In an echo of the Cuomo administration’s stonewalling on nursing home data, the governor’s office has for a third time delayed releasing records of its vaccine review panel, this time until mid-April.
The seven-member Clinical Advisory Task Force, appointed by Governor Cuomo last September, has reportedly vouched for the safety of all three vaccines given emergency authorization by the FDA—most recently recommending the Johnson & Johnson version on March 1.
Yet the governor’s office has so far failed to produce any records of the panel’s activities—including the times and places of its meetings, the names of those who attended, the standards of review it applied, the research it considered, minutes of its discussions or tallies of its votes.
The secrecy surrounding the panel would seem to undermine its stated purpose—which was to reassure New Yorkers who distrusted the FDA’s judgment, especially under President Trump.
Cuomo cited the panel at an appearance in Harlem on Wednesday when he spoke about vaccine doubts among African-Americans.
“They’re saying, ‘I don’t trust the Trump Administration when it says it’s safe,'” Cuomo said. “By the way, I’m with them. I didn’t trust the Trump Administration when he said the vaccine is safe. But we put together a New York State panel—all the best doctors we have. They reviewed it, and they say it’s safe.”
The FDA conducts its vaccine reviews largely in public, based on established laws and regulations and published research.
Cuomo’s vaccine panel, by contrast, has apparently conducted all of its business in private without issuing written recommendations or statements of any kind. The only word of its judgments has come from the governor himself, who has briefly announced its approvals without elaboration.
The Empire Center filed a Freedom of Information request for records of the panel’s deliberations on Dec. 23, after its reported approval of two vaccines. The state has postponed responding three times, first to Feb. 16, then to March 16, and now to April 13.
“Please be advised that we require additional time to complete our response to your FOIL requests dated December 23, 2020,” wrote the FOIL counsel of the governor’s office, Jaclyn Clemmer, in a letter Tuesday afternoon. “We will provide you with a status update on or before April 13, 2021, if we have not completed our response by then.”
The delay is consistent with the Cuomo administration’s pattern of foot-dragging on FOIL requests, especially with respect to its pandemic response. Last August, the Empire Center sought a complete count of COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents, but didn’t receive the data until six months later—after filing a lawsuit and winning a court order.
The long delay came to be seen as a cover-up, especially after a late January report from Attorney General Letitia James faulted the Health Department for undercounting nursing home deaths.
In her ruling on the Empire Center’s FOIL case, state Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor determined that the Health Department had violated FOIL by not providing a valid reason for its delays and not providing a hard deadline for when the records would be produced.
The governor’s office would seem to be repeating those violations with respect to the vaccine panel. Its letter gave no explanation for an almost four-month delay—beyond saying that some employees “may be working off-site” due to the pandemic. It also gave no firm deadline for completing the request, only a day when it would provide a “status update.”