The Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers has called for more transparency in the state's vaccine equity efforts and said that more needs to be done to get vaccines into the arms of the state’s low-income residents, who tend to also be at greatest risk of contracting COVID-19.
“Equity is not making it ‘access for all,’” Michael Curry, the league's president and CEO, told Boston Public Radio on Thursday. “It’s advantaging some communities that’ve been historically disadvantaged — giving them what I call a ‘fast-pass’ to the vaccine, because they’re in communities that, quite frankly, are dying.”
In addition to leading the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, Curry also sits on Gov. Charlie Baker’s COVID-19 vaccine advisory board and is a member of the national NAACP board of directors, where he chairs the board’s advocacy and policy committee.
Last week, Baker announced a $4.7 million initiative to boost vaccination rates in 20 of the state’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, with an emphasis on reaching communities of color. The effort, made in conjunction with Archipelago Strategies Group and Health Care for All, seeks to, as Baker put it, “reduce barriers to vaccination and to increase awareness of the efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Curry said he’s still waiting to hear more specifics on the plan, including a better outline of how it translates to “actual vaccines going into those communities.”
The latest data from the Department of Public Health indicates 5.1% of first vaccine doses in Massachusetts have gone to Black residents, who make up 9% of the state’s population. Latino residents account for 4.3% of first doses and over 12% of the state’s total population, respectively.
A March study released by The Kaiser Family Foundation found that vaccine distribution in Massachusetts has been more equitable between Black and white residents when compared to much of the rest of the country. Sixteen percent of the state’s white residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 12% of the state’s Black residents. Among Massachusetts’ Latino population, however, vaccinations have so far been over two and a half times less frequent than for their white counterparts, a discrepancy that falls slightly below the national average.
Curry also said that Baker at the beginning of the rollout, Baker promised to reserve 20% of the state’s vaccine supply or disadvantaged communities. Asked what’s become of that promise, Curry said he wasn’t sure.
"The fact that I don’t know and others can’t answer that question kind of speaks for itself," Curry said.
Frustration about signups for COVID-19 vaccines were echoed in another Thursday interview on the show, from husband and wife duo Diana Rastagayeva and Jonathan Huggins. The two founded the volunteer-led site Massachusetts COVID Vaccination Help. Their team of 300 workers is prioritizing servicing residents of the 20 communities Massachusetts has designated as the hardest-hit areas first. Rastagayeva said that English language learners tend to have a significantly harder time accessing the state’s online scheduling system.
Naturally, Curry also emphasized the critical role that community health centers — which he said were “born out of the Civil Rights Movement" — play in building vaccine trust and getting Black and brown people immunized against COVID-19, countering decades of racist practices in the American healthcare industry.
“The reality is, people want to go to places that speak their language, that know their culture, that understand their hesitancy,” he said. “That may be the person at the front desk, or the person putting the shot in your arm — they look like you.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include context about the data on vaccinations among Black and Latino residents, as well as new information on Massachusetts’ standing in the U.S. with respect to vaccine equity.