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LI doctor on Biden COVID-19 task force discusses pandemic's impact on vulnerable groups

Dr. Homer Venters, from Port Washington, talks about

Dr. Homer Venters, from Port Washington, talks about the importance of vaccinating inmates against COVID-19 in prisons and jails. A judge recently ruled New York must offer the vaccine to inmates as soon as possible. Credit: Howard Schnapp

President Joe Biden in February appointed Port Washington resident Dr. Homer Venters to the Biden-Harris COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. Venters, an epidemiologist and former chief medical officer for New York City’s jails, is a clinical associate professor at the NYU School of Global Public Health. He has spent the last year studying COVID-19 in prisons, jails and immigration detention centers.

The task force will hold its second meeting on April 9, focusing on vaccine access for vulnerable groups, and in May will discuss the mental health consequences of COVID-19 on communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Interim recommendations will be released each month.

In an interview Thursday, Venters discussed coronavirus-related disparities and what the task force hopes to accomplish.

Q: What is at the root of the inequities in the impact of COVID, including a higher hospitalization and death rate among Black and Latino people?

A: These are long-standing problems of access to care, of quality of care, that are felt by people of color, people who are Black, people who are Latinx. But these disparities also can be seen in other groups that we need to think about and help promote the health of during COVID, such as people with disabilities — physical disabilities, behavioral health disabilities — but also people who are incarcerated, people who are part of the justice system. These are groups that have for a long time had substandard access to care. And now with COVID, we see that these are the groups that are much more likely to contract COVID and to die from COVID.

Q: Will the interim recommendations be released before the final report is released, and will the final report then have final recommendations?

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A: As I understand it as a task force member, we don't want to wait until the end of this process to come out with one single report. We do want to issue these interim recommendations along the way and prioritize decisions that can be made right now to make a difference. And then the president and the administration will have the opportunity both to implement some of those things right away, and also then see the full measure of all the recommendations in a final report for the final approval and review by the president.

Q: What is your reaction to the court ruling this week in New York that mandates vaccinations of inmates?

A: The ruling in itself is a welcome one. I think that it's really sad that it took a court intervening to acknowledge what science has told us from the beginning, which is that these are congregate settings — jails and prisons and immigration detention centers. And we've known for a long time that people who are in these places are more likely to contract COVID and more likely to die from COVID. And so when a state — and these are mostly state decisions — talks about congregate settings and prioritizing vaccine access, they must explicitly include everybody. They can't cut out people because they think they might be politically unpopular to their base. In New York and in many other states, the silence and the lack of access for people who are in these congregate settings has been a real public health disaster.

Q: Nassau and Suffolk jail officials told a Newsday colleague that vaccinations of inmates will start soon. Some advocates for inmates criticized the two counties for going too slowly.

A: I see this in many jails and prisons around the country, which is that you have local advocates and often local administrators who are eager to start this process. But the state sets these [vaccination] priority levels and then disperses the vaccine to the counties, or at the county level. The lack of leadership at the state level has slowed this down in all the county jails around the state of New York. I am confident that with the removal of this logjam by the court at the state level, both Nassau and Suffolk will move ahead very, very quickly.

COVID-19 CASE NUMBERS IN JAILS

Nassau County, since March 1, 2020: 159 inmates who tested positive

270 correction officers who tested positive

No deaths

Suffolk County: 58 inmates

165 correction officers

Deaths: One correction officer, no inmates

New York City: 619 inmates

1,926 correction staff

Deaths: 11 employees, 3 inmates

SOURCE: Nassau, Suffolk sheriff's offices; New York City Department of Correction

With Michael O'Keeffe

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