In December 2021, the health departments of New York State and New York City issued non-binding guidance on the distribution of certain COVID-19 treatments during times of low supply.

This guidance suggested that medical professionals—in their independent judgment—consider a patient’s specified race or ethnicity alongside other relevant factors in determining treatment for COVID-19.

Those out of step with mainstream science attacked the New York State and New York City guidance as radical, and filed three separate lawsuits in different federal courts. This is part of a concerted, extreme effort to bully state and local health authorities into abandoning health equity measures — measures that align with mainstream medical and scientific understanding and best practices. A number of conservative groups have issued communications criticizing the consideration of a COVID-19 patient’s race or ethnicity as did Trump at an Arizona rally earlier this year.

The case filed in the Eastern District of New York against New York State and City’s policies was dismissed earlier this week. Here’s why that matters, and what may come next.

Health inequity is real

Healthcare and health outcomes were not equal in the United States even before the pandemic. Healthcare inequity is the product of the systemic racism that is pervasive in so many areas of society.

But the pandemic has shined a gigantic spotlight on how serious healthcare inequity can be. Social drivers of health have caused COVID-19 to disproportionately harm certain populations.

This is not an opinion. It is evidence based and verifiable. Consider that:

  • Although the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on all New Yorkers, it has disproportionately impacted minoritized populations.
  • For example, Latinx populations have experienced higher rates of infection than white populations, and BIPOC populations have experienced higher rates of severe COVID-19 symptoms, serious illness requiring hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 than whites.

Policies like those of New York State and New York City help combat that inequality — a view shared by organizations like the National Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Public Health Association, and Partners in Health.

The court rejected the claim that considering health inequities alongside other factors caused harm

Opponents of the guidance mischaracterize and demonize health equity measures. We won’t repeat their mischaracterizations here.

The court dismissed the lawsuit and in doing so, the court said:

Plaintiffs fail to show that their injury is anything more than a generalized grievance.

The guidance merely advises providers to consider race and ethnicity as one of many factors in assessing the patient before them, consistent with medical evidence.

Thus, as there is no case or controversy before this court, the court declines to consider Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, and the case is DISMISSED.

What does this win mean for health equity measures in other states?

The organizations trying to bully state and local health authorities have claimed victory for compelling states to rescind health equity measures in the past. And we’re sure legal threats will continue whenever health authorities issue health equity guidance.

But the dismissal of this lawsuit pours cold water on their strategy. It sends a clear message: that considering social determinants of health and health inequities alongside other factors in COVID-19 treatment does not cause harm.

Leading medical, health equity, and social science experts agree: considering social inequities when developing health measures is critical.

And if lawsuits follow, Democracy Forward will be there to fight for science, evidence, and equity.