WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) continue to drive a concerted effort in Congress to increase COVID-19 vaccine confidence and improve vaccination rates in underserved and minority communities. In Maryland, New Jersey and across the country, there are sharp racial and ethnic disparities related to COVID-19 vaccination, due to a number of confounding factors such as fear, language barriers, limited transit, and lack of health services.
“Communities of color have disproportionately borne the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in Maryland and nationwide,” said Sen Cardin. “Given that these at-risk communities faced barriers in accessing care before the pandemic and such problems have been greatly exacerbated, our communications must be culturally tailored and from trusted messengers. I am proud to reintroduce this legislation to promote equitable vaccine administration that will be essential for protecting our communities of color, while also calling on the White House to collect critical demographic data to ensure the success of the vaccination effort nationwide.”
“The pandemic has only magnified the racial and ethnic health disparities that have existed in this country for far too long,” said Sen. Menendez. “The fact remains that fewer people in underserved and minority communities are getting vaccinated, compared to other communities, even though they are more likely to be infected or die from COVID-19. We can and must do better. That is why I have consistently advocated for an equitable, nationwide COVID-19 response and vaccine distribution that leaves no one behind, and won’t stop fighting to ensure that those most affected by this crisis have access to the resources they need to safeguard their and their family’s well-being.”
Sens. Cardin and Menendez today reintroduced the updated COVID-19 Health Disparities Action Act that would support targeted and culturally competent public awareness campaigns about COVID-19 vaccines and preventative measures such as masking and social distancing. These campaigns would specifically target communities disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, including racial and ethnic minority populations.
The bill is supported by the National Alliance against Disparities in Patient Health (NADPH), the Friends of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), the National Council of Urban Indian Health, and the National Hispanic Medical Association. The bill is cosponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and Tina Smith (D-Minn.).
Health officials are recording disproportionate hospitalizations and deaths and observing lower than average vaccination rates in communities of color. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 16% of Marylanders who have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose are African American and 4% are Hispanic, despite these populations comprising 30% and 11% of the state’s total population, respectively.
Sens. Cardin and Menendez also sent a letter today with eight Senate colleagues urging the Biden Administration to include demographic data on race and ethnicity for those getting vaccinated on its national vaccine dashboard. The letter was cosigned by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).
“It is critical that our federal database tracks nationwide distributions of vaccines to states, territories, and tribes, and collects robust demographic information to ensure at-risk communities are being vaccinated appropriately,” the Senators wrote to White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients, Acting Health and Humans Services (HHS) Secretary Norris Cochran and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky. “Comprehensive vaccine data is crucial for helping public health officials evaluate how to efficiently and equitably distribute COVID-19 vaccines across the United States. It is also a crucial tool to aid public health officials in identifying the barriers minority communities face in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine and determine where vaccine hesitancy may persist.”
While almost all states report vaccination data to the CDC, only 32 states include demographic data specifying race and ethnicity. Just a few of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported there are significant gaps in reported data because race and ethnicity data was missing for nearly half of all vaccine recipients in the early days of vaccine distribution.
Since the pandemic started, Sens. Cardin and Menendez have been calling for greater equity in the country’s nationwide COVID-19 response. In April 2020, Sens. Cardin and Menendez, alongside many of their colleagues in the Senate, called on Big Pharma to prioritize diversity in COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials, underscoring the critical need for comprehensive demographic and racial data to ensure new treatments for all Americans. In July 2020, they introduced the COVID-19 Health Disparities Action Act in the 116th Congress in response to the Trump Administration’s dismal COVID-19 response, which has consistently and disproportionately affected communities of color.
The House version of the COVID-19 Health Disparities Action Act is being led by U.S. Representatives Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J).
“The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hurt Brown, Black, Indigenous, and Asian and Pacific Islander communities,” said Congressman Cárdenas. “People of color are getting sick and dying from the coronavirus at higher rates. Because of employment conditions and other social determinants of health, Brown and Black people are often the most likely to be exposed to the virus. Whether that’s working outdoors in agriculture, indoors in meatpacking plants, on the frontlines in community health centers, or in a range of in-person service-focused industries, these jobs increase exposure and risk of contracting the virus. Racial and ethnic health inequities have existed long before this public health crisis, but the pandemic has exacerbated this problem and it’s time we addressed it head-on.”
“As we’ve seen through the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, poor and minority neighborhoods as well as underserved rural communities have been especially hard hit,” said Congresswoman Watson Coleman. “Sadly, vast disparities exist in our health infrastructure and they must be addressed. If we are to be successful in defeating the virus our response must include extra resources to attack the pandemic where it’s hurt the most. This bill recognizes this reality; I strongly support it and am grateful to my colleagues Congressman Cárdenas and Senator Menendez for helping to push this issue.”
Full text of the letter is below and can be downloaded here.
Mr. Jeffery Zients
White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. Zients,
For over a year, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc both domestically and internationally. However, the approval of vaccines provides an opportunity for our nation to get one step closer to defeating this devastating disease. Through a robust vaccine initiative, our schools, economy and lives can return to some semblance of normal. While a lack of planning and leadership by the previous Administration resulted in a slow and chaotic vaccine rollout, we are encouraged by this Administration’s efforts to scale up vaccinations across the country. President Joe Biden’s initial actions of expanding vaccine availability, assisting states in vaccination efforts, and committing to ensuring all Americans who want a vaccine can have one by the summer, are mitigating further COVID-19 devastation. Additionally, the Administration must build on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) vaccine data dashboard, as it has done for other COVID-19 metrics. In particular, it is critical that our federal database tracks nationwide distributions of vaccines to states, territories, and tribes, and collects robust demographic information to ensure at-risk communities are being vaccinated appropriately.
While almost all states are reporting vaccination data to the CDC, only 32 states include demographic data specifying race and ethnicity.1 However, there are still gaps in reported data because race and ethnicity data was missing for nearly half of vaccine recipients in the early days of vaccine distribution.2 Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities have been disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and yet, they are being vaccinated at significantly lower rates.3 There have also been reports of inaccurate and inconsistent data collection by states, leading to logistical lapses that highlight the need for increasing data entry staff.4
According to the GAO report on Critical Vaccine Distribution, Supply Chain, Program Integrity, and Other Challenges Require Focused Federal Attention, there is currently no federal process or system to ensure the collection of standardized COVID-19 data,5 resulting in reporting of data that is often incomplete and unreliable. The lack of a uniform system across the country makes it difficult to provide a clear picture of vaccine distribution and administration. Comprehensive vaccine data is crucial for helping public health officials evaluate how to efficiently and equitably distribute COVID-19 vaccines across the United States. It is also a crucial tool to aid public health officials in identifying the barriers minority communities face in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine and determine where vaccine hesitancy may persist.
We request that the national COVID-19 vaccine dashboard be updated in order to improve transparency and communication in vaccine distribution and administration across the country. It is essential to our public health response efforts that the CDC COVID-19 vaccination dashboard display the most up-to-date information regarding the number of individuals that have received the COVID-19 vaccination by various demographics and by state of residence.
At a minimum, we believe the dashboard should include:
- Federal distributions of vaccines to states, territories, and tribes;
- information on the number of vaccine doses distributed and administered;
- new data points for novel vaccine administration, such as a single-shot dose;
- demographic information such as race/ethnicity and age/sex; and
- where states are sending and dispersing vaccines.
By updating our national dashboard to include more demographic data, we can better target and invest federal funding in those communities where vaccination rates lag, and ensure vaccines are equitably distributed and administered across the country. We urge you to take the steps necessary to develop and implement this valuable tool. We look forward to your response and thank you for your consideration of this important issue.