HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Vaccine Equity Push Hits Blind Spots

The Biden administration is struggling to address a persistent racial disparity in the country’s coronavirus vaccination campaign that has seen White Americans receive a disproportionate share of shots, even in areas that have large minority populations.

A patchwork approach in states to both administering the vaccines and reporting data on who is inoculated has left the U.S. government with significant blind spots and only partial control over who gets a shot.

Black people in Philadelphia and Washington make up more than 40% of the population but just 20% of vaccinated people for whom racial data is available, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker. In Texas and California, Latinos make up 39% of the population but just 21% and 18% of those vaccinated. In Arizona, Whites make up 55% of the state but have received 76% of vaccines.

President Joe Biden and his chief advisers, led by Vice President Kamala Harris, have pressed for vaccinations to be equitable in a pandemic that has disproportionately ravaged communities of color. A race equity task force, which sprung from a bill Harris once proposed, held its first meeting on Friday, where officials stressed the need for clearer data. But the administration has been hamstrung in its ability to address disparate distribution of shots across the nation.

People of color—including American Indians, Alaska Native persons, Black people and Latinos—are roughly three to four times as likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 than White people and about twice as likely to die of the disease, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s critically important to have equity in vaccine distribution because of everything we know about how disproportionate the impact of Covid-19 has been on communities of color,” said Lisa Cooper, a physician who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity. “We may not all be in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm.” Read more from Josh Wingrove.

  • Meanwhile, Biden said his administration would undertake a major effort to reassure the public of the safety and efficacy of coronavirus vaccines, in order to overcome reticence among some people to take the shots that could end the crisis. “We’re going to launch a massive campaign to educate people about the vaccines,” Biden said. “That they’re safe and effective.” Read more from Mario Parker and Wingrove.
  • Biden’s White House announced on Friday a partnership with national business groups to urge the private sector to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and encourage vaccinations. The White House will partner with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; leaders in the Black, Latino and Asian business community; Business Roundtable; and the National Association of Manufacturers on the efforts, Covid-19 adviser Andy Slavitt said in a briefing. Read more from Josh Wingrove and Jill Shah.

More on the Pandemic

Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Cleared, Starts Distribution: The Biden administration was set to start shipping almost 4 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine yesterday after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention formally recommended the shot for adults ages 18 and up.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky signed off on the recommendation yesterday following a unanimous decision from an advisory panel. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 12-0 during an emergency meeting the same day to review J&J’s shot, which the Food and Drug Administration cleared late Saturday.

The U.S. administration was slated to yesterday begin shipping 3.9 million doses that were already available, with the first deliveries arriving as early as tomorrow, according to senior administration officials who held a briefing call on condition on anonymity. The shots will be shipped through every distribution channel, including to states on a per-capita basis and directly to pharmacies and community health centers, the officials said. Read more from Angelica LaVito and Josh Wingrove.

  • The J&J vaccine will play a critical role in ramping up inoculations for people who might have trouble getting a second dose of the shots by Pfizer and Moderna. This includes people in rural areas, homeless shelters, or those getting vaccinated in an emergency room. For those communities, it’s an all-or-nothing situation, public health experts say. Read more from Jeannie Baumann and Jacquie Lee.
  • J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine could protect millions more Americans from contracting the coronavirus. The key will be assuring people that the single-shot vaccine is worth taking, as its overall efficacy appears lower than the two-dose ones already on the market in the U.S. J&J’s shot is more convenient than the vaccines cleared by the Food and Drug Administration last year. It requires one injection and can be stored for months in a refrigerator. State health officials and the Biden administration see it as a way to quickly host mass clinics as more transmissible virus variants continue to spread. Yet the ease of distributing the vaccine will need to be balanced with the risk of creating the perception that J&J’s shot is an inferior option. Read more from Angelica LaVito and Riley Griffin.
  • Meanwhile, the CDC’s vaccine advisory panel will discuss today whether people who’ve recovered from Covid-19 have enough antibodies that they’ll only need a single dose of Pfizer’s or Moderna’s shot, Nancy Messonnier, head of the agency’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in an online Q&A hosted by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Jeannie Baumann has more.
  • Related: FT Says J&J Covid-19-Vaccine Supplier Hit by Production Glitch

Fauci Fears Cases May Stick at 70,000: The baseline level of coronavirus cases needs to fall further before the U.S. can confidently resume normal activities, even as the national vaccine rollout accelerates, Anthony Fauci said. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made the rounds of Sunday talk shows at a moment when news related to the pandemic has been positive, but fresh concerns are now emerging. “We’ve seen what happens when you pull back prematurely,” he told CBS, Michael Riley and Ros Krasny report.

  • On Friday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said states should maintain restrictions such as mask mandates and capacity limitations as the decline in case numbers slows down. Walensky issued a sobering warning at a briefing, where she said the more contagious B.1.1.7 strain now accounts for an estimated 10% of U.S. Covid-19 cases. Josh Wingrove and Jill R. Shah have more.
  • Still, February was on track to show just a fraction of the monthly coronavirus cases seen during the worst parts of the holiday surges that drove infections to record levels. The U.S. in late February had already seen more than 2.17 million cases, which is more than any month prior to the spike, Covid Tracking Project data show. But February appears likely to post roughly a third of the cases seen in December. Nic Querolo has more.

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Happening on the Hill

Bill Targets Database of Vaccine Spending: A bipartisan duo in the Senate want to create a database of spending around Covid-19 vaccines that would make public agreements between drug companies and the government. Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) unveiled a bill that would outline where the billions of dollars spent to spur the development of Covid-19 vaccines have gone. The legislation would also make public who owns the rights to technology patents associated with the vaccines, Alex Ruoff reports.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), one of the sponsors of the House bill and head of the House Ways and Means Health subcommittee, said Friday that the White House has shielded the public from many of the terms of such vaccine agreements, including whether the federal government has any power to control the cost of the vaccines if they are needed for years to come. “In so many ways, this is our shot,” he said. “Developed and manufactured with at least $19 billion taxpayer dollars.” Read text of the bill here.

Hearings on the Hill:

  • The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee scheduled a hearing tomorrow to discuss how Covid-19 is creating a pathway to virtual health.
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies will meet for a hearing on the FDA’s Foreign Drug inspections Program on Thursday.

What Else to Know

Pot Industry Opposes Kennedy for Drug Czar: The marijuana lobby has a new foe, and this time it’s not a Republican but a Kennedy. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-Mass.), a former eight-term lawmaker and son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, wants to be the next White House drug czar, but the marijuana industry is dead-set against him. Kennedy, who’s spoken openly about his life-long struggle with drug abuse, is now an advocate for those with mental health problems. He favors allowing pot for medical reasons but opposes legalizing its recreational use. Read more from Alex Ruoff and Tiffany Kary.

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With assistance from Alex Ruoff

To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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