Role of race in US vaccine rollout gets put to the test

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Oregon Health & Science University

In this photo provided by Oregon Health & Science University, Oliver Pelayo, an OHSU registered nurse, prepares vaccine doses during a drive-thru clinic held in a parking lot at the Portland International Airport in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 24, 2021. An advisory committee in Oregon that provides recommendations to the governor and public health authorities about which groups to prioritize next for the COVID-19 vaccine is tackling what role race should play in those decisions as tensions around urgent questions of equity and vaccine access bubble up nationwide. (Erik Robinson/Oregon Health & Science University via AP)

PORTLAND, Ore. – The role that race should play in deciding who gets priority for the COVID-19 vaccine was put to the test Thursday in Oregon, but people of color won't be the specific focus in the next phase of the state's rollout as tensions around equity and access to the shots emerge nationwide.

An advisory committee that provides recommendations to Gov. Kate Brown and public health authorities discussed whether to prioritize racial minorities but decided on a wide range of other groups: those under 65 with chronic medical conditions, essential workers, inmates and people living in group settings.

The 27-member panel in Oregon, a Democratic-led state that's overwhelmingly white, said people of color likely fell into the other prioritized groups and expressed concerns about legal issues if race was the focus. Its recommendations are not binding but offer key guidance on vaccine distribution.

The committee was formed with the goal of keeping fairness at the heart of Oregon's vaccine rollout. Its members were selected to include racial minorities and ethnic groups, from Somalian refugees to Indigenous people.

“Our system is not yet prepared to center on and reveal the truth of structural racism and how it plays out," said Kelly Gonzales, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a health disparity expert on the committee.

The panel included a statement in its plan acknowledging the impact of structural racism and saying it reviewed the needs of minority communities.

The virus has disproportionately affected people of color. Last week, the Biden administration reemphasized the importance of including “social vulnerability” in state vaccination plans — with race, ethnicity and the rural-urban divide at the forefront — and asked states to identify “pharmacy deserts” where getting shots into arms will be difficult.

Overall, 18 states included ways to measure equity in their original vaccine distribution plans last fall — and more have likely done so since the shots started arriving, said Harald Schmidt, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied vaccine fairness extensively.