NY now releasing some COVID vaccine data by ZIP. Counties asked for it months ago.
For months, county leaders asked New York state officials to release details about COVID-19 vaccination rates for each neighborhood. But the information, which is key to addressing vaccine disparity, remained shrouded in secrecy.
Despite the repeated calls for cooperation, state health officials only began releasing the ZIP code-level vaccination data to some counties over the past few weeks, as waning demand for shots threatened to extend the pandemic.
The data disclosures have since reached 60 of the state's 62 counties, revealing some communities hit hardest by coronavirus infections now lag in vaccinations, according to state officials, county documents and data obtained by USA TODAY Network New York.
Meanwhile, county officials and an infectious-disease expert suggested releasing the data earlier could have helped marshal more public health resources to communities plagued by vaccine hesitancy and access hurdles.
“The more transparency without sacrificing individual privacy the better, so that people can make wise decisions,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, an Infectious Diseases Society of America expert.
County leaders voiced similar concerns in two letters addressed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in February and March seeking the ZIP code-level vaccination data and related information.
“This data is critical to helping counties direct eligible individuals to vaccination sites…and identify and address disparities in vaccination rates,” a letter on Feb. 16 stated.
A month later, the state had yet to release the ZIP code data, as county leaders sent a follow-up letter warning the vaccination effort was at a “critical moment of transition.”
The letters were signed by leaders and administrators with the associations representing county executives and county health officials. Cuomo’s office didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to questions about the letters.
What COVID vaccination data is available in NY
Now, after vaccination rates dropped about 34% from the peak level last month, the state Department of Health asserted it can provide the ZIP code-level data to counties upon request.
But the agency contended it is still incapable of publicly releasing ZIP-code level data for communities statewide, citing technical challenges in having to manually pull the information from digital sources.
The state government, which received $264 million in federal aid to support vaccination efforts, could only provide data for up to five counties at a time, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health said in response to a request from the USA TODAY Network New York.
The Health Department fulfilled that request Thursday, providing ZIP-level data for Erie, Broome, Chemung, Oneida and Herkimer counties.
In contrast, however, several other large public health agencies have been publicly releasing the ZIP-code data, which is key to pinpointing vaccination efforts and informing people concerned about personal safety risks in areas with low vaccination rates.
For example, New York City health officials have posted ZIP-code level vaccination data online for all New York City boroughs online. California and Massachusetts officials also publicly release the same data online for all communities in their respective states.
Yet New York state health officials defended the delays in their releasing ZIP code-level vaccination data, citing in part the historic effort to collect, analyze and publicly release reams of COVID-19 statistics and data, some of it updated daily on state-run websites.
“We continue to do everything possible to break down barriers to access and empower all New Yorkers to confidently make the decision to get vaccinated," Sam Fuld, an agency spokesperson, said in a statement.
Counties across the Finger Lakes region last week started posting ZIP code-level vaccination data online, and several county officials in the Mid-Hudson region have released similar data since last week.
New York’s COVID transparency complaints
The situation is the latest example of the pandemic response in New York state being hindered by a lack of governmental transparency and cooperation.
Cuomo’s administration is currently under state and federal investigation for withholding the true nursing home COVID-19 death toll for months.
Cuomo, a Democrat, contended his administration withheld the nursing home data to ensure its accuracy amid what he believes was a politically motivated probe by the Department of Justice under former Republican President Donald Trump.
A group of bipartisan state lawmakers, however, have asserted the delay stemmed from the Cuomo administration’s attempts to downplay nursing home deaths while the governor promoted his book on pandemic leadership.
The nursing home scandal erupted in January after advocates, county officials and other experts criticized the Cuomo administration and the state Department of Health for failing to release key COVID-19 information in a timely fashion since the pandemic struck last spring.
The list of complaints includes delays last spring in releasing pandemic data related to race and ethnicity, as well as COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes.
More recently, advocates in March reported a lack of state government transparency limited efforts to improve COVID-19 related conditions for New Yorkers with developmental and intellectual disabilities living in group homes.
Why COVID vaccination data is important
Amid COVID-19 vaccine supply shortages earlier this year, Cuomo repeatedly cited the state government’s use of hyperlocal data in setting up vaccination sites to target mostly communities of color lagging state averages in getting shots.
During a press conference on Feb. 19, for example, Cuomo detailed how the ZIP-code vaccination data fueled decisions to open mass vaccination sites in Brooklyn and Queens, touting them as nation-leading efforts to reach Black and Latino people with shots.
Cuomo urged local officials in other communities across New York to tap into the same information to combat disparities in vaccinations.
“Look at your county, look at your city and make sure the coverage and the actual vaccinations are fair by geography and by race,” he said.
But behind the scenes county officials could not access the ZIP-code vaccination data needed to identify the rural and urban neighborhoods being missed by vaccine efforts.
At the same briefing, Cuomo and Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker launched into a lengthy defense of the state’s response to COVID-19 infections in nursing homes, as well as the decision to withhold data.
“We should have provided more public information sooner. Yes. No excuse,” Cuomo said, adding he would be more aggressive in disclosing facts going forward to fight back against politically motivated criticism of his pandemic response.
Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, current president of the state County Executives Association, signed the letters seeking data from the state in February and March. He said he first received the ZIP-level data for Dutchess County last week.
"We had asked from the onset for real-time, ZIP code-level data so that we could use to assist the state in targeting both education and vaccine clinics and vaccine access in ZIP codes and in communities that either had limited access or were lagging behind the state average," said Molinaro, who challenged Cuomo for governor in 2018.
Throughout the vaccine rollout, however, state health officials and Cuomo’s office asserted they used the ZIP code-level data to guide decisions on opening more than 200,000 community pop-up vaccination sites to target neighborhoods being missed by the effort, resulting in tens of thousands of people getting shots.
But county leaders indicated in the letters to Cuomo that they had been left in the dark regarding a range of details related to the pop-up clinics related efforts, comparing it to the governor’s calls for transparency from the federal government.
“Just as you noted in your February 15th letter to President Biden that states need visibility into the federal vaccination efforts happening within their borders, counties, too, need visibility into the state vaccination efforts happening within our borders,” the Feb. 16 letter stated.
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Includes reporting by New York State Team editor Jon Campbell.