Leaders Say Federal Government Has Not Learned the Lessons of Pandemic — Must Account for Health Care Disparities Among Communities of Color as it Continues to Hone COVID Vaccine Distribution Plan
Federal Plan Relies Too Heavily on Current Flu Vaccine Infrastructure, Which Has Historically Left Behind Black and Brown Americans
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New York State Attorney General Letitia James, National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial and NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson today called attention to shortcomings in the federal government's current COVID-19 vaccination plan for failing to adequately serve communities of color.
The four leaders said the federal government has not learned the lessons of the pandemic, during which communities of color experienced higher mortality rates and a lack of access to adequate health care. The leaders criticized the current federal plan for relying on the existing influenza vaccination infrastructure and private health care entities, which have historically resulted in under-vaccination rates and worse health outcomes in communities of color.
AUDIO of today's remarks is available here.
A rush transcript of a conference call with the four leaders is below:
Governor Cuomo: We have special guests on the phone today who've joined us for this press conference. We have our great Attorney General Tish James who's with us. I want to thank her very much. You'll hear from her in a moment. We have President and CEO of National Urban League Marc Morial. I still call him Mayor Morial because once a mayor always a mayor, and the President and CEO of the NAACP, Mr. Derrick Johnson who's been doing great work at a really important time. It's a true honor to be joined by them.
First let me give you the quick numbers on New York which are basically status quo but good. Status quo is good just about now. Today is day 246. We did 140,000 tests. The positivity in the micro-cluster zones, our red zones is 3.1. positivity statewide without the red zones is 1.3. The overall state positivity with the red zones is 1.5. Seventeen New Yorkers passed away yesterday and they're in our thoughts and prayers, 1,125 New Yorkers who are hospitalized, 259 in ICU, 117 were intubated.
New York has the third lowest positivity rate in the nation so New Yorkers should be very proud of that. The only states with a lower positivity rate than New York are Maine and Vermont and their governors are doing very good work, also Maine and Vermont tend to be more rural, they tend to be less dense, but New Yorkers should be very proud that we went from the highest positivity rate in the nation and now we're the third lowest.
The fall is difficult for all of us. It's difficult globally. All sorts of countries are closing down again so we expect an increase in the fall but it's managing the increase which is what this is about.
I want to make a broader point today and that's why I have my colleagues with me. COVID has revealed from the very beginning the underlying injustice and inequity in this society. COVID highlighted what we knew but it raised it to a point where it was obnoxious and blatant how we have disparities and inequalities.
Why was the COVID infection rate so much higher in communities of Black and Brown people? Because they're health care deserts. There were health care disparities to begin with. People weren't getting as much regular care. They had underlying issues, underlying illnesses, and COVID both in the infection rate and the death rate disproportionately affected the Black and Brown population. That's from day one.
We then went to do testing and testing was a way to protect people and protect communities. The Black and Brown communities even though they had the highest mortality rate and infection rate received proportionately fewer tests. More testing was done in the wealthier communities. Why? That's where the health care infrastructure was and that's where the people had the resources to take the time or the expense of getting the tests.
We worked very hard in this state to make sure we were doing testing in lower income communities, in public housing, et cetera, but the health care infrastructure doesn't exist in those communities and those communities don't have the relationship with the health care infrastructure.
We now come to what I think is going to be the most difficult step: vaccinations. I've been working with the White House Coronavirus Task Force. They had a call the day before yesterday. Their main plan for distributing the vaccine is to have private pharmaceutical companies, big pharma will produce it. Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Moderna, et cetera. When the vaccine is approved by the FDA, which I'm sure will be done on an expeditious basis under this president, if not a reckless basis. The military will be responsible for logistically transporting the vaccine to the private provider healthcare network. So, they'll distribute it to pharmacy chains, hospitals, doctor's offices, et cetera. That is the same infrastructure that doesn't exist in the communities we're talking about. It's the same infrastructure that was lacking that caused the health care disparities in the first place, that caused the higher infection rate in the black and brown community, that caused the reduced testing rate in black and brown community, and now the vaccine, they are going to go back to the same apparatus, which you know doesn't work for the black and brown and poorer communities in this country. They have learned nothing from the start, or they understand it and they don't care. In either case, it's repugnant, it's discriminatory, and it's unintelligent for all Americans because if you've learned one thing, it's that unless everyone is safe, no one is safe. Until everyone receives the vaccine, no one can be out of harm's way.
So, it's discriminatory, it's unjust, it's unintelligent, and learns nothing from the past difficult eight months. They should anticipate the need for special outreach to these communities, fund state government, fund community-based organizations. The federal government has a relative pit and it is $140 million for the nation for states to actually do distributions, which wouldn't even allow me to duplicate the testing effort that I did. The State can get into public housing projects and can work with community-based organizations, but we need the resources to do it and this federal plan doesn't take that into account.
With that let me turn it over to my friend and my colleague and an Attorney General who's been doing extraordinary work and good thing because we needed a good Attorney General in this state. You know, finally, some would say. Tish James.
Attorney General James: Thank you, Governor Cuomo. And thank you to all of my colleagues on this call for the opportunity to join you in this very important conversation about the current state of the country's vaccination plan, and thank you for your leadership during this pandemic. As the governor pointed out, the plan put forth by the Trump administration falls woefully short of meeting the urgency of this moment. Today, more than a quarter of a million Americans have died because of COVID, more than 9.1 million Americans have been infected with the virus, and tens of millions are unemployed because of it.
The President has either been too slow to react or flat out wrong at every turn when it comes to dealing with this virus and protecting the people of this nation. As he indicates, we are not turning the corner. The President is wrong about that. We're seeing across the nation: second and third waves. He was wrong about that. He was wrong about social distancing. He was wrong about when this virus would be over and now, he's wrong about what will be one of the government's biggest and most consequential undertaking: the nationwide distribution of a lifesaving vaccine. The plan put forward by his administration is inherently flawed and will have a disparate impact on communities of color, and we have all seen the racial fault line as a result of this pandemic. The core principle of their plan is that it will rely on the same private entities that are responsible for the flu vaccine. First of all, we must consider the logistical challenges. The logistics of distributing a COVID vaccine nationwide are a far larger and more complex undertaking than any annual flu vaccination effort. Secondly, we must also recognize the resource challenges. Billions of dollars have been given to private pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine, and yet, how much has the federal government given the state to administer it? Practically nothing. In fact, they are relying on the state using the existing pharmacies, doctors' offices and private sector to do it all: 40 million doses. Now, here's the problem with all of this. These institutions are part of our healthcare system that for far too long has failed to equitably provide healthcare to communities of color and what we will see in this nation is a patchwork of healthcare systems trying to administer this vaccination and unfortunately ignoring far too many communities of color.
You might see a big chain pharmacy like CVS or Walgreens every other block in communities in Manhattan, but let's be clear — the neighborhoods where more of our communities of color live do not have this type of access. And that's the core of the federal plan: a system where it will be easy for wealthy people to get vaccinated, and make it so much harder for those who are not. New York clearly recognizes that the existing flu vaccination infrastructure is woefully insufficient to be relied upon solely to provide the COVID vaccine fairly, expeditiously and equitably to all New Yorkers. The audacity of this administration, the Trump administration, to stand by and watch as communities of color in this country have suffered disproportionally from this virus and then turn around and rig the system once again against them is hard to fathom We will now stand idly by and watch that happen without raising our voices and demanding better of our federal government.
I commend Governor Cuomo for raising our giant red flag and saying loud and clear this is not acceptable. This does not serve our country. A plan like this is truly un-American because it does not serve all of the people. A plan that only works for the rich is un-American. A plan that says to the low-income community "wait your turn," is also un-American. In New York State, we will work tirelessly to provide for our communities, no matter how much money they make or the color of their skin. We are one and I look forward to working with the Governor to ensure all New Yorkers who wish to receive a vaccine will get one, safely effectively and equitably. And now, allow me to introduce the President and CEO of the National Urban League, and was indicated the former Mayor of New Orleans — Mr. Marc Morial.
Marc Morial: Thank you very much, Attorney General James, and let me thank Governor Cuomo for convening all of us this morning and I agree fully with both the Governor and the Attorney General. The National Urban League is a historic Civil Rights organization headquartered in New York, but serving some 300 communities across the nation through a network of 90 affiliates. Our 90 affiliates have over 2,000 employees and on an annual basis, we serve more 2 million people in a variety of human and social services programs. Right now, I want to add the following thoughts: any plan that limits vaccine distribution to pharmacies repeats the same mistakes made with testing in the spring. In March, the White House announced the partnership with chain pharmacies to provide testing. A month later, out of 63 that opened, only eight were in black neighborhoods. This plan to rely on the current healthcare infrastructure which has not served us well is thoughtless, it's careless and it needs to be taken back to the drawing board and a new plan needs to be designed. Already in the community, there is great concern. There's great resentment. There's great fear that the plan for a vaccine has been politicized. That politics, an accelerated approval process, an inadequate — if you will — preparation process, inadequate clinic trials raise the scepter that many Americans, particularly Black and Brown Americans, believe that the result will not be safe. It adds insult to the injury of this to now confect a plan that will not include community based providers. Be they schools, be they community centers, be they churches, faith-based organizations, small employers. Imagine the power that would come from learning from past mistakes and building a plan and financing it adequately to ensure that all Americans, particularly vulnerable Americans have access to this vaccine.
The timeline, with respect to a plan, should have zero to do with an election cycle or political considerations at all. The only consideration should be what is necessary for a safe and effective vaccine. In an op-ed published in USA Today, 8 top FDA officials and doctors pledged that all decisions will continue to be guided by the best of science and be independent of political pressure. The same principles should hold on the distribution plan for this very crucial vaccine.
I remember as a child in my hometown of New Orleans standing in line outside of the school in my neighborhood to receive a Polio vaccine. Why not learn from what was done in the past? Why not understand the challenges we face with health care disparities and design a program and design an approach that ensures that all Americans are going to have fair, equal and speedy access to the vaccine.
The sheer infrastructure of the nation's current hospitals, clinics and pharmacies is inadequate for a nation of over 300 million people. Inadequate for the need to distribute this vaccine to hundreds of millions of people in a short period of time.
I join with the Governor, I join with the Attorney General in saying that this plan does not and will not ensure that Black communities and Brown communities have fair access to this vaccine. The plan should be scrapped, a new, better more effective plan with adequate financing for state and local governments and community based organizations should be developed and certainly should be designed.
This continued effort to, if you will, politicize the process around COVID has caused tremendous damage to our country over the past 4 years and over the last 8 months. The stakes are high and in order to serve the public, we need a competent approach that puts the health and safety of our people as a top priority. I want to applaud the Governor and the Attorney General for calling attention to these continued failures. We stand ready to work and fight and push for a plan that serves the best interest of the American people.
Let me at this time introduce my colleague, the President of the NAACP, Derrick Johnson.
Derrick Johnson: Thank you, Mark, and thank you Governor Cuomo for your leadership and putting this call together. This administration has forfeited any benefit of the doubt in months of inaction, incompetence has resulted in nearly a quarter million Americans have been lost. The overwhelming number of those individuals have come from the Black community.
In any introduction of a vaccine plan devoid of the infrastructure we know is effective within the Black community using the public sector, traditional institutions and religious based organization is, again, reinforcing the same incompetence or intentional act to lock out an opportunity for African Americans; and for that matter the Latino community and even greater, poor, working class whites in far too many communities who have been neglected in the midst of this global pandemic that is still lacking a true federal response.
For the NAACP, the level of inequity we've seen from this administration is reinforced with the current structural barriers and racism that have plagued this nation for decades. In order for this administration, for any administration, for our society to move forward with a level of integrity to ensure people are put above profits. The real question here is why. Why would an administration knowing what they should have learned in March, in April, in May put forth the plan that would simply be insufficient for the American people as a whole. For African Americans, we have seen far too often pro-race neutral policy having a disparate impact on our community because how we socialize, where we socialize and how infrastructures in our community have not been taken into consideration. The private sector and the health care industry have not put a premium on ensuring that African Americans and other low-income communities are cared for. Therefore, we have no reason to believe that this plan is currently being designed to provide the necessary support to allow this nation to heal. Let's be clear, no one can tout a healthy economy without a healthy society, and what we are looking at, what we have seen since March is an administration who knew of this virus, who did nothing to address it and as a result of that have allowed our nation to be impacted both their health and economics. Stock market numbers are not a true indication of the economic health of society, and I can assure you whether it's urban or rural, Americans are suffering. Because this administration, their incompetence, their lack of care for people has resulted in our nation being the laughing stock around the globe. Thank you Governor Cuomo for your leadership and setting an example of what true governance looks like, and I hope as we continue to walk down this process that we understand that public policy can heal people or it can kill people, and all of us know that we must choose and consider policymakers who care about people to heal them. Thank you.
Governor Cuomo: Beautiful. Powerfully said, and I can't thank you enough for joining me to help resonate this very important message and bring attention to it, because they're talking about having a vaccine in a couple of weeks. So, the time is very short so the message is urgent. To members of the press, let's take a couple of questions for the Attorney General, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Morial on this topic and then I'll stay on to talk about the numbers if you have any questions on the case numbers and the positivity rate afterward. So, questions on this topic for Mr. Morial, Mr. Johnson, Attorney General James.