As Massachusetts weathers a rocky rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines to the general public, some officials are raising alarm about how doses will reach communities of color, who have been the hardest hit by the global pandemic.
Boston City Councilor At-Large Michelle Wu introduced an ordinance on Wednesday that, if passed, would require the city to establish at least one coronavirus vaccination site in each residential zip code.
The proposal would also mandate that the Health and Human Services Cabinet and the Boston Public Health Commission prioritize opening sites in areas that have seen the highest number of cases and deaths and make sure facilities are open around the clock to accommodate those who work on non-traditional schedules.
“The most immediate way to save lives is to end the pandemic by getting our residents to protection of the COVID-19 vaccine and to allow for our recovery to be possible. I’m sorry it had to come to filing an ordinance with basic provisions around equity and accessibility,” Wu said. “But over the weekend, we learned just how stark the injustices of this pandemic are, even in this last step of getting our residents the life-saving vaccine.”
Today, I’ll be presenting my ordinance to require equitable, accessible COVID-19 vaccine distribution in Boston to the City Council.
— Michelle Wu 吳弭 (@wutrain) January 27, 2021
A Boston Globe analysis published Saturday revealed striking racial disparities in just how close residents of color and white residents live to established vaccination sites in Suffolk County.
According to the newspaper, less than 14 percent of Black residents and approximately 26 percent of Latinx residents reside in census tracts within 1 mile of one of those sites. By comparison, almost 46 percent of white residents in the county do.
So far, there are over 150 sites across the commonwealth — primarily for first responders and Phase 1 recipients — and they are more easily accessible at a statewide level for Latinx, Black, and white residents than they are in Boston and the surrounding communities that make up the county: Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop.
There is currently only one public vaccination site in Suffolk County at the South Boston Community Health Center. Prioritized vaccine recipients will be vaccinated at Fenway Park beginning Monday.
A spokesperson for the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center told the Globe the state shares a “commitment to the equitable distribution and access to vaccines” and more locations will be opening in the coming weeks.
And earlier this week, Mayor Marty Walsh announced the city will launch a mass vaccination site at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury next week.
Wu called the move “a good first step.”
“But the city must do more to ensure that all Boston residents have reliable and easy access to a vaccination site,” she said.
In a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley outlined serious concerns she has with his administration’s plans surrounding reaching communities most in need of the vaccine.
“Despite the fact that we continue to see record spikes in cases across the Commonwealth, I remain gravely concerned that your administration’s vaccination and response plans continue to fall short of serving the needs of the communities most impacted, including those in my Congressional district,” Pressley wrote.
The pandemic has impacted communities of color at a disproportionate rate since its onset. Pressley, in her letter, pointed to data that shows 60 percent of COVID-19 infections in Boston are among Black and Latinx residents, even though those demographics account for 25 and 20 percent of the city’s population, respectively.
Meanwhile, data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health shows Black and Latinx residents account for less than 3 and 4 percent, respectively, of those who have received vaccines so far, compared to white residents, who make up almost 60 percent of residents who are fully vaccinated, Pressley noted.
According to data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Massachusetts is 29th in the country for vaccine deployment.
“These trends are incredibly troubling and are not easily explained by racial demographics among COVID-facing health care workers and first responders,” Pressley wrote. “There is an urgent need to update the deployment plan to address these inequities and potential hesitancy among many professionals and patients in these early populations.”
Baker’s administration announced last month it would reserve 20 percent of the state’s vaccine doses for hard-hit communities in Phases 2 and 3 of the rollout. Pressley wrote to the governor that “there remains very little information publicly available on how these vaccines will be set aside and how they will be allocated and distributed.”
“Our communities simply cannot afford to wait,” she wrote.
Pressley urged Baker to take several actions, including a commitment to prioritizing “hot spot” communities early in the vaccine deployment; a plan to build out community-centered programs for administering and delivering vaccines in those areas; partnerships with community health centers to serve as vaccination sites; and a public awareness campaign to dispel misinformation about the vaccine in order to build trust among Black and brown residents.
In Boston, city officials have already pledged to help educate the masses around the vaccine, especially after surveys conducted by the health commission last month showed residents in communities struggling from the impact of the pandemic are more likely to hesitate or refuse to take the vaccine. The sentiments in part stem from longstanding mistreatment of Black populations by the medical community.
Wu said her ordinance proposal is intended to complement discussions the council intends to have about the rollout. Councilors Andrea Campbell and Ricardo Arroyo have sponsored a virtual hearing set for Feb. 9, where officials will discuss ways the city can ensure the vaccine is distributed equitably.
As the City rolls out vaccine distribution, it must be equitable, transparent, and inclusive. Join us for a hearing on 2/9 to discuss strategies, incl. who is prioritized, where sites are located, and how we ensure everyone has information they can trust. https://t.co/TBNoIUwc8X
— Andrea J. Campbell (@andreaforboston) January 27, 2021
On Thursday, Pressley and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey also brought the issue to the federal Department of Health and Human Services through urging agencies to monitor and address demographic disparities in the nation’s vaccine deployment plans.
Part of that work includes having vaccine recipient data published regularly and readily available for lawmakers, they wrote.
“Without robust demographic data, policymakers and researchers cannot fully address the disparate impact COVID-19 continues to have on communities of color or address vaccine hesitancy among communities that have had their trust broken by the medical system,” the lawmakers wrote to Acting HHS Secretary Norris Cochran IV. “As you take the helm of HHS amidst continued COVID-19 surges across the country and a slow vaccination rollout, we urge you not to delay collecting this vital information, and to take any additional necessary steps to ensure that all Americans have the access they need to COVID-19 treatment and vaccination.”