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New York’s nursing homes — hard hit by COVID-19 — will be able to score the much-sought coronavirus vaccine through a federal partnership with two national pharmacy chains, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday.
The governor’s announcement that the Empire State was opting in to the program comes as Cuomo continues to fend off months of criticism that policy directives issued by his Health Department in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic fueled outbreaks in nursing homes.
All told, more than 6,500 residents in long-term care facilities across New York state have died during the pandemic.
“The vaccine is the weapon that ends the war. The question is how long it takes,” Cuomo told reporters during a telephone press briefing.
Under the program, CVS and Walgreens have been enlisted by the White House’s Operation Warp Speed coronavirus vaccine initiative to use their sprawling networks of stores and pharmacists as part of the effort to distribute the COVID-19 vaccines to nursing home residents and staff across the country.
Cuomo’s announcement follows weeks of criticism from the three-term governor over the Trump administration’s vaccine development and distribution plans.
Just three weeks ago, on Nov. 15, the governor threatened to sue the White House over what he claimed as an inequitable distribution plan that would shortchange African American and Latino neighborhoods, which have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.
“The point was always that pharmacies work in the traditional flu vaccine infrastructure, they don’t do vaccinations in underserved or minority communities,” said top Cuomo advisor Rich Azzopardi, in response to questions about the U-turn in tone.
“They do flu vaccines for nursing homes already,” he added. “Nothing has changed about our concerns about the lack of effort to deliver this vaccine to underserved or minority communities or how information is going to be used for immigration purposes.”
The bid to speed of vaccine distribution comes just days before federal authorities — and Cuomo’s review panel — are expected to sign off on vaccines developed by New York-based Pfizer and Massachusetts-based Moderna for the coronavirus.
Supplies are expected to be heavily limited at first with New York state receiving just 170,000 vaccines in the first batch distributed by the federal government.
Both Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have said that hospital staff, first responders and nursing home residents and employees will be at the front of the line for the first jabs.
New York state’s long-term care facilities alone have roughly 135,000 staff and 85,000 residents — for a combined 210,000 potential patients.
The governor’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis during the early days of the pandemic has come under renewed scrutiny after he authored a self-laudatory book and began a publicity tour just as the second wave of cases began to build.
Critics have focused on a directive issued — and later rescinded — by state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker that ordered nursing homes to allow coronavirus-infected residents to return provided they were not critically ill.
The memorandum was issued as New York’s public and private hospital systems were in crisis and rapidly running out of beds needed to care for desperately sick patients.
Cuomo’s critics — including Democratic lawmakers and some public health experts — argue the directive undermined other public health measures imposed to keep the virus out of long-term care facilities, which are home to populations that are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
Zucker and Cuomo have counted the criticism, arguing the directive was in line with guidance issued by the feds at the time.
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