Black leaders join governor in calling Trump plan for distributing vaccines unfair

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Micheline Ford, a critical-care doctor at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, this spring called the coronavirus pandemic “a wake-up call for the African-American community.”

ALBANY COUNTY — New York’s governor today was joined by the state’s attorney general, the president of the NAACP, and the chief executive officer of the National Urban League in calling the Trump administration’s plan for distributing a COVID-19 vaccine unfair to Black, brown, and poor communities.

The plan is to have private chain pharmacies administer the vaccinations.

“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,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “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.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who set up the Sunday conference call with reporters, asked, “Why was the COVID infection rate so much higher in communities of Black and brown people?” He answered himself, “Because they’re health-care deserts.”

Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, said, “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.”

The Trump plan allows $140 million for all of the states, said Cuomo.

James also said, “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.”

She said that big chain pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens are located throughout wealthy communities. “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.”

Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans and the current head of the National Urban League, noted that 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,” he said. “This plan to rely on the current health-care 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.”

Morial said there is already great resentment and fear that the vaccination process has been politicized.

He recalled how, as a child, he received a polio vaccine at his neighborhood school in New Orleans and asked, “Why not learn from what was done in the past?”

In mid-April, as the COVID-19 death toll for Albany County rose to 20 — it now stands at 142 — Daniel McCoy announced a program that would test people in “the most underserved communities in the county.”

“We have listened and we are going to deliver,” said McCoy, Albany County’s executive. The county continues to run the testing program, in partnership with the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Health Center, and pays for anyone who does not have insurance.

“There are huge disparities in the populations we serve and the neighborhoods we hope to take this to,” David Shippee, president and chief executive officer of the Center, which is based on Lark Drive in Arbor Hill, said in April.

“There is a high prevalence of chronic conditions there,” said Shippee. National data, he said, shows these conditions lead to a greater death rate among people of color.

The testing sites, he said, “will allow us to make greater decisions about how we move forward over the next couple of weeks and the next couple of months with this pandemic.”

Elizabeth Whalen, Albany County’s health commissioner, and McCoy had pushed for more community testing after initial testing had been narrowed to hospital patients and exposed health-care workers since federal test kits were limited.

On April 6, the state opened a drive-through testing facility in tents at the University of Albany’s uptown campus but the facility would only test “individuals that could drive,” said Whalen.

The tests are important, Whalen said in April, so her department could identify people who have COVID-19 and reach the people they have been in contact with so those contacts can be put under quarantine to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

“Another core function of local public health is really to assess the health of the community,” said Whalen. Every three years, her department puts out a community health assessment to identify high-needs neighborhoods “where citizens have disparate health outcomes and underlying health conditions so we can target these neighborhoods.”

Whalen said working toward “test equity” had taken a great deal of discussion and planning and that the mobility of this plan — tents and a mobile unit from Whitney Young will be used — make the sites easily accessible.

“Across the nation, we’re hearing about disparate outcomes of COVID-19 dependent on race,” said Whalen. “The data we have so far is not robust enough to see how this is playing out in Albany County.”

As of Nov. 1, the county had amassed significantly more data, which shows that, although a disproportionate number of Black patients have been hospitalized with COVID-19, a disproportionate number of Black residents have not died from the disease.

Albany County is 71.6 percent white and 11.4 percent Black.

The county’s dashboard shows that 62 percent of residents hospitalized with COVID-19 have been white and 24.5 percent have been Black. Among the Albany County residents who have died of the disease, 88 percent were white and 10.6 percent were Black.

Also in April, Micheline Ford, a critical-care doctor at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, said that, in serving on the frontlines, “We’ve been seeing a disproportionate amount of African Americans that have been sick but also dying.”

Explaining why, Ford said, “It goes back to African Americans being high risk for diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, renal disease, and obesity as well as underlying heart disease, and a lot of these issues are sometimes not known in the African-American community. People are walking around not knowing they have high blood pressure or diabetes … .

“It’s often ignored … or there’s not access to health care. They have no transportation to health care or they have no insurance for healthcare … We are seeing a lot of patients coming in late.”

Ford called the pandemic “a wake-up call for the African-American community.”

On June 2, after Albany erupted in protests over the previous weekend, Whalen said at a press briefing, “I feel it is important for me today to discuss another public-health threat … That public-health threat is racism. Racism is real.”

Whalen called the killing of George Floyd — a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes as he said he could not breathe — “a despicable act that has angered the entire country.”

She went on, “But a large part of this anger is due to an underlying systemic problem that occurs across this country, and that is racism.”

Whalen said the county’s health department works with community members “to try to address inequities in health.” The department’s mission is, in part, to “reduce health disparities and promote health equity,” Whalen said.

“Equity,” she said, is different from “equality.”

“Equity means the absence of avoidable, remediable differences among groups of people whether those groups are defined socially, economically, demographically, or geographically,” said Whalen. “Equity is a process, and equality should be the outcome of that process. It is a difficult process.”

She said her department engages in that process every day. It hosts listening forums on maternal mortality. Staff go door-to-door in high-risk neighborhoods to address disparity in conditions like asthma, diabetes, and heart disease. The department educates the public and works on task forces designed “to help bridge the gap,” Whalen said.

Perhaps most importantly, Whalen said in June, is the need “to listen to the communities of color, to listen to the very real concerns that they have, and to work hand in hand with them to come up with better strategies to close these gaps, to help this anger, and to make sure that we are all working every day on solutions.”


Newest numbers

As of Sunday morning, Albany County has 3,620 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 18 new cases since Saturday, according to a press release from McCoy’s office.

Among the new cases, five had close contact with someone infected with the disease, 10 did not have a clear source of infection at this time, and three are health-care workers or residents of congregate settings.

Albany County now has 1,354 residents under quarantine, up from 1,343. The five-day average for new daily positives increased to 27.8 from 27.4. There are now 179 active cases in the county, down from 184 on Saturday.

So far, 16,363 people have completed quarantine. Of those, 3,441 had tested positive and recovered.

Twenty-six county residents, up from 20 on Saturday, are now hospitalized with COVID-19; two of them are in an intensive-care unit. The county’s hospitalization rate has increased to 0.71 percent.

Based on Saturday’s test results, the Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, has an infection rate of 0.1 percent.

Just two of the state’s 10 regions are below the targeted 1-percent positivity rate: The Mohawk Valley and the Southern Tier are each at 0.8 percent. Western New York is the highest with a positivity rate of 2.6 percent.

Statewide, the positivity rate, based on Saturday’s test results, was 1.51 percent. This includes the zones with micro-clusters of COVID-19, where over-sampling is done; the rate in those areas was 3.10 percent.

More Regional News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.