The hierarchal status among the first to receive vaccine criteria does not reveal a clear path to quantitative inoculation protocols.
African Americans have experienced three times the fatal results from the pandemic as accurately projected from the CDC. Yet, Black people have been hammered by the coronavirus, but the reality of achieving racial equity in the vaccine rollout may be easier said than done.
An anesthesiologist and critical care physician at the University of Virginia Medical Center, Hilton, 38, was notified she’d be among the first in the nation to get a new, federally approved emergency vaccine to protect her against COVID-19. Soon after she received the notice, Hilton, who is Black, posted a video about it on YouTube, practically radiating optimism.
“We’re finally, I’m hoping, nearing as a nation a light the end of the tunnel,” she said.
Hilton’s excitement, however, is tempered by harsh reality: People of color have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus, and Black Americans have died of COVID-19 at a rate roughly three times higher than whites. Experts agree the virus has exposed health disparities hidden in plain sight, linked to the lingering effects of racism and inequality in the U.S.
Yet finding a way to get a potentially game-changing vaccine – the result of a multibillion-dollar race to invent a drug that can stop a global pandemic – into the arms of a demographic that’s among those who need it most is a conundrum that would vex King Solomon himself.
“This is an unprecedented, unprecedented mass vaccination campaign. We’ve never done this,” says Hemi Tewarson, a visiting senior policy fellow at the Duke University Margolis Center for Health Policy. While the country has had national inoculation campaigns for polio and the flu, she says, the global pandemic – combined with relatively small quantities of a precious vaccine – has raised the stakes to an extraordinary level.
And as the pandemic grinds on – killing thousands of people a day nationwide, swamping hospitals and funeral homes, and doing serious damage to the national economy – there isn’t much time for debate. “Millions of Americans across the country are going to need to get this vaccine,” and quickly, Tewarson says.
Earlier this month, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee recommended that front-line health workers and residents of long-term care facilities such as nursing homes should get vaccinated first. Such recommendations help guide health policy in the U.S. Still, it’s up to states to draft their own inoculation plans for their share of available vaccine doses, raising thorny questions about who’s next in line.
“There are 50 states with 50 allocation schemes,” says Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. But putting communities of color ahead of other groups for the vaccine is good public health practice, Beyrer says: They are canaries in the COVID-19 coal mine.