ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Officials from the New York State Department of Health say the University of Rochester Medical Center is under investigation for a January email that suggested a special vaccine route for donors.
A statement from DOH officials Tuesday said:
“From the beginning, New York has made it clear that all providers distributing the vaccine must do so fairly and equitably to ensure all eligible New Yorkers have access. The matter at URMC is under investigation. Based on preliminary findings it appears at this time that no vaccine doses were administered to anyone who was ineligible. URMC is retraining its staff on all applicable guidelines and protocols and the individual who sent that email has already been counseled.“
URMC officials issued a statement Monday which included an apology, saying in part:
“In recent days, many of us saw a news story that raised questions about the integrity and equity of URMC’s COVID-19 vaccination program.
The story quoted excerpts from an internal email sent January 12. It indicated that certain people connected to the University, including donors, would be vaccinated ahead of others at a special clinic.
We want to assure every member of our community that there was no special clinic. We are certain that only eligible people have been vaccinated through our program.
However, we also must acknowledge and apologize for a troubling fact. It relates to clinics scheduled on January 14 and 15, intended for the vaccination of employees.
The registration information was shared with 26 non-employees who were well-connected to the University, including URMC board members and donors. These 26 people were all eligible to receive vaccine, but they should not have received preferential treatment by being invited to the clinic.
We know that many of you are disappointed by this information, and rightly so. The notion of privileging some people over others to receive a potentially lifesaving vaccine runs counter to our values. It undermines the hard work we are doing to support the health of everyone in our community during this pandemic.
We are all living with the confusion and anxiety COVID-19 has created, including challenges associated with the availability and distribution of the vaccine. We understand that this recent incident may have exacerbated this anxiety. We apologize not only for the incident itself, but also for the frustration it has caused. And we want to assure you that as soon as URMC leadership became aware of this issue, they took immediate steps to ensure that these mistakes are never repeated.”
Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart (D-21), who joined Rochester City Councilmember Mary Lupien Monday in calling for the governor’s office and attorney general’s office to look into the matter, said more needs to be done. In a statement Tuesday, Barnhart said:
“Contrary to the University’s statement, clearly it was part of the University’s culture to give special patients special access to the vaccine. The University has failed to explain the circumstances surrounding the email that was sent to concierge patients. What steps have been taken with its concierge and donor relations staff to prevent this from happening again? Was anyone disciplined? We deserve far more than what the University has provided. I repeat our call for an independent review of its vaccine operation.”
An email sent by a URMC employee on January 12 to other URMC employees charged with raising money for the medical center references a “special clinic” that can provide the COVID-19 vaccine to “Executive Health clients and high level donors.”
The email’s author, Kellie Anderson, notes that the nurse in charge of this clinic already as a list of these “donors she’ll be vaccinating” and directs the staff to refer major donors asking for “special consideration/handling” to Christie Cullinan by 1/15.
This email coincided with the state’s decision to make anyone 65 and older eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. It was already widely know that vaccine supply would not meet immediate demand.
Chip Partner, a spokesperson for URMC, told News 8 the email “was a mistake,” adding, “URMC leadership did not know about it, and did not approve it.”
Partner says Anderson was trying to create a vaccination list for donors so they could hold a session at a future date, but said that never happened.
That said, Partner acknowledged some of those who were vaccinated through URMC that week were donors with some being UMRC board members, but said, “there was no advantage given to donors.”
The email did say, “we cannot guarantee donors a spot in the Special Patient Services vaccine clinic: we can only offer to make the request.”
It also noted that the URMC team “cannot ask our URMC partners to help a donor jump the vaccine queue.”
This email came to light as other medical facilities have come under fire for giving vaccine priority to donors and after Gov. Andrew Cuomo has railed against attempts to allow some people to skip the line, especially as the state tries to get a good amount of the vaccine into poor and minority communities that have less access to health care than more affluent areas.
Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.