Vaccine equity czar among new coalition's demands

By Chris Van Buskirk | Feb 19, 2021

A senior-level director in charge of COVID-19 vaccination equity and an allocation of $10 million to community organizations for outreach and engagement in communities of color are part of a list of five demands outlined Wednesday by a new coalition seeking to address what they say are serious racial injustices in the state's vaccine distribution plan.

The coalition, made up of 11 civil rights, social justice, and medical organizations, presented the plan at a press conference Wednesday and said they are ready and willing to work with Gov. Charlie Baker to implement the five steps. This comes as Baker rolled out an outreach initiative Tuesday focused on 20 cities and towns that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The Vaccine Equity Now! Coalition wants the administration to track vaccine benchmarks that mirror the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on Black and Latinx residents, improve language access and cultural competence across all levels of the administration, and implement an enhanced 20 percent allocation of vaccines to communities most impacted by the pandemic that was laid out in the initial distribution plan.

"We know that communities of color and immigrant communities in Massachusetts have disproportionately been impacted by COVID-19, infection, hospitalization, and death rates. This is a combination of centuries of structural racism in our country and the pandemic only has aggravated the inequities that have long existed," said Eva Millona, executive director at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "These disparities underscore why our vaccine rollout must be centered on those who have been most impacted by the crisis."

Millona said Black residents comprise 9 percent of the state's population and 14 percent of health care workers, but only 3 percent have been fully vaccinated. She said only 1 percent of the Latinx population has been fully vaccinated while they make up 12 percent of the state's population and 10 percent of health care workers.

"This is unacceptable, and it puts all our communities at greater risk," she said during the press conference.

The governor's initiative directs the Department of Public Health to work with local leaders and community- and faith-based groups in each of the 20 cities or towns to overcome barriers so residents can get vaccinated. The cities and towns were identified using the Centers for Disease Control's Social Vulnerability Index and state COVID-19 case rates since the start of the pandemic.

The administration pledged to deploy "DPH Vaccine Ambassadors" to provide support to local boards of health, disseminate culturally appropriate translations of vaccination information, and hire local residents to boost outreach.

While the stakeholders at Wednesday's press conference said Baker's plan was a step in the right direction, Massachusetts Public Health Association Executive Director Carlene Pavlos said there needs to be a deeper look at the initiative with a focus on how the administration plans to follow through on it.

"There are a lot of pieces of the announcement ... that need operational detail for us to understand how good a first step it is, but it is certainly a first step," Pavlos said at the press conference.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said she sought more information about the plan and reached out to the administration to find out how much money is being committed to the initiative.

"There was no answer and I'm deeply troubled by that," she said at the press conference. "At least a couple of weeks of intensive work was probably put into that announcement and if nobody has asked and answered the question, what kind of dollars are we really going to put behind this proposal? It's not a real plan yet."

Just before the coalition rolled out its demands, Gov. Charlie Baker took to the airwaves to announce that the state is about to take a big step forward in its vaccine distribution plan.

Individuals 65 and older, residents and staff of affordable and low-income housing for seniors, and people with two or more comorbidities can sign up for vaccine appointments starting Thursday.

The vaccine equity czar, as outlined in the list of the demands, will focus solely on eliminating inequities in vaccination rates "rooted in racism and discrimination, distrust of government, and differential access to information, transportation, and other resources."

Legislation (SD 699 / HD 1283) filed by Reps. Liz Miranda and Rep. Mindy Domb also seeks to implement a similar director of COVID-19 vaccination equity who would become a member of leadership within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

"I'd like to see someone of color, who has a deep analysis of not only medicine, but also of racial equity," Miranda said. "Part of the problem with this entire COVID response is that we didn't have racial equity or health equity at the forefront."

The coalition also calls for $10 million to be directed to community organizations to engage Black, Latinx, immigrant, low-income communities, and incarcerated people with accurate vaccination information. In their list of demands, the coalition said community organizations "have trusting relationships and know how to reach and effectively engage residents."

"The vaccine distribution approach must be rooted in community by empowering the grassroots organizers and organizations who know our communities best to be the core stakeholders in this process," Miranda said.

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A senior-level director in charge of COVID-19 vaccination equity and an allocation of $10 million to community organizations for outreach and engagement in communities of color are part of a list of five demands outlined Wednesday by a new coalition seeking to address what they say are serious racial injustices in the state's vaccine distribution plan.

Senator Chang-Díaz and the Vaccine Equity Now! Coalition discuss Massachusetts' vaccine rollout

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