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Vaccine distribution to vulnerable communities is vital for this battle

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Joe Biden will be sworn into office next month, but the coronavirus does not care about timelines for transitions of power, just as it does not care about borders, politics, or class. It is critical the current administration and public health officials in states and localities increase coordination and communication about the plans for distribution of the coronavirus vaccine. A failure to address equity issues in such plans risks could fuel the damage done in vulnerable communities and people of color in the pandemic. We can all benefit from equity in vaccine delivery.

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc, especially in minority communities, across the country. The pandemic and its related economic fallout have exacerbated wide racial and wealth disparities. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Blacks and Latinos are nearly four times more likely to be hospitalized and nearly three times as likely to die from the coronavirus than white people. Vaccine distribution is a challenge that is made more difficult by these disparities.

Coordination must occur at the local level. We call for a renewed spirit of partnership between the White House and states with special attention to racial equity. This will be important in the south, where over 40 percent of the Black population resides and there is a patchwork of regulations. Many of the states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act are also in the south and have large Black populations. These people face a relative lack of insurance coverage and access to preventive health services, and there is likely to be less access to the vaccine.

Health care workers and nursing home residents will receive the vaccine first, based on the advice of public health officials, which is wise. But who is next? Should it be frontline workers, many of whom are people of color who have borne the grave effects for the market? What about affordable access for the uninsured populations, including those who live in rural or underserved areas? How do we ensure states and localities will also have plans that address racial equity? Vaccine distribution needs to ensure the most vulnerable and hardest hit in the pandemic are covered.

This is all made even more difficult by the fact that federal guidance is not law. Federal support is not conditioned on compliance or collaboration, so many governors and health officials could develop their own plans for the states. We implore the consideration of measures to make sure that states and localities establish equitable vaccine distribution plans.

Their other task will be to convince a skeptical public to take the vaccine. A recent poll of 1,800 people in the south by E Pluribus Unum laid out the challenge, with over a third of every racial group saying they would not take it. The National Medical Association established a Coronavirus Task Force on Vaccines to serve as an information bridge for African Americans on decisions made by the Food and Drug Administration about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. Robust federal funding that will support culturally sensitive outreach and media campaigns tailored to vulnerable communities is a must. We need to educate the public about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine to overcome all the mistrust.

Many have breathed a sigh of relief that the vaccine has arrived. It is a remarkable scientific achievement. But this news is just the start of the next phase in our battle in this pandemic. For our collective mission to defeat the coronavirus, we must keep equity at the forefront. It is critical for our health, our security, and our future. If we get this right, we can set a new course toward a strong recovery for all. We must not wait another month for Biden to be sworn in. Leaders must take action now.

Mitch Landrieu, a former mayor for New Orleans, is president of E Pluribus Unum, a nonpartisan organization working to advance racial equity for the south. Leon McDougle is president of the National Medical Association, an organization representing African American physicians and their patients.

Tags Coronavirus Culture Government Health Medicine Pandemic Policy Science

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