In its final report, the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force highlighted encouraging improvements over the past year in addressing inequities in the burden of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic groups, as well as disparities in vaccine access and immunization rates.
The gap in deaths, cases and hospitalizations between Blacks, Hispanics, and whites has closed. Nearly 90% of COVID-19-related deaths have fallen among Blacks, Browns, and other indigenous peoples over the last year. These underrepresented populations are now being vaccinated at rates which reflect the U.S. populace. “Looking back to April, we were seeing around 10 points difference in terms of vaccination rates among racial and ethnic groups. Now we consistently see in national pools and from the CDC that for eligible adults in this country, the racial and ethnic gaps are gone for vaccination,” says Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the Health Equity Task Force.
Formed by an Executive Order President Biden signed in the first few days after taking office, the task force’s mission was to ensure that the COVID-19 response, including the historic mass vaccination campaign, prioritized equity—in education and information about the shots, as well as access to them.
This mission was especially important because the virus struck communities of color hardest. Rates of illness, hospitalization, and death were always higher in Black and Hispanic populations than among whites. Because access to health care providers who were administering the vaccines is so unequal, those trends were expected to spill over into vaccination status if intentional efforts to balance the access weren’t made.
Through monthly meetings that stretched for three to four hours each, the task force’s 13 members gathered experts and reviewed data on a handful of major themes—the availability of relevant data on race and ethnicity, vaccine access, behavioral health, discrimination and xenophobia, Long COVID, testing, COVID-19 therapies and future pandemic preparedness. The group ultimately narrowed down a 300-page list to just 55 recommendations in its final report. These five main actions were the focus of their final report. This includes investing in community-based activities, which are led by leaders from local faith-based groups or other organizations. It also recommends increasing resources for collecting data about health issues by race and ethnicity.
The lack of information on race and ethnicity in national databases that track COVID-19 vaccination cases was one of the biggest challenges faced by the group when attempting to develop advice about addressing inequities. “We were stymied—it’s not a secret that at multiple times in our work, we did not always have the data necessary to know where to target resources,” says Nunez-Smith. This deficiency was highlighted and helped to draw in more resources for collecting data from communities of color. “The data infrastructure certainly improved throughout the pandemic, but at the beginning, we didn’t have what we needed,” she says.
The task force’s recommendations were made public by the Biden Administration over the last year. It recommended that $785 million be allocated from the American Rescue Plan. This money will support community-based efforts in building confidence in vaccinations for people of color, in low-income communities, and rural areas, and to bolster resources in public health services for persons with disabilities. It will provide funding for education and training of community health workers that focus on the Indian Health Service and school nurses. The funding will provide support for people living with disabilities to receive and recuperate from COVID-19.
Nunez-Smith says the task force’s work has already been an integral part of the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 response. The task force exposed certain obstacles to vaccination. For instance, people must take off work to get vaccinated. Also, transportation costs to the centers are covered by the government. The government also supported local community and faith-based leaders to answer people’s questions about vaccines, based on the task force’s recommendation to provide vaccine education through trusted messengers.
Nunez-Smith stresses that the task force’s work doesn’t end with the report; one of the group’s recommendations is to maintain a health equity task force at the White House-level to sustain the momentum of prioritizing equity when considering any pandemic response. It was due in large part to the Executive Order which established the task force. This commitment should continue with the next pandemic response. “Was the task force any more important than the person who showed up to offer a ride to a neighbor to get vaccinated? No, we weren’t,” she says. “It took full collaboration with so many partners. Equity is both an uphill and downhill journey. But this isn’t the end. There is still more work to be done, and one of our recommendations is for permanent coordination at the White House around the health equity agenda.”