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Cuomo urges federal government to get COVID-19 vaccine to Black, Brown communities

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Mike Groll/Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers a COVID-19 update Nov. 25 in Rochester.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is calling on the federal government to make sure COVID-19 vaccines get to Black, Brown and Asian communities, as well as protect the information of undocumented immigrants who get vaccinated.

Cuomo, as well as a coalition of civil rights groups and other organizations, sent a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday, urging him to fund state efforts to distribute the vaccine to people of color and those who are low-income.

COVID-19 infection and death rates are significantly higher in these communities, and they are often underserved by private health care facilities, the letter read.

“It’s going to be an extensive effort to outreach to Black, Brown, and poor communities,” Cuomo said. “You’re going to have to partner with Black churches. You’re going to have to go into public housing projects. You’re going to have to run public information campaigns. … There’s no such provision in the federal program. I believe that is discrimination.”

The Department of Health and Human Services thus far has committed $200 million to help states distribute vaccines once they’re available, but that may only be a fraction of what it will to distribute the vaccine. State health agencies nationwide say it will cost them about $8 billion.

Cuomo and the coalition, which includes the NAACP, are also suggesting the federal government modify a vaccine distribution requirement they say could be used to find and deport undocumented immigrants.

Cuomo has been raising concerns about the requirement for several weeks. The federal government is asking states to sign a data-sharing agreement that would provide it with demographic information on anyone who gets a vaccine. The federal agreement suggests that states share residents’ Social Security, driver's license or passport numbers, and the agreement says this data could be given to its federal agencies, including Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

In a plan outlined in Tuesday’s letter, Cuomo suggests a modified agreement that he feels will protect personal information.

It would still track vaccinated people, but keep their Social Security and driver’s science numbers shielded from the federal government, Cuomo said. It also asks the federal government to agree not to share any identification information with non-health agencies.

“There's no reason why you need a Social Security number. We can identify people without using indices of citizenship,” he said. “There's no reason why we have to send citizenship data to HHS about a vaccine.”

Although President-Elect Joe Biden is unlikely to continue this data-sharing requirement once sworn into office next month, Cuomo noted that the Trump administration is asking states to sign the agreement now.

Second, the federal government requires that a Data Sharing Agreement be executed by state governments before commencing the vaccination program.  The current Data Sharing Agreement provided by the federal government requires identification of each person who is vaccinated - the federal government suggests that states use Social Security numbers, driver's license identification numbers, or passport numbers to fulfill this requirement.