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Cuomo threatens to sue Trump administration over COVID-19 vaccine plans

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks th the Riverside Church in Manhattan Sunday

Governor Andrew Cuomo, in a speech at a Black church in Manhattan Sunday, vowed to sue the administration of President Donald Trump for violating the constitutional rights of African-American and Hispanic New Yorkers, if it does not make changes to its COVID-19 vaccination plan.

Cuomo condemned a federal plan that relies heavily on private pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens, and private hospitals and doctor's offices to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine, when one is ready. He said many poorer communities, where Black and brown New Yorkers live, don’t have those pharmacies, and live in what Cuomo called "health care deserts."

"The president talks about CVS and Walgreens and national chains," Cuomo said at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. "But they are mainly located in rich communities, not in poor communities. We can’t compound the racial injustice that COVID already created."

Cuomo said the plan violates the constitutional rights of African-Americans and Hispanics, under the equal protection clause and he said the state, along with the Urban League, will go to court if the plan is not changed, saying “there can be no more fundamental right” than access to the vaccine.

“Any plan that intentionally burdens communities of color to hinder access to the vaccine deprives those communities of equal protection under the law,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo said he plans to “mobilize an army” of health care workers, community leaders and faith-based organizations to make special outreach efforts to public housing projects and low income communities, to make sure the vaccine is distributed equitably. He said he’s discussed the plan with legislative leaders, including Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who attended the speech.

But the governor said he needs Congress to act on a federal relief package to fund those efforts. There has not been a pandemic-related federal bailout measure since April. The state has a $15 billion deficit, much of it pandemic related.

Cuomo said African-Americans and Latinos have a higher death rate from the coronavirus than whites, as the disease exposed underlying weakness in a health care system where people of color are more likely to have underlying conditions like diabetes and asthma.

“The Black and brown communities that were first on the list of who died, cannot be last on the list of who receives the vaccine,” Cuomo said. “We cannot and we will not let that happen.”

The governor’s remarks come as his on going feud with Trump has intensified in recent days, with the president saying Friday that New York would be the last of all of the states to receive the vaccine.

President Trump remains in office until January 20. President-elect Joe Biden is likely to enact a different vaccine distribution plan. But Biden’s advisors warn that Trump’s delays in giving them access to federal agencies during the transition could slow those plans.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.