 2.5 times more likely to be infected, COVID-19 killed twice as many Black people in comparison to white people, and Latinos were 1.5 times more likely to be killed by the virus, which Cuomo referred to during the press conference.

“We need to enlist community groups to distribute the vaccine in their community,” Cuomo said. “We need faith-based groups that the community trusts to distribute the vaccine. We need medical teams and outreach teams going into public housing projects and low-income communities. New York state will mobilize an army to vaccinate all New Yorkers fairly, equitably. No state will do it better.” 

Cuomo acknowledged the divided nature of the United States, the heightened level of hate speech, and the systemic racism that was revealed by, not only the pandemic, but the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May.

“COVID was low tide in America, and it showed us the ugliness and flaws deep down in our society,” Cuomo said in Riverside Church on Nov. 15. “ And if we are smart, and if we are secure, we must now acknowledge the ugliness and correct it as we go forward. COVID low tide showed the lack of trust in the federal government.

“The truth is, COVID is not the only virus attacking us. We are being attacked by other viruses. COVID weakened our immune system. And when your immune system is weakened, then you get attacked by other viruses,” Cuomo said. 

“And that’s what happened to America — we’re being attacked by multiple viruses at the same time. And we must fight them all, because racism is a virus; and sexism is a virus; and discrimination is a virus; and injustice is a virus; and division is a virus; and distrust is a virus; and abuse of power is a virus; and hatred is a virus. And our America is better than this.”

On Tuesday, Cuomo sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar urging the Trump administration to “support underserved communities and protect undocumented immigrants in the federal COVID-19 vaccination program.”

The letter was co-signed by dozens of religious organizations and community groups such as the Hispanic Health Network & Latino Commission on AIDS, Asian American Community Empowerment, Arab-American Family Support Center, Worker Justice Center of New York and InterFaith Works of Central New York, to name a few.

In this letter, Cuomo defends the narrative he has been following over the course of the vaccine discussion — the success of vaccine administration is dependent on the American people’s trust. 

There are two sources of uneasiness mentioned in the letter: the first is an “inadequate” plan to get the vaccine to underrepresented groups like Black, brown, Asian and low-income communities, and the second is the need for identifying information of vaccine recipients as “the proposed criteria are all proxies for proof of citizenship.

“The COVID infection and death rates are significantly higher in these communities, and failure to provide these communities with an adequate vaccination program, whether by intent or effect, will further discriminate against these communities,” according to the letter. “We join with national civil rights groups such as the National Urban League and the NAACP in calling for a federally funded fair and equal vaccination program.”

The “proof of citizenship” concern refers to the Data Sharing Agreement that state governments must agree to before administering vaccines, per federal government requirement, which is the need for Social Security numbers, driver’s license identification numbers, or passport numbers to identify who is receiving the vaccine.

“The concern is exacerbated by an additional federal provision in the Data Sharing Agreement specifically providing that the information could be shared with other federal agencies, i.e. The Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),” the letter states. “If undocumented Americans are dissuaded from participating in the vaccination program, it would jeopardize both their health and the efficacy of the entire vaccination program.”

Cuomo is offering an alternative plan. Instead of requiring New Yorkers to provide identification numbers, he writes that the state would be willing to provide aggregate data to the federal government, which will maintain data summaries of individual persons without needing their personal information.

Otherwise, signers of the letter also feel that the federal government must treat personal information on vaccine recipients as they would other health information, as protected under HIPAA, and will “agree not to share it with any non-health agency for any other purpose.”

“It is certainly not in the national interest for individuals to have valid concerns preventing such participation, and the undocumented community has specific and valid cause for concern in providing unnecessary, irrelevant, and sensitive information to federal agencies,” according to the letter.