IN THE MEDIA: New York Expands Vaccine Access to People Living with HIV

By Tat Bellamy-Walker
Gay City News

“Governor Cuomo’s decision to prioritize access to the COVID-19 vaccination for the most vulnerable among us, those living with co-morbidities such as HIV and other immunocompromising conditions, is exactly the approach we need in New York City.” – Jacqui Kilmer, the CEO of Harlem United

Governor Andrew Cuomo has expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to include people living with HIV after advocates pressured the state to clarify the underlying conditions defined as “immunocompromised.”

The new guidelines, which include a wide range of health conditions under “immunocompromised,” pave the way for expanded vaccine access beginning on February 15. This announcement comes after HIV and LGBTQ advocates sent a letter to Cuomo on January 26 demanding the state use updated data to prioritize people living with HIV in the next round of vaccines.

Charles King, the CEO of Housing Works, a community health center focused on people living with HIV and experiencing homelessness, praised the expansion but warned that the process must become more equitable.

“Data from the New York State Department of Health shows that people with HIV who are diagnosed with COVID-19 have much higher rates of hospitalization and mortality than people without HIV,” King said in a written statement. “Expanding the eligibility requirements will mean nothing, however, if better attention is not given to making the vaccine readily accessible to those who face other barriers, including those who unstably housed, living with mental illness, or who lack the technology and time resources currently required to find and schedule an appointment.”

Relatedly, a CDC report released this month noted that sexual minorities are more likely to have underlying health conditions tied to severe COVID-19 illness.

Harlem United, which provides clients with health, housing, and other services, views the change an appropriate step toward broadening vaccine access.

“Governor Cuomo’s decision to prioritize access to the COVID-19 vaccination for the most vulnerable among us, those living with co-morbidities such as HIV and other immunocompromising conditions, is exactly the approach we need in New York City,” Jacqui Kilmer, the CEO of Harlem United, said in a written statement.

Doug Wirth, president and CEO of Amida Care, a non-profit community health plan serving LGBTQ clients and people living with HIV, credits this change to the new research backing this issue.

“We commend Governor Cuomo and express deep appreciation to the NYSDOH AIDS Institute’s leadership for their expedited research that led to action in New York State by including people living with HIV in expedited vaccine access,” Wirth said in a written statement. “This is yet another example of New York’s leadership in ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic while also addressing a pandemic.”

Other advocates touted this decision as a method of protecting more people against COVID-19.

“We are thrilled to see continued expanded eligibility across the state to include people living with HIV,” Peter Meacher, the chief medical officer at Callen-Lorde, an LGBTQ health clinic, said in a written statement.”Over 1/4 of our patients are living with HIV, and many have been excluded up until now. With these expanded guidelines, our attention is now shifting to advocate for funding and fighting revenue cuts so that we can administer the vaccine as broadly as we can.”

Originally published in Gay City News on February 9, 2021