The COVID-19 epidemic presents New York — and, indeed, the world — with a rare moment of enforced solidarity. The virus is no respecter of racial or economic boundaries, being all too happy to ride the No. 4 train from Kingsbridge Road right down to Wall Street and on to Crown Heights, hopping from white to black to Latino as easily as from Christian to Jew to Hindu or from Wall Street finance bro to vegan pastry chef in Brooklyn, with no regard at all for social justice. The virus doesn’t care about ticking demographic boxes — it just cares about the gross numbers.
The people running New York’s vaccination effort could learn a thing or two from the virus.
What is going to make vulnerable populations safer is not the issue of how many black, brown, immigrant, or poor people get vaccinated but how quickly we can vaccinate a large enough share of the overall population to get the epidemic under control. We are, at least in this case, all in this together.
Not that you’d know it from New York’s political class.
With progressive leaders seeking to preempt complaints about racial and economic disparities, New York’s vaccine program has been unnecessarily complex and overly restrictive from the beginning. For example, the first set of rules allowed the vaccination of some people who work at pharmacies and funeral homes but not others — and the state imposes severe penalties for violations. Misinterpret the rules and you could face a $1 million fine and jail time.
And so vaccine doses went to waste when providers could not round up enough qualifying patients to use all of their allotted doses before they expired. New York would have been better off if every 1,000 expiring doses had simply been given to the first 1,000 people collared on the street. Instead, those expired doses went in the trash.
The pursuit of “equity” left everybody worse off.
Along with the elderly and essential workers, priority was also given to black and Latino neighborhoods that were identified by the Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity — and where the majority of the city’s vaccination sites are now located. Some sites are restricted by borough of residency, others are restricted by occupation (a Queens site is partly restricted to those with taxi driver’s licenses) and other criteria. Some 60 percent of the reservations at the Fort Washington Armory have been reserved to residents of Washington Heights, Inwood, the South Bronx, and parts of Harlem. And there is a good medical reason for prioritizing these communities, which are among those hit hardest by the epidemic.
But it also makes sense to have enough discretion and flexibility in the program to maximize the use of all available resources. The current restrictions have resulted in the one thing New York should be trying to avoid: vaccinating fewer people than it could. Rather than trying to ensure that flexibility, Gov. Cuomo has terrorized providers with threats of million-dollar fines and criminal indictments.
Even with all those heavy-handed measures in place, black and Latino New Yorkers are being vaccinated at a rate lower than whites. Whites make up about a third of New York’s population but account for nearly half of those who have been vaccinated.
Age contributes to this: New York has more whites over 65 than Latinos or African Americans, so a program that favors the elderly will skew more white than does the city overall. But there are other factors at play, too: African Americans and Latinos report heightened skepticism and hesitancy regarding the vaccine, often citing concerns such as insurance coverage or immigration status, both of which are irrelevant to receiving the vaccine. Anti-vaccine conspiracy groups have specifically targeted African Americans with reminders about such abuses as the Tuskegee syphilis study, an unethical experiment in which black Americans were used as unwitting lab rats.
New York has managed to get the worst of both worlds: a highly restrictive and highly politicized program that somehow managed to achieve the opposite of its intended outcome. Similar stories have played out in other big, Democrat-run cities from Washington to Dallas.
Compare these rollouts with the experience of West Virginia, which has serious challenges — including a relatively poor, dispersed, and rural population — but took a much less restrictive approach to its vaccinations. Rather than try to shut out commuters or rigidly enforce an inflexible eligibility schedule, West Virginia has relied on some reasonably effective institutions — the National Guard and Walgreens — and managed its priorities more loosely where vaccine supply has allowed.
The difference in results is stark: For every three New York state residents vaccinated, West Virginia vaccinates four. That’s important, because what actually matters most is not the political fallout from who gets the vaccine first but how large a share of the total population gets vaccinated quickly.
In short, rules meant to protect the poor and the powerless have hindered the overall vaccination effort. And the very people those rules were meant to help are being hurt the most.
Kevin D. Williamson is the author of “Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ ” out now.