By Meenu Pamula
BERKELEY– With the recent increase in available effective COVID-19 vaccines in the United States, millions of Americans feel as though they can see the light at the end of the proverbial pandemic tunnel. However, with the advent of such vaccines, policymakers and healthcare professionals are faced with a new problem: how should the limited vaccine supply be equitably distributed to the most vulnerable populations?
In California, as of April 1, 2021, any individual who is 50 years of age or older, faces severe medical concerns, or works in healthcare, education, childcare, emergency services, or food and agriculture is eligible to be vaccinated. Beginning April 15, all Californians aged 16-49 will be eligible to receive the vaccine (although, it is worth noting that of the vaccines currently approved in the United States, minors aged 16-17 are currently only eligible to receive Pfizer).
As of the time of writing this article, the state has currently administered over 20 million vaccine shots, a deeply impressive number. With Governor Newsom’s recently announced plan to fully reopen California on June 15 provided hospitalization rates remain low and vaccine supply is sufficient, it is more important than ever to ensure that all residents who wish to get vaccinated are able to do so. The question now is when, not if, California’s most vulnerable communities will receive these protections.
On April 7, 2021, the California government’s official COVID-19 website stated that 31.7% of White, 22.3% of Latino, 13.3% of Asian-American, 3.3% of Black and 0.3% of American Indian residents in the state have received at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. These numbers demonstrate staggering systemic inequities in the state’s vaccine distribution thus far.
AP News reports that “officials at community health centers that serve as the safety net for the poor in the U.S., focused on health equity, say they are not receiving enough doses for their patients–the very at-risk residents the state needs to vaccinate.” Because certain health centers have reportedly faced severe vaccine shortages, individuals may not be able to find a vaccination site close to them. For wealthy individuals, who skew white as mentioned above, transportation may not pose an issue, thus allowing them to “skip the line.”
However, for millions of low-income Californians, lack of access to reliable transportation and the internet, combined with the inability to take a whole day off work to travel to a far location, severely constricts their ability to get a vaccine.
Compared to white, non-Hispanic populations, African-American individuals are 2.9x more likely to be hospitalized and 1.9x more likely to die after contracting COVID-19. Among Latino communities, these rates are even higher, at 3.1x the risk of hospitalization and 2.3x the risk of death when compared to white patients.
The social justice impact of equitable distribution is enormous. Research is increasingly indicating that marginalized communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Thus, it follows that it is more important than ever for marginalized people to be among the first vaccinated.
In an interview with the Othering and Belonging Institute, UC Berkeley Professor of Public Health Denise Herd explained, “One of the most basic problems with prioritizing vaccination based on age is that Black people, Native people, and other people of color generally have shorter lifespans than other Americans… The other problem with prioritizing distribution based on age alone, is that minority groups are experiencing Covid at different ages.”
Professor Herd continued, “Among the Latinx population, for example, it’s actually the people who are younger who have the highest rates of Covid. We’re looking at a lot of young people who are getting Covid much more than others and who are dying of Covid and among the Latinx population, the elders are actually healthier than the younger people… So you’re missing the people in that population who are at most risk of getting Covid and also at most risk of dying.”
Herd’s explanation highlighted a key problem with marginalized communities in the vaccine rollout– distribution by age is often not representative of these communities’ needs. “That’s why distributing the vaccine by age is…one of the factors that are particularly hurting disadvantaged people and people of color.”
In a recent Berkeley Conversations event, Osagie Obasogie, Haas Distinguished Chair and professor of bioethics in the Joint Medical Program and School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, also expressed the issue of how many marginalized communities (especially the Black community) have expressed vaccine hesitancy given the historic scientific oppression and racist medical treatment against Black individuals.
“We have to think carefully about how these framings about hesitancy might unduly limit the ability of these communities to have access to these medicines,” Professor Obasogie stated.
Obasogie expressed that while increased vaccine supply is a significant step, it is also necessary for the Californian government to attempt to dispel hesitations and ensure that they are advocating for the Black community.
In terms of hopes for the future, Obasogie said, “I hope that as the vaccine gets distributed, there are chances to talk to people and have them understand that getting a vaccine is not about your individual health, but about your participation in the broader goal of community health … so that, when the next pandemic comes up, people have a better foundation for thinking about, what are the actions or steps that I can take to not only protect myself, but the people around us?”
According to one source who wished to remain anonymous, the issue of equitable vaccine distribution can be seen at a local level, as students at UC Berkeley have purportedly been “gaming the system” in efforts to get vaccinated despite limited supply.
“I’ve seen so many students who are nowhere near the healthcare or education sector who just show their Cal ID and are able to secure a vaccine appointment. Obviously, the system can’t be perfect but there is a large ethical concern when students who don’t really need the vaccine are taking the spots of individuals that do,” stated the source.
This lack of accountability, in combination with the inequality in distribution, is staggering. The vaccines may help Californians can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, that is exactly why our choices now are so pivotal.
California needs to take steps to ensure accountability and promote equitable distribution at both the administrative and the community levels–and UC Berkeley is no exception.
Meenu Pamula is a writer for The Vanguard at Berkeley’s Social Justice news desk. She is a fourth year student studying Molecular and Cellular Biology. She is from Fresno, California.
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