A coalition of civil rights and immigration activists, public health leaders, and elected officials challenged Governor Charlie Baker Wednesday to take bold and aggressive action to ensure the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed equitably.
“People’s lives are on the line,” said Atyia Martin, cochair of the newly formed Vaccine Equity Now! Coalition, in a Zoom news conference Wednesday. “If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, more people will die than need to die. More people will suffer than need to suffer.”
The coalition’s call to action comes the day after the Baker administration announced its latest strategy for improving COVID-19 vaccination rates among Black and Latino residents. On Tuesday, the state Department of Public Health launched an outreach initiative focused on 20 cities and towns with significant Black and Latino populations — such as Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, and Lawrence — that have suffered disproportionately amid the pandemic. The state also rolled out a $2.5 million multilingual public awareness campaign earlier this month to address vaccine hesitancy among residents of color.
Coalition cochair Eva Millona, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the administration’s plans to reach underserved communities is “a good start, but much more must be done.”
“We know that communities of color and immigrant communities in Massachusetts have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death rates. This is a combination of centuries of structural racism in our country as the pandemic only has aggravated the inequities that have long existed,” Millona said Wednesday. “These disparities underscore why our vaccine rollout must be centered on those who have been most impacted by the crisis.”
The Vaccine Equity Now! Coalition is composed of 11 local and statewide organizations, including the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and La Colaborativa in Chelsea. The group issued a set of five demands. It called for a state investment of $10 million in trusted local organizations for outreach and engagement in communities of color; immediate implementation of the administration’s promise to set aside 20 percent of the doses to supplement vaccine allocations in the most affected communities; and the establishment and monitoring of clear goals to ensure equity in vaccine distribution.
The coalition also called for improved language access for non-English-speakers at every level of the state’s vaccination campaign and for the appointment of a top-level “vaccine equity czar,” charged with addressing and eliminating vaccination disparities.
“This list of actions is entirely within reach for us as a Commonwealth,” state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz said at Wednesday’s press conference.
In Massachusetts, white residents have received at least 12 times as many doses of the vaccine as Black residents and 16 times as many as Latino residents, according to limited data reported to the Department of Public Health. Meanwhile, the proportion of white residents in the state is 9 and 6.5 times higher than for Black and Latino residents, respectively.
Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association and another cochair of the coalition, chided the Baker administration for failing to take earlier action that could have mitigated these disparities.
“These inequities were predictable. ... In fact, they were not only predictable, they were predicted,” she said. “Voices have been raised for months calling on the administration to get out ahead of equity issues in the vaccine rollout because it didn’t have to be this bad.”
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights and a member of the Vaccine Equity Now! Coalition, said he and other local advocates are also frustrated by the state’s “top-down approach” to ensuring vaccine equity in communities of color.
“It is critical ... that the state consult with community-based groups and incorporate them in a meaningful way,” he said.
During a press briefing at the State House Wednesday, Baker acknowledged the state’s inoculation rates among people of color were lagging. He also defended the state’s progress in comparison to the nation as a whole. Baker noted that by adding asthma to the list of comorbidities qualifying residents for earlier access to the vaccine, the state would reach more people of color who suffer from higher rates of the illness.
“Generally speaking, our numbers relative to the rest of the country ... are better than the national averages, but the national averages are nowhere near where they should be,” Baker said. “We’re going to continue to invest in the local delivery systems that are the trusted delivery systems in those communities. We’re also going to develop, hopefully with them, some campaigns that may even involve door-knocking and stuff like that to try to see if we can get folks to come get vaccinated.”