Opinions

COVID-19 disproportionately harms people of color. We should prioritize them in vaccine distribution.

We need to operationalize equity and build systems that prioritize people of color in COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

The Alaska Vaccine Allocation Advisory Committee is committed to “equitable access for all Alaskans by promoting justice and mitigating health inequities,” but thus far, we are unfortunately falling short of this goal.

Approximately one-third of the vaccinations given in Alaska so far are currently reported as “unknown race.” This makes it impossible to accurately interpret the available data. Using even the incomplete data, there seem to be potential disparities in vaccinations received between racial groups. Notably, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders comprise 1% of the Alaska population, make up 2.7% of COVID-19 cases, 5.8% of COVID-19 deaths and only 0.3% of the vaccinated persons for whom race is known.

We need complete data on race and ethnicity during ongoing vaccine distribution in order to achieve equitable outcomes. We need to figure out why one-third of the vaccines are reported as “unknown race” and then work to remedy this problem. The state dramatically improved collection of race and ethnicity data for COVID-19 cases over the course of the pandemic, and we know we can do better with vaccination data as well.

Phase Ib Tier 2 opened last week, which is worth celebrating. To meet the goal of equitable vaccine access, we strongly recommend that multi-generational households, which are currently in an unopened tier, be moved into the currently open Tier 2. This group closely resembles those living in congregate settings who are currently eligible for vaccination.

Additionally, people of color are more likely to live in multi-generational homes, so prioritizing this group could help work toward equitable vaccine distribution, as white people are prioritized in other aspects of the tier-based distribution system. The current tiers prioritized white populations by prioritizing people 65 and older, an age group that has proportionally more white people compared with the population as a whole. So does prioritizing education staff of all ages — this group also has proportionally more white people compared with essential workers, which has proportionally more people of color, and currently is restricted to age 50 and above.

We need to take concrete action to make equitable vaccine distribution a reality. It is vitally important that the public is kept informed via all forms of media and through community partners about vaccine eligibility and administration. With the rapidly changing information, more resources need to be dedicated to getting the message of vaccine availability to all communities and neighborhoods. People must have accessible ways to make appointments.

Finally, we need to have vaccine clinics that are at times and locations that are welcoming and convenient for our communities of color. We have seen tremendous creativity in the efforts of the tribal health system to successfully reach remote and isolated communities in our state. We can use this example to ensure that everyone in our urban centers also has the opportunity to receive the vaccine when eligible.

Celeste Hodge Growden is president of the Alaska Black Caucus.

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