Ensure COVID-19 vaccine is safe and equitably distributed

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This week, just as the nation reached the tragic milestone of more than a quarter-million deaths from COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control revealed that Black, Latino, and Native American people are being hospitalized at nearly four times the rate of Whites.

Just a day after the CDC’s findings were reported, Stanford University researchers published a study that found more than half of hospital deaths from COVID-19 were Black or Hispanic patients.

Long-term task force

Bringing the pandemic under control in the United States starts with controlling it in the worsthit communities. And that starts with the guidance and expertise of Black health professionals.

For the last several months, a task force formed by the nation’s oldest Black physicians’ group has been monitoring the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The National Medical Association’s task force of infectious disease and immunization experts has been reviewing data to confirm the strength of scientific evidence and that diversity is represented in clinical trials.

“We’re really doing this to be a source of trusted information for our physicians and our community … in order for us to speak to the safety and allocation within the African American community,” NMA President Dr. Leon McDougle told CBS News.

A landmark coalition

This week, the National Urban League joined forces in that effort, initiating a first-of-its-kind conversation between Black journalists and a coalition of Black health professionals, including NMA, the Black Coalition Against COVID-19 have partnered with Meharry Medical College, Howard University College of Medicine, Morehouse School of Medicine, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, the National Black Nurses Association and BlackDoctor.org.

On Dec. 10, we will present a town hall on the development and potential distribution of a vaccine.

The National Urban League has repeatedly demanded that any vaccine distribution plan avoid the mistakes that were made with test distribution in the spring.

Rather than rely largely on private physicians and chain pharmacies – largely absent from poor Black neighborhoods – distribution must incorporate community-based providers like churches and other faith-based organizations, community centers, and Urban League affiliates.

The equitable framework for vaccine allocation developed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that “special efforts are made to deliver vaccine to residents of high-vulnerability areas.”

Addressing underlying conditions

The first of the framework’s four phases include people with underlying conditions such as cancer, serious heart conditions, or sickle cell disease, that put them at significantly higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease or death.

African Americans are disproportionately represented among this group. As the National Academies noted:

Black, Hispanic or Latinx, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 with higher rates of transmission, morbidity, and mortality.

This reflects the impact of systemic racism leading to higher rates of comorbidities that increase the severity of COVID-19 infection and the socio-economic factors that increase likelihood of acquiring the infection, such as having front-line jobs, crowded living conditions, lack of access to personal protective equipment, and inability to work from home.

Stay masked up

While we are making every effort to plan for an equitable vaccine distribution plan, it’s important to remember that there is no vaccine right now.

FDA approval may be imminent, but it hasn’t happened yet. Until a vaccine is available our best chance of survival is to mask up and avoid large gatherings.

Avoiding large gatherings is a bitter pill to swallow during this holiday time, when we’re missing our friends and family, especially after more than eight weeks of social restrictions.

But there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and we’re working to make sure it shines equally on Black America.

Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.

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