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Biden commits $10 billion to close racial and other gaps in vaccine coverage

Drawing on funding from the American Rescue Plan, the administration will pump money into community health centers, along with other initiatives

President Biden last week updated coronavirus vaccination efforts, flanked by Vice President Harris. (Michael Reynolds /EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The Biden administration is committing nearly $10 billion to address a problem that has bedeviled health officials overseeing the coronavirus immunization effort: inequities in vaccine coverage based on race, income and geography.

Deploying funding largely from the pandemic aid plan that cleared Congress this month, the administration will invest more than $6 billion in community health centers and make front-line essential workers and all people 16 and older with high-risk medical conditions eligible for vaccination at such sites. More than 65 percent of doses allocated by the federal government to community health centers have gone to people of color, the administration said in a fact sheet announcing the plans.

Additional resources, the government promised, “will expand access to vaccines for vulnerable populations and increase vaccine confidence across the country.”

Whether these aims are realized could decide how quickly the United States reaches the high levels of immunity needed to halt the spread of the virus. With supply of all three authorized vaccines ramping up, issues of access and trust have become paramount. The administration has made equity a central priority, but the challenges are immense, beginning with a lack of clear data on the race and ethnicity of vaccine recipients.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in an interview with The Washington Post this week that the government would need to go to great lengths to reach some people, such as those who toil in farm fields or on construction sites. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention carved out a new position focusing on vaccine equity, naming a prominent HIV/AIDS doctor to the post.

As the immunization campaign picks up speed, yawning racial gaps and other disparities are threatening to undermine progress in curtailing the pandemic.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found a “consistent pattern across states of Black and Hispanic people receiving smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their shares of cases and deaths and compared to their shares of the total population.” The pattern held from California, where Latinos are 40 percent of the population but account for 21 percent of vaccinations, to D.C., where Black people make up 46 percent of the population but account for 31 percent of vaccinations.

The $6 billion will be disbursed by the Health Resources and Services Administration to nearly 1,400 community health centers throughout the country. While seeking to broaden access in communities of color and among rural and low-income populations, the funding outlined Thursday will also help promote uptake of vaccines. States and other jurisdictions will gain access to $3 billion for efforts aimed at boosting vaccine confidence in communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

Additional resources will support community health workers, according to the fact sheet.

As part of the package of initiatives aimed at vaccine equity, the administration also said it would begin distributing vaccine doses directly to dialysis treatment centers in an effort to reach the roughly 500,000 people in the United States receiving treatment for kidney disease, which disproportionately affects racial and ethnic minorities.