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Civil liberties and the COVID vaccine: How to get the life-saving doses to the communities that need them most

By: Donna Lieberman Executive Director

The first shipments of new vaccines for the COVID-19 virus have arrived, and the early inoculations have begun. There is cautious optimism the vaccine will be widely available to the general public by spring. But in the meantime, the virus continues to spread at an alarming rate, with nearly every day bringing record numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The vaccines represent a chance to end this dark period, and the possibility of a return to something close to normal. But big questions loom over who will get vaccinated and when. The goal of our vaccine distribution plans should be to ensure that everyone has access to the vaccine. This gives us the best chance at herd immunity and long-term protection.

But two critical challenges could make the vaccine less accessible, especially to low-wealth New Yorkers, immigrants and Black and Brown people, who have disproportionately been devastated by the virus.

The first challenge is making sure the vaccine doesn’t get used as a datamining enterprise by the federal government in service of the Trumpian anti-immigrant agenda. The federal government initially insisted that, as a condition for getting access to COVID vaccines, every state sign a data-sharing agreement. That agreement required them to provide a wealth of personal information about each vaccine recipient, including their name, address, date of birth and identification number. This raised huge concerns about whether information might be shared with ICE for immigration enforcement.

Last week, Gov. Cuomo announced that the CDC amended its data-sharing requirement and agreed to changes that go a long way to protect New Yorkers from needless and harmful data sharing with the federal government. This is good news. No other public health program has required states to share so much intimate personal information, and the COVID vaccine distribution program should be no exception.

New York must continue to protect personal data during vaccine distribution. As the Biden administration takes office, local leaders and the governor should continue to take steps to help all of New York’s communities feel — and actually are — safe getting vaccinated.

This privacy push should be coupled with a robust and equitable distribution system. Here, too, the federal government’s plan falls short. It calls for using the traditional private health infrastructure that delivers the flu vaccine — major pharmacy chains, doctors’ offices, and hospitals — to distribute COVID vaccines.

Unfortunately, this infrastructure does not serve all communities equally. In fact, it is paper-thin in the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID. For example, Manhattan has nearly four times as many traditional vaccination sites as the Bronx, even though both have similar total populations. And there is only one sole vaccination site in East Elmhurst, Queens — a largely immigrant community that was the epicenter of a severe outbreak in the spring.

Privacy protection and a robust distribution plan are two key components of a vaccine program, but both will not be enough without public trust. Unfortunately, deep-rooted prejudice in the past and present will make building this trust difficult. Even the perception that data could be shared with the feds might make immigrant communities across New York wary of getting a vaccine.

Our health-care system has a tragic legacy of racial biases that has caused immense harm, alienation and distrust.

Many, particularly Black people, remember the horrors of the infamous “Tuskegee Experiment.” In the 1930s, the U.S. government studied the impact of untreated syphilis in hundreds of Black men, leaving many to suffer and die even after an effective treatment was discovered.

Racism is still very much embedded in our health-care system today. Black women in New York State experience three times greater rates of maternal mortality; Black patients suffering from serious conditions are less likely to be offered painkillers than white patients. And there have been recent reports of forced sterilization in immigrant jails.

State and local leaders must work with community members to engage all New Yorkers in the vaccination effort. Just as community members have been good at getting their neighbors to wear masks and adhere to social distancing, they are also best positioned to convince people to get vaccinated.

New York must do everything in its power to ensure the vaccine reaches everyone in need. This should include partnering with community-based organizations to establish more vaccination sites. We should also provide free transportation to existing vaccination sites, and job-protected time off work to get vaccinated.

The close of the COVID era cannot come soon enough. We must make sure it ends for all New Yorkers.

This piece was originally published in the New York Daily News.

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