New Yorkers 16 and older in juvenile detention, youth shelters and foster care facilities can now receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to new guidance from the Cuomo administration.

The Office of Children and Family Services sent a letter to provider agencies Monday night emphasizing that older teens in residential programs licensed or certified by the state are eligible for vaccine distribution.

The memo is an attempt to clear up confusion that has existed for the past few weeks over whether kids in juvenile facilities could get a dose. 

“Our document yesterday clarifies to providers that the [state Department of Health] guidance from February 15 opens the vaccine prioritization for youth in congregate settings,” Melissa Mahaffey, an Office of Children and Family Services spokesperson, said in an email to THE CITY.

While questions about consent still linger, an Administration for Children’s Services spokesperson called the move “a game-changer.”

“Just as we did for frontline staff, we have been advocating for eligibility to be expanded to youth in our congregate facilities, and we’re pleased that the state has heeded this request,” said the spokesperson, Marisa Kaufman. 

About 636 eligible kids are in ACS facilities, she said. About the same number of teens over 16 are in youth homeless shelters, according to the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development.

The Pfizer vaccine can be used for those 16 years of age and older, while the Moderna vaccine is for adults 18 and up, according to the state’s guidance, which cites the FDA.

Confusion and Inaction

January guidance from the state child welfare agency focused only on vaccination for staff, and the wording in the Feb. 15 memo did not make it clear that teens could be included, lawmakers and advocates say.

On Feb. 9, Dawne Mitchell of The Legal Aid Society — the city’s largest public defender organization — issued a letter to Office of Children and Family Services Commissioner Sheila Poole urging the agency “to amend the OCFS guidance to allow these young people age 16 and older to receive the vaccine.”

In a Feb. 19 letter to Poole, State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) pointed out how “a 19-year-old residing in an adult homeless shelter would be eligible for the vaccine now, but if that same 19-year-old was residing in a [homeless youth] facility, they would not be eligible.”

Advocates for homeless youth say the confusion and resulting delay was unnecessary — and that the kids should have been explicitly prioritized from the start.

“Why is this population always an afterthought that needs additional advocacy?” asked Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth. “For a long time NYC has taken this position of quite frankly gaslighting the needs and the reality of what is and isn’t given to youth experiencing homelessness in this city.”

In her letter, Mitchell noted children in these settings are continually going through disruptive quarantining, and  experience higher rates of adverse health conditions that can lead to COVID-19 complications. 

The Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx, Nov. 12, 2020. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Mitchell also noted that Black and Hispanic children and young adults make up the majority of youth held in OCFS-overseen facilities — populations that have both borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine distribution inequities.

At a Friday City Council hearing, legislators questioned child welfare officials on COVID-19’s effect on juvenile justice facilities. 

Administration for Children’s Services officials testified that 17 children in juvenile detention have tested positive for the virus since last March.

More than 40 detention center staff have contracted the virus, Darek Robinson, vice president of grievances and legal services at SSEU Local 371, the union that serves many ACS workers, told the Council hearing.

ACS officials said that four of those workers have died.

At the peak of the pandemic, many young detainees were released following a Legal Aid lawsuit which cited reporting by THE CITY. 

“It’s unrealistic to think that you can socially distance,” Robinson told THE CITY on Tuesday, noting that the coronavirus typically enters facilities via adult staffers.

“It’s a great, great thing that youth [will] receive their vaccines to help prevent the spread of the virus.” 

More Complications to Navigate

For youth now eligible for vaccines, a shot won’t necessarily come quickly. For anyone under 18, providers will be grappling with complicated issues of consent.

“Young people’s relationship to legal guardians, whether their birth parents or other, you know, other guardians in their lives really vary,” said Powlovich.

Kaufman said that “written, informed parental consent” will be needed for children under 18 to get a vaccine, with certain exceptions for anyone pregnant or parenting and foster kids who are freed for adoption.

She added, “While routine care vaccines do not require parental consent for most youth in ACS’s care, we do not think that these can yet be considered as part of routine care.”

According to the city Department of Youth and Community Development, which oversees homeless youth shelters, the agency will work with providers to help with vaccination efforts, but did not specify how. 

“At this time, DYCD has not heard of plans” for vaccination sites at homeless youth shelters, Mark Zustovich, an agency spokesperson, told THE CITY Tuesday in a written statement.  

Despite clear speed bumps ahead, Hoylman said that he was “heartened that among young people there isn’t vaccine hesitancy as much as there’s vaccine impatience.”

“And that’s a good sign in the months ahead as we expand the vaccine to younger parts of our population.”

Redmond Haskins, spokesperson for The Legal Aid Society, said lawyers cheered the news that their young clients now have access to the vaccine —  but questioned why adult prisoners were still excluded. 

“COVID-19 still rages at these facilities throughout the state, and any further delay will only result in more infections and more loss of life. We urge Governor Cuomo to grant this essential relief now.”