WATERTOWN — How is it possible for a health care professional to “fraudulently” administer a life-saving drug to someone who needs it?
If the odds of a patient surviving a pandemic will be dramatically increased by receiving an approved vaccination, arguments against a doctor offering it would be absurd. The doctor knows the individual’s medical condition better than anyone else, so he or she is in the best position to decide if and when a vaccine is appropriate.
Well, this train of thought apparently doesn’t hold true if your state is governed by Andrew M. Cuomo. In this case, he is (as former President George W. Bush used to say) “the decider.”
On Monday, Cuomo issued an executive order threatening health care professionals with the loss of their medical licenses and fines of up to $1 million if they veer from his declared strategy for rolling out vaccines to prevent COVID-19. This stemmed from an investigation into Brooklyn-based ParCare Community Health Network, which has been accused of violating rules established by the state Department of Health.
“State police, together with the state Department of Health and state Attorney General Letitia James, continue to investigate reports that ParCare Community Health Network, Orange County, improperly obtained, transferred and distributed the vaccine to 869 New Yorkers in the general public,” an article published Monday by the Watertown Daily Times reported. “Cuomo declared an executive order threatening to revoke all state licenses for health care providers including doctors, nurses and pharmacists, who fraudulently administer a coronavirus vaccine, increasing criminal penalties up to $1 million. … Providers will be required to certify a patient’s eligibility to receive a COVID-19 vaccine under the order to ensure medical personnel prioritize eligible patients within the DOH’s specific prioritization guidelines. The responsible health organization, individual employees and patients who knowingly received a fraudulent vaccine could each face charges.”
The state’s guidelines call for the first round of vaccines to be given to frontline health care workers as well as those who live and work in nursing facilities. But ParCare reportedly dispensed the vaccines throughout its network and distributed them to members of the public. The organization has six sites in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Monroe (Orange County).
Dr. Howard Zucker, New York’s health commissioner, said the DOH is taking the allegations against ParCare very seriously. However, a spokesperson for ParCare said the state authorized the organization to obtain the vaccines through its Monroe site and pass them along to all their locations, according to a story published Sunday by WLNY-TV.
During a novel coronavirus briefing Monday in Albany, the governor expressed his displeasure over the controversy.
“We will not tolerate any fraud in the vaccination process,” Cuomo said, according to the Times story. “We want to send a clear signal to the providers that if you violate the law on these vaccinations: We will find out, and you will be prosecuted.”
In my column published Sunday, I wrote that we need to stop playing the blame-game over who gets vaccinated first. Yes, rules are necessary to ensure an orderly process of distributing the drug. And to go along with this, it’s appropriate to establish a list of priorities for who should receive the initial vaccinations.
But wringing our hands over some individuals who “cut in line” makes little sense, I argued in my column. Everyone ultimately needs to be vaccinated, so I’m not going to lose too much sleep in discovering there are those who call in favors to get their shot at a shot.
The coronavirus will be effectively controlled when an increasing percentage of people are no longer at risk of developing COVID-19. Anytime someone is stuck in the arm with a needle containing the medication, we’re advancing the cause of eradicating the virus for good.
Members of some demographic groups have a lower likelihood of developing COVID-19 if they become infected. Conversely, members of other demographic groups are at greater odds of becoming seriously ill and dying if they catch the virus.
We know who these people are, so prioritizing them on a list for the first rounds of vaccinations is easy. And until there are significantly more vaccines to go around, sticking to the list is a sensible approach.
But the threat of crippling penalties for administering vaccines to people who haven’t been prioritized is a horrible policy. In the story published by WLNY-TV, a 68-year-old diabetic said he received a vaccination from ParCare despite his not being a prioritized individual.
Why isn’t he on the list? As a senior citizen with problematic health conditions, he meets the criteria for someone with major risk factors of dying from COVID-19. Is his life less worthy of preserving simply because he doesn’t reside in a nursing facility?
Medical researchers don’t yet know if receiving the COVID-19 vaccination will prevent someone from spreading the coronavirus. So even though people may be personally protected from becoming ill, they may still pass the virus on to other people.
This throws a huge wrench into the concept of herd immunity. So it’s essential that everyone receive a vaccine to guard against the potential for death or long-term health complications.
The public health departments in many New York counties have spent years and millions of dollars from the federal government developing plans for responding to pandemics, according to a story published Dec. 23 by the Times Union in Albany. This includes dispersing any available vaccinations.
When it came to this pandemic, however, the Cuomo administration tossed aside the strategies devised by counties in favor of its own ideas for rolling out the vaccines, the Times Union article reported. Years of planning by local officials went to waste. Rather than relying on the understanding that public health authorities possessed on what their respective communities needed, the governor at the last second declared that he knows best.
It would be interesting to see state officials penalize a doctor for providing a vaccine to a single mother desperately worried about the fate of her children if she becomes incapacitated from COVID-19. She’s young and doesn’t have underlying risk factors, but she’s prone to becoming ill.
Her doctor knows this and wanted to reassure her that she and her children would be OK. Yanking this person’s medical license — or slapping the single mother with a huge fine — would be quite the spectacle.
Why is Cuomo trying to browbeat medical authorities into submission?
Does he honestly believe he’s better equipped to decide how doctors should treat their patients?
Will this approach strengthen or weaken the public’s confidence in the medical community?
For the past nine months, Cuomo has been urging people to trust health care professionals on how to deal with the coronavirus. Well, now he needs to take a dose of his own medicine.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.