(TNS) — The White House pushed back hard this week against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has recently questioned the efficacy of coronavirus vaccines developed under the administration of President Donald J. Trump, and also alleged the federal government has not developed a plan that ensures states have the resources to provide vaccinations in communities of color.
Cuomo's incendiary remarks boiled over during a Nov. 1 news conference in which he alleged the plan of the White House coronavirus task force is for the military to transport the vaccine to pharmacy chains, hospitals and doctor's offices, "the same infrastructure that doesn't exist in the communities we're talking about."
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement Monday saying Cuomo's description of the distribution process has failed to note that it is governors who will direct the vaccine distribution priorities in their own states. The spokesperson said they are "perplexed" by Cuomo's public statements, because they have had "productive interactions with his public health team."
"As that team knows, the federal government will be allocating vaccine doses as they become available to every jurisdiction in the country, including New York state and New York City," the spokesperson said. "Once the allocation is made, our distributor will deliver doses to wherever that jurisdiction directs us. Gov. Cuomo, and all other governors, will be able to prioritize whichever citizens they deem should receive the vaccine first. The federal government will not determine any jurisdiction's priorities from Washington, D.C."
Similarly, the federal government has developed plans for distribution of coronavirus vaccines to Native American communities — with input and participation from those nations as well as the states in which they are located — and also to other vulnerable populations, such as federal prison inmates and veterans.
New York's draft vaccination distribution plan, unveiled in October, mentions minority communities as vulnerable populations but does not specify when they would receive vaccinations in a three-phase distribution plan.
"Let me be clear, the Black and brown communities that were first on the list of who died cannot be last on the list of who receives the vaccine — period," Cuomo said Sunday as he spoke to a gathering at Riverside Church in New York City. "We cannot and we will not let that happen."
Michael Bars, a White House spokesman, accused Cuomo of doing more to engage in "dangerous, politically motivated attacks that obstruct the federal planning process than (in) meaningful collaboration to save lives."
"We continue working hand-in-hand with our state and local partners and remain intensely focused on helping Americans communities ... and protecting the most vulnerable, including the elderly and racial and ethnic minorities who are disproportionately affected by the virus," Bars said.
During the Nov. 1 news conference, which took place two days before the presidential election, Cuomo, without evidence, again called into question the safety of the Food and Drug Administration's peer-reviewed approval process for a COVID-19 vaccine. He has also accused Trump of politicizing that process.
When the FDA does approve a vaccine, the governor said, "I'm sure (it) will be done on an expeditious basis under this president, if not a reckless basis."
The governor, citing federal estimates that a nationwide vaccination will cost about $6 billion, has also said that the $140 million being allocated to states for that effort is far short of what is necessary.
But in a four-page letter sent to Cuomo on Oct. 30 in his role as chairman of the National Governors Association, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar provided a detailed response to the association's questions about the federal vaccine program, dubbed Operation Warp Speed. He noted that the federal government has provided $200 million to states for vaccine readiness and another $140 million for a distribution program. By Dec. 15, another $140 million will be distributed to states for vaccine readiness plans and additional resources are being developed.
Azar noted that most of the major costs of a vaccine distribution program are being paid by the federal government. They include securing and paying for the vaccines, transporting doses to states, and paying the cost of vaccinations for those who are uninsured.
Azar offered to meet one-on-one with Cuomo to discuss any other concerns he may have, but the governor declined.
Two days after receiving that letter, Cuomo was joined at the Nov. 1 news conference by state Attorney General Letitia James, National Urban League President Marc Morial and NAACP President Derrick Johnson. The governor again said that without federal resources, the state will not be able to provide vaccinations in public housing projects.
Cuomo also said that he had "been working with" the White House coronavirus task force. He noted that two days earlier, he had joined a governors-only conference call with the task force, whose members include Azar; Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator; Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention; FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn; and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy & Infection Diseases.
But what Cuomo did not reveal at the news conference is that the Oct. 30 coronavirus task force briefing was the first one he had taken part in since June 1, and that he had declined to participate in 17 consecutive similar briefings, including a 75-minute "vaccine-specific" session on Sept. 9. That session was attended by nearly 50 governors and senior officials overseeing the vaccine development process, according to the White House.
The session included an in-depth briefing previewing the task force's 57-page COVID-19 Vaccination Program Interim Playbook for Jurisdiction Operations.
Over the weekend, Cuomo's senior advisor, Richard Azzopardi — responding to a New York Post story highlighting Cuomo's poor attendance at the governors-only briefings — referred to the meetings in a tweet as "increasingly ridiculous and newsless phone calls." In another recent tweet, Azzopardi summarized the federal vaccine and treatment strategy sessions as "useless vanity exercises that were high on praise for the president, low on information."
That assessment from Cuomo's administration is despite feedback from other governors, including many who did not miss 17 briefings, who have praised the results of the task force's work and the promise of a new vaccine. The White House said that an average of 45 governors joined each of the governors-only calls that typically lasted about 85 minutes. On average, nine governors spoke on each call and nearly every governor spoke at least once.
A Times Union review of the summaries of the governors-only meetings showed they included detailed discussions on the federal efforts to coordinate with state and local governments to develop, manufacture and distribute a vaccine, in addition to updates on the spread of the virus in the U.S. In the Sept. 9 meeting that Cuomo missed, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, with HHS, updated the governors on the status of the vaccine candidates and "the integrity of the robust development and approval process," according to the summary.
In the past week, two pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer and Moderna, announced they have completed stage-three trials that show their vaccines are more than 90 percent effective. The vaccine studies, which have been peer-reviewed by independent medical panels, state that distribution of a vaccine to the nation's most vulnerable populations, including the elderly, could happen before the end of the year, according to Azar and other health officials.
"A preliminary analysis of a new mRNA vaccine suggested 90 percent effectiveness in preventing COVID-19," Gov. J.B. Pritzker, D- Illinois, tweeted on Nov. 10. "While there are more trials ahead, this news is potentially a very good sign of things to come."
Pfizer was among the companies that began working with the Trump administration beginning in March after a federal investment of $1.95 billion was announced in July to support large-scale manufacturing and distribution of 100 million doses of Pfizer's vaccine candidate to Americans at no charge.
Last week, Cuomo and Trump sparred after the president updated the nation on Operation Warp Speed but noted he would not send any vaccine to New York unless Cuomo authorized it. That remark, which set off a firestorm, was sparked by Cuomo's earlier pledge to have an independent state panel approve any vaccines deemed safe by the FDA.
"This is despicable," Gov. Tate Reeves, R- Mississippi, tweeted in response to Cuomo's remarks. "Playing politics to prevent a life-saving vaccine from being distributed because he's jealous that the Trump administration got us here."
As he spoke at the New York City church on Sunday, Cuomo doubled down and assailed the White House plan as "discriminatory ... unjust ... unintelligent."
"They should anticipate the need for special outreach to these communities, fund state government, fund community-based organizations," he said. "Who gets the vaccine and who doesn't get the vaccine is not just a question of morality and principle, it's a legal question.
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