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Cuomo: NY will sue feds if vaccine plan ignores underserved communities

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday threatened to sue

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Sunday threatened to sue the federal government if the Trump administration fails to include the needs of underserved minority communities in its plan to distribute a coronavirus vaccine. Credit: Facebook / Gov. Andrew Cuomo

This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Vera Chinese, Lisa Colangelo, Scott Eidler and Laura Figueroa Hernandez. It was written by Colangelo.

New York will sue the federal government if the Trump administration's distribution of a COVID-19 vaccination gives short shrift to minority communities, which have been hit hardest by the pandemic, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Sunday.

The governor's threat of legal action came in a fiery speech at Riverside Church in Manhattan, just two days after President Donald Trump said he would not send the COVID-19 vaccine to New York because of Cuomo's past comments questioning whether the White House can competently manage its distribution. Cuomo also has said he wants an independent evaluation to determine if the vaccine would be safe.

Federal officials have said a vaccination could be ready before the end of the year.

Cuomo has repeatedly said the federal government’s plan to distribute the vaccine does not adequately address the needs of underserved communities, where residents have been sickened and died from COVID-19 in disproportionate numbers.

The plan prioritizes commercial providers such as pharmacy chains that are more prevalent in higher income areas, the governor said.

"If the Trump Administration does not change this plan and does not provide an equitable vaccine process, we will enforce our legal rights," Cuomo told the crowd at the Morningside Heights church, which included elected officials as well as leaders of the Urban League, the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"We will fight to make sure every life is protected equally," he said. "Enough injustice has been done during COVID. It stops now. It stops with this vaccine."

Asked about Cuomo’s remarks, White House deputy spokesman Brian Morgenstern said the Trump administration has been working on a distribution plan for months.

"President Trump is ready to deliver a vaccine as quickly as possible to all Americans starting with our most vulnerable and health care workers," Morgenstern said in an email. "Governor Cuomo’s threats to delay vaccination for political purposes, when the vaccine will have undergone numerous layers of independent scientific review, are emblematic of his sociopathic, borderline murderous handling of this pandemic."

COVID-19 cases in the United States topped 11 million, with the number of deaths over 246,000, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center on Sunday. States across the nation are continuing to see an increase in cases, with more than 153,000 reported Friday.

Figures released by the New York State Health Department on Sunday show 3,649 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, including 366 in Suffolk County and 326 in Nassau County.

The state positivity rate — the percentage of positive cases from the number of tests given — was 2.74%. Long Island's positivity rate, which had been hovering at or above 3% for a week, dipped slightly to 2.7%.

Thirty people died from COVID-19 on Saturday, officials said, including two deaths in Nassau County and three deaths in Suffolk County.

At a Friday news conference in the White House Rose Garden, Trump discussed the progress of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine candidate, and said it could receive final approvals over the next several weeks. He said the federal government will not be sending the vaccine to New York because of comments Cuomo had made about the vetting process and the distribution plan.

"For political reasons, the governor decided to say … he wants to take his time with the vaccine. He doesn’t trust where the vaccine is coming from … he doesn’t trust that it’s this White House," Trump said.

"So, we won’t be delivering it to New York," Trump said. "Gov. Cuomo will have to let us know when he is ready for it."

Cuomo had said New York will have experts review the vaccine before it is distributed in the state, because he was concerned decisions are being made based on politics rather than science. But on Friday he said on CNN that the election of Democrat Joe Biden as president takes politics out of the approval process. Cuomo said the state's review will coincide with the release of the vaccine by the federal government.

"He lost. … I don’t think the FDA is going to play games at this point," Cuomo said.

New York Attorney General Letitia James weighed in on Friday, releasing a statement that her office would sue if "dissemination of the vaccine takes place in the twilight of a Trump Administration and the president wants to play games with people’s lives."

Cuomo said any legal action he would take with the NAACP and the Urban League would focus on denial of rights under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The clause forbids states from denying its citizens equal protection under the law.

"We saw there were hot spots in communities of color, especially Black communities," Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, said Sunday in response to Cuomo's remarks.

"In Nassau County, there was a slow response in getting the testing sites in those communities, and we know that there has been a lack of urgency overall, from the federal government in terms of fighting COVID," Gross said. "So we know that the result has been Black and brown communities have been hardest hit in terms of the rates; it makes sense to make sure that New York, as a whole, but certainly those communities that have been harder hit, that we get the vaccine."

In-person schooling was canceled at the Levittown district’s East Broadway Elementary for Monday due to a new coronavirus case, the district announced.

Also on Sunday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the number of new COVID-19 cases has not reached the level where schools would have to be closed on Monday.

On Twitter, de Blasio said the city’s test positivity seven-day average stood at 2.57%. On Saturday, he tweeted that figure was 2.47%. He had warned that the city should get ready for another lockdown if the average crossed the 3% threshold.

"Thankfully, schools will remain open on Monday, but we have to keep fighting back with everything we’ve got," he tweeted on Sunday.