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House panels underscore vaccine obstacles for minority groups

House panels underscore vaccine obstacles for minority groups
© Washington Post/Pool

Two House committees chaired by senior Black Congress members held hearings on Friday to discuss the importance of equitable vaccine distribution and the obstacles that local and federal officials have had up to this point.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee, led by Rep. Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonHouse panels underscore vaccine obstacles for minority groups House Democrat says the COVID-19 vaccination distribution is 'not an issue that should be tainted with politics' The Hill's Morning Report - Biden seeks vaccine for all by summer; Trump censure? MORE (D-Texas), convened in the morning, while the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus headed by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) met in the afternoon.

Both hearings featured health officials and experts from around the country.

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The hearings come as the Biden administration works to roll out its national strategy to combat the pandemic that has killed nearly half a million people in the U.S.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 57 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered so far in the U.S., though it has become painfully clear communities of color that have been hardest hit by the pandemic have disproportionately struggled for access to the inoculation.

“Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans have been infected with the coronavirus at higher rates than White Americans. They are nearly four times as likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die from the virus,” Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, said in his opening remarks.

“Only nine percent of those who have received vaccines are Hispanic, and only six percent are Black, even though these groups together represent nearly a third of the United States’ population,” he added. 

The obstacles facing communities of color and rural communities when it comes to receiving doses of the vaccine are well-known.

Perhaps the hardest of these roadblocks for officials to remove is the lingering widespread vaccine hesitancy found in communities of color, especially Black communities.

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Philip Huang, director of the Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services, told the House Science Committee that Black Americans’ distrust of the government is “deep-rooted.”

Clyburn attributed the lack of trust to “centuries of discrimination” at the hands of the U.S. government, notably the infamous, decades-long Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the deep South that wasn’t ended until 1972.

Other significant factors that have contributed to communities of color not receiving the vaccines they need are unrelated racial disparities that have existed for years.

For example, multiple officials in the hearings referenced the fact that many states have used online portals for the scheduling of vaccine appointments.

This has been problematic, as internet access rates among Black and Hispanic people, as well as people over the age of 65, are below the national average. It’s led to not only people of color not receiving doses when they’re available, but has also resulted in vaccines being administered to those outside of the hardest hit areas.

“They don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersProgressives grumble but won't sink relief bill over fewer stimulus checks Lawmakers, Martin Luther King III discuss federal responses to systematic racism The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the select subcommittee, said regarding senior citizens trying to use the internet to schedule an appointment.

Making scheduling systems that meet more people where they are is one of the easier things that officials can fix, Alison Buttenheim, scientific director for the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, told the House science panel.

Multiple officials on the calls, including Waters, noted how crucial a national campaign aimed at educating and informing people of color about the safety and availability of the vaccine is when it comes to reaching these communities.

Witnesses also called for greater collection of race and ethnicity data when vaccines are being given.

Currently, only 34 states are in the practice of collecting this demographic data, leaving a huge blind spot for officials, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The CDC has recently started reporting race and ethnicity data for vaccine distribution, but only has that data for 55 percent of those who have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“Policymakers cannot make data driven decisions without good data,” Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, said in her testimony to the subcommittee.