*(Via LA Times) – At the height of a pandemic that has torn through America’s communities of color with particular ferocity, health officials are engaged in a fraught exercise in fairness: how to nudge communities of color toward the front of the line for scarce vaccines while pretending that race and ethnicity have no influence on vaccine priority.
The country has been deeply divided over quotas and affirmative action since long before the current health crisis. Assigning vaccine priority on the basis of race or ethnic heritage would therefore invite debate, recriminations and legal challenges.
The numbers, however, are stark. Nationally, Black and Latino Americans are hospitalized at rates roughly four times higher than white Americans, and their risk of dying of COVID-19 is close to three times higher. The death rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives is nearly double that for white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In response, experts in public health and medical ethics have spoken with virtual unanimity. They argue that heavy burdens of poverty, discrimination and social disadvantage have led to disproportionate rates of infection, hospitalization and death in communities of color. That outsized vulnerability to COVID-19, in turn, demands that these groups get some priority access to vaccines.
The final step in that chain of reasoning — that communities of color should get the vaccine ahead of others — is rarely expressed alone, and that is no accident.
In months of public deliberations, the federal government’s key panel of vaccine advisors repeatedly cited “equity” as a criterion for determining the order in which a vaccine should be allocated. In cases where conditions of work, housing, transportation and education have conspired to make a group more vulnerable to COVID-19, panel members have cited equity as the basis for giving that group early access to a vaccine.
Skin color and ethnicity, while strongly correlated with those conditions, were largely treated as incidental.
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