Groups call on Baker to do more to serve communities hardest hit by COVID
ADVOCATES FOR BLACK AND LATINO Massachusetts residents are asking Gov. Charlie Baker for a large influx of money and vaccine doses aimed at increasing vaccination rates among their populations.
“For black and Latinx residents of Massachusetts, there’s a hugely disproportionate share and burden of COVID, yet dramatically disproportionate [lesser] access and uptake of the vaccine,” said Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association.
Baker, asked about equity concerns at a press conference on Wednesday, touted recent steps his administration has taken to ensure access in minority communities, but said, “We have work to do there, and we know that.”
The advocates point out that as of last week, white residents had received 12 times more COVID-19 vaccine doses than black residents and 16 times more doses than Latino residents.
According to state data as of February 11, 64.1 percent of first vaccine doses (464,000 doses) went to white individuals, 5.1 percent (36,500 doses) to black individuals, 4.1 percent (29,900 doses) to Asians, and 3.9 percent (28,000 doses) to Hispanic individuals. The percentages were similar among those who were fully vaccinated. Blacks make up 9 percent of the Massachusetts population and Latinos are 12 percent.
For around one-fifth of doses, the race and ethnicity of the recipient was unknown. Baker said he has asked the Department of Public Health to analyze where those people live, so officials can guess at their race.
The advocates are asking the state to set a goal of vaccinating populations at the same rate as they are hospitalized from COVID – which would mean giving blacks 10 percent of doses and Latinos 15 percent.
The Baker administration has made an effort to address racial disparities. On Tuesday, the administration announced that it will launch an initiative to deploy the Department of Public Health to 20 cities and towns disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. A DPH liaison will be working with Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Framingham, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, New Bedford, Randolph, Revere, Springfield, and Worcester, in what it calls “an equity program,” to reduce barriers to being vaccinated.
The Department of Public Health will work with community leaders and organizations to develop programs that work for those communities – such as holding town halls, doing grassroots outreach to residents, knocking on doors to provide vaccine information, and providing literature in multiple languages. These communities were chosen because they have high numbers of coronavirus cases and high percentages of people of color.
Baker is also investing $1 million in community health centers for them to increase vaccine safety awareness.
Baker is cutting off vaccine doses for 69 community clinics, in order to send more doses to mass vaccination sites and large regional sites, but these 20 at-risk communities will still get vaccines to distribute to residents.
Members of a new coalition of health and advocacy groups called “Vaccine Equity Now!” called Baker’s approach a first step. The group is led by the Massachusetts Public Health Association, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, and Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition.
“The steps taken by the state are in the right direction, but much more aggressive action needs to happen,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.
Four lawmakers who introduced a bill to improve equity in vaccinations, led by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Rep. Liz Miranda, both Boston Democrats, in a statement called the Baker effort “exasperatingly short on specifics.” They note that Baker has not said how much money he will put behind it, whether it will include mobile vaccination clinics and transportation assistance, who will oversee the effort, what is its timeline, and how residents will be able to actually sign up for vaccines.
The “Vaccine Equity Now!” coalition is making additional demands. In addition to setting a benchmark for minority vaccination rates, they want Baker to direct $10 million to community organizations for outreach into communities of color, to appoint a “vaccine czar” with authority to address vaccine inequities, and to translate all websites and materials related to the vaccine into multiple languages.
They also want Baker to fulfill a promise he made when the state announced its vaccination plan in December to provide an additional 20 percent boost in doses for communities with a disproportionate COVID burden and high social vulnerability. Pavlos, the public health association director, said the state is not making that extra allocation until there is sufficient vaccine. But the coalition wants the extra doses released now. “It’s during times of scarcity that implementing measures to create equity is most important,” Pavlos said.
The Baker administration has opened a mass vaccination site at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, a heavily black neighborhood of Boston, and worked with the city to reserve appointments for neighborhood residents and distribute them with the help of local organizations.
But Atyia Martin of the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition said appointments need to also be made available in community-based, easily accessible locations other than mass vaccination sites.
Espinoza-Madrigal said advocates are getting calls from residents who cannot get an appointment at the Reggie Lewis Center, can’t park there, or can’t find vaccine information in their language. “There’s significant confusion on the ground,” he said.
Baker also Wednesday announced new rules on which serious health conditions will make someone eligible for priority in vaccination, adding those with moderate-to-severe asthma to the list issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Baker said he sees this as a matter of equity, since communities of color have high rates of asthma, often due to environmental factors.
“Asthma is a legitimate equity issue we want dealt with out of the gate,” Baker said.