Sobremesa: The importance of equitable vaccination distribution

Sobremesa Graphic

The New York Times recently released a quiz that allows Americans to calculate their approximate position in line to access the coronavirus vaccine. While it’s exciting to think about a possible end to this pandemic, we must dig deeper into the nuances of equity in vaccination distribution.

Health care inequities loom within our society in many different contexts. From disproportionate Black maternal mortality rates to unnecessary chemical exposure to rampant obesity among low-income communities and communities of color, the consequences of health care inequality manifest in numerous ways. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many new health care inequalities have emerged. Many essential workers have been relegated to unsafe workplaces, leaving them at higher risk for COVID-19 exposure. Furthermore, countless individuals are left with unsatisfactory health care, leading to disproportionately high death rates among minority populations.

Looking at recent news, it seems that hope is on the horizon: COVID-19 vaccines are close to ready for distribution in the United States. But we must not get our hopes up too high; like most health care-related matters, this vaccine will likely disproportionately aid those in positions of power, potentially on the basis of race, gender, socioeconomic class or sexual orientation.

The question now becomes: Who will get access to the vaccine first? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that all adults should be able to get a vaccine in 2021. But after months of this tumultuous pandemic, many Americans feel as though a year is too long a wait. Our nation has decided to leave distribution practices and decisions up to each respective state. What that will look like in practice has yet to be determined.

In New York, for example, Gov. Cuomo created the Vaccine Distribution and Implementation Task Force. Composed of multidisciplined experts, the task force plans to take a meticulous approach to the vaccination process, ensuring that each step — from determining the safety of the vaccine to its distribution  — runs smoothly. But in New York and other states, there are many different interpretations of what it means to ethically distribute the vaccine. As a country, we must ensure that this matter unfolds in the most equitable way possible.

In an ideal world, this developed nation would have produced enough vaccinations to provide doses to all Americans as soon as possible. But given our current political climate and the limited number of doses available, one approach that has a fighting chance at providing a standard of health care equity is ensuring not only that the vaccine is financially accessible to all, but that historically underrepresented voices are included in statewide task forces.

By including the opinions of people who may be particularly vulnerable to contracting the virus and encountering health complications, including essential workers, people who live in government-assisted housing and those living in nursing homes, states can add an empathetic and informative layer to the decision-making process. To avoid falling into the unjust medical traps that the U.S. health care system so frequently creates, we must actively engage people from a variety of backgrounds to form collective, collaborative and well-informed decisions about the distribution of the vaccine.