Advocates Seek Vaccine Prioritization for People Living with HIV

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination in Lamballe-Armor
Organizations are pressing government officials to clarify guidelines for vaccine qualification.
Reuters/Benoit Tessier

Advocates are concerned that people living with HIV will not be prioritized among the next groups eligible for vaccinations in New York.

“We want to be certain that people living with HIV are appropriately placed in the immunocompromised category, and can get access to this round of prioritized populations,” said Patrick McGovern, the chief of business development and policy officer at Amida Care, a private non-profit community health plan serving many queer New Yorkers. “The problem here really lies with the CDC. The CDC is not using the most recent and most compelling studies.”

On January 12, Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters that people who are immunocompromised are among the prioritized groups slated to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but more than a week later, the state has not released criteria for the chronic conditions included in this group. In the meantime, people over the age of 65 and essential workers remain eligible for Phase 1a and 1b of the state’s vaccine distribution plan.

As state officials develop criteria with the CDC, advocates fear that people living with HIV will not make the cut.

Under the CDC’s listing of chronic conditions, people living with HIV “might” be at a higher risk for COVID-19, and the CDC cites only “limited data and information” showing that having an underlying medical condition like HIV results in more severe illness from COVID-19. Yet, newer research proves otherwise: Findings from a study in New York found people living with HIV are more likely to be diagnosed, hospitalized, and die from COVID-19. Advocates are urging the governor to base eligibility on the most recent data available.

In an email, advocates noted that during the CDC’s Advisory Council meetings, there were no large scale studies cited on people living with HIV and COVID-19. According to advocates, the CDC continues to use data from smaller studies, which show a limited scope of the group’s vulnerability to COVID-19. As of press time on January 22, the CDC has not responded to these claims.

The governor’s latest move to include individuals who are immunocompromised would expand vaccine access to more than five million people in the state. While vaccine supplies are running low in New York State, more than 1 million dosages of the vaccine have been administered in the state, according to a board tracking distribution. 

Housing Works, which serves clients experiencing homelessness and living with HIV, is also pressing the state to clearly define eligibility.

“The rationale is basically this: Governor Cuomo’s recent expansion of eligibility for the COVID vaccines is in step with the state’s and HHS’s recommendation to prioritize people over 65 and those who are immunocompromised,” Housing Works CEO Charles King said in a written statement to Gay City News. “The problem is the Department of Health has not yet defined which chronic conditions fit the criteria for “immunocompromised.”

King added, “A number of studies strongly support the inclusion of HIV as an underlying condition to adequately protect our community from acquiring COVID-19 and to scaffold efforts to End the Epidemic in New York State, which have been deeply impeded by the coronavirus pandemic.”

In December, several major organizations such as Amida Care, Treatment Action Group (TAG), the Black AIDS Institute, and Gay Men’s Health Crisis, co-signed a letter to the CDC’s Advisory Committee requesting that people living with HIV be prioritized for the next round of vaccines. After much advocacy, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf added people living with HIV to phase 1A of the state’s vaccination plan.

Amida Care said New York remains “silent” to their demands. The organization is drafting a letter with several other HIV/AIDS groups to include people living with HIV in the current round of vaccines.

“The rollout is taking longer than anticipated, and which prioritization category you’re in can be the difference between getting the vaccine in the near future or having to wait months,” McGovern said.

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