‘It’s a big concern of ours’: Vice President Harris, on ensuring equitable vaccine access

In an interview with WHYY, Kamala Harris talked about Philly’s FEMA site and balancing the need to get shots into arms with the need to do it fairly.

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Vice President Kamala Harris looks on during the inauguration of President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan.  20, 2021 in Washington. (Tasos Katopodis/Pool Photo via AP)

Vice President Kamala Harris looks on during the inauguration of President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021 in Washington. (Tasos Katopodis/Pool Photo via AP)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opened a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Wednesday.

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to WHYY health reporter Nina Feldman Wednesday afternoon about how the Biden administration wants to help local governments speed up vaccinations, and do it fairly.

Vice President Kamala Harris, thank you so much for talking with me today. 

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FEMA launched its mass vaccination site here in Philadelphia today, which could increase the doses delivered here by 6,000 a day. While the appointments at the site were designated for essential workers, invitation links were shared widely, and many who weren’t yet eligible signed up without even knowing they were doing anything wrong. 

This seems like the latest instance during this rollout of these two competing priorities butting up against one another: the need to move swiftly and get shots into arms, weighed against the need to do things equitably and prioritize those who are at the highest risk. So how are you thinking about balancing these priorities?

Well, listen, I couldn’t agree with you more that equitable distribution must be a priority, and it has been actually something that we have not only emphasized in terms of the plan for distribution, but we actually created some structure around it, including creating a COVID Equity Task Force led by Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith. They actually had their first meeting last week. And the whole point is to make sure that we are guaranteeing as much as possible that everyone, regardless of where they live, their socioeconomic background or status, race, gender, that they have equal access to the vaccine.

It’s a big concern of ours. And as we know, this pandemic has been vicious in the way it has attacked the American people. It has disproportionately impacted people of color and particularly African Americans and Latinos, both in terms of the contraction of the virus, but also death rate. And you know that that’s not to mention all of the economic impact and the educational impact, which also is the subject of our concern about equitable distribution of resources. So there’s a lot of work for us to do, both at the federal level and obviously at the state, local level as well.

Right. And here on the ground in Philadelphia, we have a grassroots group called the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium that has been working to vaccinate the African American community. And, you know, there’s a lot of conversation about vaccine hesitancy, and they say they haven’t actually run into that problem so much yet. They had people waiting all night in the freezing cold at a 24-hour clinic to get the shot. And they said their biggest concern right now is making sure that people who need the vaccine the most get it first.

So I agree with that. And I’ll tell you, you know, early on in the pandemic and after we had a vaccine, that was a big concern for a lot of us, which was the hesitancy issue because people, especially African Americans, have a righteous skepticism about how they will be treated based on how historically folks have been treated as it relates to medical science. But to your point, and to the point of the Black Doctors in Philadelphia, what we are seeing now is, yes, that there is some of that. But the numbers that we are seeing in terms of who actually gets the vaccine is also a function of accessibility to the vaccine. So not just hesitancy, but is it actually available to all people equally?

And that’s why we are paying particular attention to where it’s being distributed. But also the Equity Task Force is charged with collecting the data, so that we’re monitoring it in real time to make sure that everyone is actually having access. And we’ve all heard the horror stories early on of, you know, for example, low-income communities in predominantly minority communities where folks who did not live in that community were going to get the vaccine. So that’s something we are paying attention to, make sure that we curtail the abuses.

Right. And you mentioned hesitancy as a result of historic injustices against communities of color. We’ve also been hearing in our reporting that many health care workers don’t want to get the shot because they’ve sort of lost trust in the institutions that they work for who would be offering it. So they might not have gotten hazard pay or proper personal protective equipment at the peak of the pandemic. At the same time, like you said, many of these workers are at the greatest risk for the disease or for dying of the disease. So how do you protect the most vulnerable people when they have very good reason to be wary of trusting the medical system? 

Listen, I mean, first of all, one of the scientists who actually created the vaccine that I took — the Moderna vaccine — is a Black woman, a very well-recognized and respected scientist. Her name is Dr. Kizzie Corbett. And the first person to actually take the vaccine in America was a Black woman. When we look at the disproportionate impact on the Black community, when we look at the fact, to your point that disproportionately frontline workers are people of color, all I have to say is this: The vaccine will save your life. It will save the lives of your family and your friends and the community, and we each have it within our power, when it’s our turn, to get the vaccine. Let’s not let anyone take our power from us. It’s too important.

We, the president and I and the nation, mourned the loss of half a million people just a week and a half ago who have died, and not to mention all of the people who have been hospitalized. There is so much suffering that has happened because of this pandemic, and it’s within our power now that, thank God, we have a vaccine. Thank God. Now, we’ve just announced we thought it would be at the end of July, but we’re going to actually have enough vaccines for everyone in the country by the end of May. Let’s take it. Let’s embrace the science. Let’s understand that this is going to save our lives. And again, it’s within our power. Each one of us. So let’s not, let’s not protest the ability each one of us has to take matters into our own hands or, shall I say, into our own arms, when it’s our turn to get the vaccine.

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As you mentioned, your administration is working to speed things up and make things move a lot quicker. What else is the administration doing to facilitate that process on the local level? Obviously, the FEMA site is a huge step in that direction. Are there more plans for federal assistance, or the National Guard to be coming into local communities to actually get shots in everybody’s arms by May versus July? 

So a couple of points. One, the president has been clear that we will reimburse the states for any National Guard assistance. In Philadelphia, there is the Convention Center starting March 3, today, where we expect to vaccinate, to your point, at least 6,000 folks a day.

It’s important to let our friends know who are worried about immigration status that the National Guard is not there to enforce immigration law. They are there simply to help people get through the lines. And so we want to make sure everyone knows that regardless of their immigration status, they are entitled to a free vaccination.

But the broader point I’ll also raise is that we know that we still have to do more. We are still not where we need to be to get this thing under control, which is why we are pushing the Senate to pass the American Rescue Plan, because in that plan, which is, again, a rescue plan, it’s about helping people get out of the mess we’re in right now. And part of that includes giving support to local and state government to do the work that they’re doing on a daily basis on the ground to get the vaccines in arms, to get the support to small businesses, to do all of the work that’s necessary to keep us running until we can get past this pandemic.

Makes sense. Vice President Kamala Harris, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for making the time. 

Thank you, Nina. Good to be with you, you take care.

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