Cuomo issues letter to HHS urging for inclusion of underserved communities in federal COVID-19 vaccine plan

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This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)

ALBANY, N.Y. (WWTI) — Governor Cuomo has issued a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services detailing the need for underserved communities and undocumented immigrants to be included in the federal COVID-19 vaccination plan.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, and a coalition of groups, issued a letter on Tuesday to Department for Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar urging that those in underserved communities be supported and undocumented immigrants protected in the federal COVID-19 vaccination program.

According to Governor Cuomo’s Office, the current federal vaccine distribution program lacks funding to distribute the vaccine to Black, Brown, Asian and low-income communities. Additionally, his Office stated that the program requires states to execute a data sharing agreement, which could dissuade undocumented immigrants from taking the vaccine.

In the letter to Secretary Azar, New York State has proposed a modified system which would protect personal information and help ensure confidence in the vaccine and its distribution program.

Governor Cuomo released the following statements.

“We are quickly moving toward a COVID-19 vaccine, which is good news. However, the federal government’s current plan to vaccinate Americans neglects key priorities that we need to effectively distribute the vaccine to millions of New Yorkers,” stated Governor Cuomo. “We need to focus on Black, Brown, Asian and low-income communities that are historically underserved by the healthcare institutions that are key to the federal government’s plan. I’m also concerned that by asking for personal information, undocumented immigrants could be dissuaded from taking the vaccine. Time is of the essence as we get closer to the distribution date and I urge the administration to address these issues quickly.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s full letter to Department for Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar can be read below.

Dear Secretary Azar:

We write to bring attention to a very important issue concerning the upcoming vaccination process. 

Obviously, a successful program administering the vaccine is critical to the national health.  But for the vaccination program to be successful, it must have the full participation of all the American people.  To that end, we join with Governor Cuomo in raising concerns about the fairness and effectiveness of the current federal vaccination program. 

First, we are deeply troubled by the failure of the federal vaccination program to provide the states with adequate funding to undertake effective vaccination plans for the Black, Brown, Asian and lower-income communities that are too often underserved by private healthcare facilities.  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.  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.

Second, the federal government requires that a Data Sharing Agreement be executed by state governments before commencing the vaccination program.  The current Data Sharing Agreement provided by the federal government requires identification of each person who is vaccinated – the federal government suggests that states use Social Security numbers, driver’s license identification numbers, or passport numbers to fulfill this requirement. 

This provision obviously raises concerns, as the proposed criteria are all proxies for proof of citizenship.  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).  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. 

New York State has proposed two clarifications or modifications to address the issue.  First, New York will provide an identification system to effectively track vaccinated individuals and the required dosages that does not identify to the Federal government an individual’s Social Security number, passport number, or driver’s license number.  The state will provide aggregate data.  In addition, the Federal government must agree to keep vaccination identification information private as with any other health matter, and agree not to share it with any non-health agency for any other purpose.

It is in everyone’s interest for all of us to work together to encourage our respective constituents to participate in the vaccination program.  Outreach efforts to Black, Brown, Asian and low-income communities is essential.  Further, 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. 

We look forward to working together to organize a fast and effective vaccine program to ensure the national health.  Thank you for your consideration, cooperation, and courtesy.

Sincerely

Governor Andrew Cuomo and a Coalition from New York State

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