It feels like déjà vu all over again.
Nearly a year after COVID-19 hit our region and we were forced to reckon with deep racial disparities in infections and deaths, we now have another parallel equity crisis: vaccine distribution.
We now know all too well that Latinos, African Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are hardest hit by coronavirus cases. We have known this since last April, when we finally began to get solid data on virus transmission. Yet since vaccine distribution launched in December, we have again lagged behind other states in sharing public data by race and ethnicity, which makes it impossible to know whether we are getting the vaccines where they most need to go.
Unlike many other states, as of early this month, Washington still had no public state vaccination demographic dashboard. Through a data request, The Seattle Times received numbers from the state through Jan. 30 that gave us a picture of where the vaccines are going. Like everything else related to this pandemic and equity, the data was infuriating.
Of the data available, 67% of initial vaccine doses have gone to white people, even though to date, they’ve made up 48% of cases. Only 5% of initial vaccines have gone to Latinos, even though they’ve made up 32% of cases.
People with wealth and privilege are making the system work for them in various ways. In the Seattle area, many were horrified but not surprised to read that some local hospitals gave their donors and VIPs preferential access to vaccines. Nationally, vaccination sites are seeing people from wealthier, white neighborhoods show up at clinics that have a predominantly Black client base. According to Kaiser Health News, in many places, white people are being vaccinated at twice or more the rate of Black people.
Even for the most well-resourced people, navigating the maze of systems to locate a vaccine has been frustrating, confusing and for many, nearly impossible. Looking for a vaccine practically requires a divining rod and Ouija board. Facebook groups are now crowdsourcing vaccine tips and openings. And for those who don’t speak English as a first language, lack computer or internet access or don’t have the transportation, mobility or ability to wait in long lines, all of this is much, much, harder.
Adding to navigational hurdles faced by patients, vaccine allocations to distribution sites are another source of inequity.
President and CEO of International Community Health Services (ICHS) Teresita Batayola is deeply frustrated by the vaccine allocation process.
For weeks, Batayola’s clinic, which serves low-income, predominantly Asian American clients who together speak over 50 languages, has not received the vaccine doses they were expecting from the state. After scrambling, it was able to get some doses from Public Health — Seattle & King County and Swedish, but the ongoing struggle to beg and harangue for vaccines to serve vulnerable Asian American elders has Batayola feeling like the state is giving lip service to equity but not actually delivering it on the ground.
“The equity issue — it keeps getting forgotten when the actual actions are done,” Batayola said. She said the state was already losing the COVID-19 equity race and with the new virus variants and the inequitable vaccine distribution, we are looking to lose it even faster.
As Batayola notes, every level of government has publicly stated its commitment to equity as a core value of vaccine distribution. The state just launched a Vaccine Implementation Collaborative to focus more attention on equity.
Yet when you look at how state vaccines are being allocated, only a portion of the 19% of allocations reserved for clinics like ICHS and other groups are going to community health centers that serve the most affected populations, and that’s when they actually receive them. The biggest number of doses — 36% — are going to mass vaccination sites.
“There are many community health centers like us who are created to specifically serve low-income, uninsured, underinsured, and in our case, immigrant and refugee populations who have lots of barriers to access,” Batayola said. “It’s even a more dramatic and urgent problem to not have supply.”
We don’t have to repeat the mistakes of the first year of the pandemic. We don’t have to repeat the past and stand back and watch as more Black, Indigenous and people of color die unnecessarily at the hands of this terrible virus due to lack of vaccine distribution equity. We have the power to change course, but we have to match our words with our actions and we must do it now.