New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo turned out not to be the hero the media hailed early in the coronavirus pandemic. His administration’s March 2020 directive that nursing homes admit Covid patients likely cost hundreds if not thousands of lives. A year later, his policy of prioritizing vaccine distribution based on “social equity” and interest-group lobbying again proved dangerous for the oldest New Yorkers.
Vaccine supplies are now sufficient that every adult in every U.S. state is eligible to receive a shot, but three months ago officials had to ration them. “New York is mandating social equity and fair distribution,” Mr. Cuomo declared Jan. 11. At first, vaccination was limited to anyone over 65 and workers Mr. Cuomo deemed “essential,” including police, firefighters, bus drivers, grocery clerks and teachers. A large share of the supply was allocated for government unions and their members.
Restaurants and taxi and car-service companies lobbied for their employees to be declared essential. Mr. Cuomo demurred at first. “It’s a cheap, insincere discussion,” he said. “Yes, I would like to see restaurant workers eligible. But what does eligibility mean when you don’t have enough?”
He reversed himself the next day, Feb. 2, allowing local officials to expand eligibility to these workers. Many upstate counties declined, but New York City threw open the gates. “Good!” Mayor
Bill de Blasio
tweeted. “This will help us reach more New Yorkers while driving equity in our Vaccine for All campaign.”
By this point about half of New York adults were eligible, which made it difficult for seniors to get appointments. Yet leftist groups kept complaining that not enough minorities were getting vaccinated. They pushed Mr. Cuomo to expand eligibility to younger adults with chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes and obesity, because sufferers are disproportionately black and Latino.
These conditions are associated with higher risk of severe Covid symptoms, but old age is a much greater risk factor. One study estimated that among patients hospitalized for Covid, those 65 to 74 were 5.77 times as likely to die than those 18 to 39. The difference between a diabetic and healthy patient (after controlling for age, sex, race and ethnicity) was only 19%.
Mr. Cuomo initially refused to extend eligibility to those with chronic conditions: “We’re not even a third of the way there on the current eligible population. To now say to four million people, ‘OK, you’re eligible, too, but we’re nowhere near getting to you.’ It’s meaningless.” But again he acquiesced within days. All you had to do to qualify was assert that you had a health condition from a long list.
By mid-February, some three-fourths of New York’s adult population was eligible. But unless you were a government worker whose union received a dedicated allocation or had a special arrangement with providers, scheduling a vaccine appointment online was like betting a single number on a roulette wheel. An 80-year-old had no better odds than a 30-year-old Uber driver. New York now has administered the fewest shots per person to those over 65 in the Northeast and the seventh-lowest in the country, although its overall vaccination rate is higher than average.
Some argued that prioritizing “essential workers” would reduce virus cases. It didn’t. People are more likely to catch Covid at home or social gatherings than in an establishment or other workplaces, in part because of differences in mask use. Like most states in the Northeast, New York experienced an uptick in cases this spring as lockdowns were eased and people started socializing more. An antibody survey of New York City public workers last summer found that police, firefighters, teachers and child care workers were no more likely to have been infected than other city residents.
Yet when cases climbed this spring, a large number of seniors in New York still weren’t protected. As a result, hospitalizations and deaths in New York—especially in New York City, where seniors had to vie for vaccines with more “essential workers”—dropped much more slowly than in other states like California, Connecticut and Florida, all of which prioritized vaccinating seniors.
Gov. Ned Lamont
took heat for basing vaccine eligibility strictly on age, but that policy appears to have saved lives. Connecticut has fully vaccinated 78% of seniors, compared with 63% in New York. In December and January, Connecticut had 12% more deaths (adjusted for population) among residents over 65 than New York. But as more seniors got the shots, many fewer got sick and died in Connecticut. In February, senior deaths were 75% higher in New York than Connecticut; in March, deaths in New York were nearly four times as high.
Total deaths have also been about 50% lower in Connecticut than New York over the past two months. The Empire State was unfortunate to be the center of the early Covid outbreak. Its bad luck has been compounded by bad leadership.
Ms. Finley is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.
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