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Cuomo wants public health corps to aid Covid-19 vaccinations, plan for future crises

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Andrew Cuomo - State of the State

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address virtually from the War Room at the state Capitol, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Albany.

New York must prepare for future public health crises while taking steps to end the Covid-19 pandemic now, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in his State of the State message Monday.

Among his proposals:

• A new network of Covid-19 rapid testing sites

• A new volunteer corps of college-trained volunteers to help speed up the state's vaccination process

• Online training of citizens to help respond to a future health emergency

• A state law to favor the purchase of American-made medical supplies

"Covid revealed a grave vulnerability in our medical supply chain," Cuomo said. "Too many essential products are made in China. We must have the capacity in the United States and even here in New York."

"As national public health infrastructure has dwindled over time, the prospect of drawing in more people into this specialized field is a welcomed resource," Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein said about the proposed public health corps.

A law to favor the purchase of American-made health products could have the effect of creating a larger market for American manufacturers that have trouble competing with imported goods.

The principle is the same as that embodied in the state's 2017 Buy American Act, which required all structural steel and iron used in all state road and bridge construction projects costing more than $1 million to be made in America.

The shortages and price gouging in the early weeks of the pandemic made an impression on the governor.

"This country couldn't even produce something as simple as enough nasal swabs," Cuomo said. "Our nurses and doctors were heroic, but our country couldn't provide them with enough masks and gowns."

Cuomo said the state intends to open a new network of rapid testing sites for the Covid-19 virus, and he proposed a New York public health corps to help with the vaccination program.

"I believe the new federal administration will see the vaccine supply increase, and we will be ready for that increase," Cuomo said.

The public health corps would comprise 1,000 "fellows" serving for a year.

"They'll be trained to facilitate a statewide coordinated vaccination operation and do it safely and quickly in every part of the state," Cuomo said.

A news release said the members could be "students in undergraduate and graduate public health programs, nursing schools and medical schools, recent graduates, retired medical professionals, and laypeople."

They would be trained with a curriculum developed by Cornell University. The corps would be managed by the state Health Department, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Northwell Health, the state's largest health care provider.

Northwell is headed by Michael Dowling, a longtime Cuomo adviser and confidant dating back to the governorship of Cuomo's father, Mario Cuomo, in the 1980s and 1990s.

Cuomo said that when the Covid-19 pandemic ends, the corps will be assigned to "establish a best-in-the-nation emergency response capacity that lasts beyond Covid, so we are better prepared for future crises."

Cuomo also proposed a free online training program, to be created by Cornell, for up to 100,000 citizens to better prepare them to help authorities in any future health crisis.

"As a leading research university, Cornell looks forward to training those who will do the critical work of ensuring the fair and effective distribution of the vaccine to the people of New York," Cornell President Martha E. Pollack said in a prepared statement.

Cuomo also proposed making permanent the looser regulation of telehealth services that he ordered early in the pandemic. That proposal suited health insurance industry figures such as Eric Linzer, president and CEO of the New York Health Plan Association.

"We stand ready to work with Gov. Cuomo and his administration, as well as with our partners in the delivery system, on policy changes to unlock the full potential of telehealth and further expand this important technology to transform the health care system and make care more efficient and accessible for patients," Linzer said in a statement.

Cuomo also proposed abolishing monthly health insurance premiums for up to 400,000 low-income New Yorkers who obtain insurance through the state exchange. Those premiums now are capped at $20 a month.


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