Posted on January 3, 2022

New York Is Using Race to Determine Access to a Limited Supply of Life-Saving COVID Treatments

Glenn Greenwald, Substack, December 31, 2021

Monoclonal Antibody Treatments Save Lives,” announced the New York City Department of Health in an October 26 public notice. These treatments “are available and lifesaving,” the agency said, noting that they “have averted at least 1,100 hospitalizations and at least 500 deaths among people treated in New York City.” The agency urged the public to seek out these monoclonal antibody treatments as soon as possible: “When given early after symptom onset, mAb treatments can decrease the risk of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19, which is why it is crucial to get tested for COVID-19 as soon as symptoms begin – the sooner someone is tested, the sooner treatment can begin.”


But with the Omicron variant now the dominant COVID strain in New York, both the city and state are facing severe shortages in the availability of effective antiviral monoclonal treatments. While Pfizer claimed its antiviral treatment would work against Omicron, the New York State Department of Health issued a memo to all health care providers this week warning that “Sotrovimab (Xevudy) is the only authorized monoclonal antibody product expected to be effective against the omicron variant.” Yet due to “a significant surge in cases and reduced effectiveness of existing therapeutics due to the omicron variant,” the agency warned that “supplies of oral antivirals will be extremely limited initially.” As of this week, the agency also said the same of its monoclonal antibody treatment: “supplies of Sotrovimab are extremely limited.”

{snip} That, in turn, requires that healthcare providers make decisions about who should be prioritized to receive such life-saving treatments and who should be deprioritized, and which factors ought to be used to determine priority.

Before determining priority schemes, it must first be determined which groups of COVID patients are eligible at all to receive these potentially life-saving treatments and which from the start are declared ineligible. The state Department of Health memo sets out the list of all factors which must be met in order for a patient to be eligible. They include age (must be older than 12), COVID status (must have tested positive), and progression of the virus (must have “mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms”).


But the policy then states that anyone who is non-white — regardless of age, health or underlying medical conditions — is automatically deemed to have met the requirement that one must have “a medical condition or other factors that increase their risk for severe illness” in order to receive this treatment (“Non-white race or Hispanic/Latino ethnicity should be considered a risk factor.”). That means that a healthy twenty-year-old Asian football player or a 17-year-old African-American marathon runner from a wealthy family will be automatically deemed at heightened risk to develop serious COVID illness — making them instantly eligible for monoclonal treatments upon testing positive and showing symptoms — while a White person of exactly the same age and health condition from an impoverished background would not be automatically eligible.

The rationale for using race to determine who is and is not eligible for life-saving COVID treatments is dubious in the extreme, to put it generously. The last passage of the New York Health Department’s memo states that “at this time, Sotrovimab (Xevudy) is the only authorized monoclonal antibody therapeutic that is expected to be effective against the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.” It directs that “Supplies of Sotrovimab are extremely limited and providers should adhere to NYS DOH prioritization guidance.”


That document sets forth five different categories of patients who are entitled to priority when it comes to limited COVID treatment. The more risk factors a patient has, the higher priority they are assigned. As one would expect, COVID patients who are older, immunocompromised, and with “risk factors for severe illness” receive priority in the event of treatment shortages. But the priority scheme also directs that race be used as a critical metric: “non-white race or Hispanic/Latino ethnicity should be considered a risk factor, as longstanding systemic health and social inequities have contributed to an increased risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.”

To justify this race-based priority scheme, the New York State memos rely on and cite two separate documents from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The first is entitled “People with Certain Medical Conditions,” and it lists the medical conditions that render a person “more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19.” On that list one finds the pathologies one would expect: cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart conditions and others. But the CDC also features race as a factor to consider when assessing risk:

Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put various groups of people at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19, including many people from certain racial and ethnic minority groups and people with disabilities.

Studies have shown people from racial and ethnic minority groups are also dying from COVID-19 at younger ages. People in minority groups are often younger when they develop chronic medical conditions and may be more likely to have more than one condition.

The document which the CDC cites is exclusively devoted to elaborating on its rationale for including race as a COVID risk factor. Entitled “Risk of Severe Illness or Death from COVID-19 — Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities,” it begins by asking: “Why are some racial and ethnic minority groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19?”

The factors which the CDC cites immediately make clear how warped it is to prioritize some racial groups over others when it comes to access to life-saving COVID treatments. To begin with, the CDC notes that “people from some racial and ethnic minority groups are less likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19 than non-Hispanic White people.” Indeed, the most recent CDC data demonstrates that Black people and Hispanics are getting vaccinated at lower rates than White people, while Asians are getting vaccinated at higher rates than everyone. That data shows that for forty-two states surveyed, “58% percent of White people had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, which was close to the rate for Hispanic people (56%) but higher than the rate for Black people (51%),” while “the overall vaccination rate across states for Asian people was higher compared to White people (77% vs. 58%).”