That request, which was made by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Borough President Eric Adams and leaders of the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus (BLAC), was ignored by the Trump administration’s Department of Justice.
Now, Williams, Adams and other city legislators are pushing the Biden administration to probe how decisions made by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo disproportionately affected communities of color.
“We believed then, as we believe now, that there may be civil rights violations embedded in the response that made New York the epicenter of the epicenter of this pandemic,” Williams said last Wednesday.
The public advocate charged that last year, all levels of government delayed the release of demographic information about the spread of the virus. This year, officials were late to reveal the disparities in vaccination rates, he said.
According to the latest data by the city’s Health Department, 42 percent of adult New York City residents who have received at least one dose of the vaccine were white. By comparison, only 11 percent of city residents who got at least one shot were Black, 15 percent were Asian and 16 percent identified as Latino.
Earlier this month, the agency also released a map showing the percentage of partially vaccinated adults in New York City by ZIP code. Neighborhoods that have the highest vaccination rates include Breezy Point, Bellerose and Little Neck in Queens.
Areas with the lowest vaccination rates are generally located in southeast Queens, central Brooklyn and the south Bronx.
Williams noted that the ZIP codes with the highest rates of infection during the pandemic now have the lowest vaccination rates.
“It’s unsurprising, but it’s pretty damning,” he said. “From infection to injection, we see these disparities.
“There are no excuses and there can be no passing the blame at this point,” Williams added. “Failures that began last year persist today, and we fear that will continue if there’s no accountability.”
Councilman I. Daneek Miller noted that lawmakers had to fight “tooth and nail” for robust COVID testing sites in vulnerable communities. He said the same persistent disparities throughout the pandemic must be investigated.
“If we are going to rebuild and recover, we must first fully address the scope of the crisis and failures that have allowed Black, Latino and Asian communities to be so underserved in these crucial times,” he said. “We look forward to a full investigation because our community needs to get back to living.”
Miller said six weeks ago, BLAC, several community-based organizations and Adams put out a plan with suggestions on the vaccine rollout. They called for collaboration between the city and state to prioritize the most impacted communities.
Their plan also asked for real-time data that would highlight when, where and who was being inoculated. Miller said just looking at ZIP codes to ensure equitable vaccine distribution is “not the answer” because many people who have received the vaccine come from Long Island, Westchester and other places outside of the city, while local residents have had a hard time accessing it.
“The cruel irony is that when you step out your door and you see these lines to be vaccinated, these aren’t your neighbors and they don’t look like you,” he said. “Just because there’s a vaccine available in your community doesn’t guarantee that communities have access to that vaccine.”
Last week, the City Council advanced a resolution, sponsored by Miller and backed by 25 other lawmakers, calling on the state legislature to pass legislation to allow local health departments to implement changes to improve their vaccine rollout to meet the needs of hard-hit communities of color.
The resolution includes a call for implementation of a vaccine appointment stand-by list, a hotline to make appointments, and a map of current vaccine distribution sites.
Adams, who supports the legislation, said many of the steps he has already called for, including expanding vaccine eligibility and establishing 24-hour vaccine sites, have already been implemented.
“However, much more remains to be done to ensure the most vulnerable are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in proportionate rates to their eligibility,” he said.
Assemblyman Khaleel Anderson, who represents neighborhoods in southeast Queens, said the creation of a vaccination hotline would benefit community members with less access to the Internet.
“We have recently seen industrious New Yorkers build independent websites and use social media to bring clarity to vaccination availability,” he said. “While we appreciate these efforts, innovations like these, via phone or online, must ultimately be the responsibility of the government.”
Last week, both Cuomo and de Blasio spoke about the vaccine disparities, particularly in Black communities. The governor attributed the problem to both access and hesitancy.
To date, Cuomo said, the state has set up 91 pop-up vaccination sites in churches, community centers and public housing complexes. He said those sites have administered roughly 43,000 first doses so far.
“We have to work harder in those areas to get those numbers up,” he said.
De Blasio and his health officials also brought up the issue of hesitancy, but largely blamed the lack of supply for the rocky vaccine rollout.
“I very much believe as supply broadens and as time goes on, and there are millions of New Yorkers vaccinated, the other people will come along with us,” said Mitchell Katz, president and CEO of NYC Health+Hospitals.
Last Thursday, the mayor said the way to deal with the disparity issue is to educate the public, get the information out and continue to answer questions about the vaccine. He noted that 77 percent of the city-run vaccination center are already located in communities hardest hit by COVID.
“Folks who are actually most vulnerable are also the most distrustful of the vaccine,” de Blasio said. “It’s a horrible Catch-22.”
While the call for a civil rights investigation was aimed at both the city and state, Williams called out Cuomo for his mistakes and failing to own up to them. He noted in particular that the governor wrote a book on leadership in the middle of the pandemic, when people were still dying from the virus.
“A true leader can admit when a mistake happened, accept the accountability and move forward,” he said. “The danger with what the governor continues to do is that we don’t have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made.
“This is why we are, a year later, still making the same mistakes,” Williams added.