By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
An online briefing by county and state health officials for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) leaders on Feb. 10 led to an outpouring of frustration for failed, incomplete, and tardy efforts to address inequities in vaccine distribution.
“An ongoing concern for me and others in the community is why some of these weren’t developed earlier,” said Trang Tu, a community organizer, referring to equity plans announced by the officials. “I appreciate the efforts now, but it’s frustrating that this wasn’t figured out earlier so that …everyone could have fair access.”
Instead, she added, in a text message shared on-screen during the briefing, “We have some folks able to get access while others are effectively back of the line.”
Members of the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition (APDC), which hosted the forum, at first seemed hesitant to question the new measures in the works. Soon, however, they asked if materials used to counter disinformation about the vaccine would be in multiple languages, when a call center for marginalized communities would be completed, and if the equity policies would still be in place for the next crisis.
Others seemed frustrated by a lack of direct coordination with the members of APDC, who are community leaders.
“We’re all organizers, so give us something to do!” said Vy Nguyen, senior policy advisor for the Seattle City Council.
Moreover, there seemed a disconnect between the concrete steps requested by APDC members and the multiple PowerPoints containing abstract principles for addressing the crisis, along with somewhat irrelevant data.
At the outset of the briefing, Teresita Batayola, president and CEO of International Community Health Services (ICHS), gave a concrete example of how vaccine access could be made more equitable. Referring to an innovative approach, she shared that one community-based health organization that specializes in service to Latinos was no longer advertising its vaccine availability online. Instead, she said, Sea Mar Community Health Centers had adopted the approach of only advertising their vaccines through the Spanish radio station, thus enabling them to reach their community members effectively.
Such an approach prevents shots being swallowed up by anyone with internet proficiency, often excluding those in their community.
“Now they’ve started lining up at four or five in the morning, as a result,” she said.
Just getting vaccines has often been impossible for marginalized communities. ICHS received no doses for two weeks recently until Batayola personally made numerous calls to government contacts.
Local organizers have also asked for a steady supply of vaccines for community health clinics. Otherwise, they may not have time to contact enough members of their communities to use the allotted doses, which would jeopardize future access to more vaccines. State policy penalizes those organizations that do not exhaust their allotment of vaccines.
During the meeting, Batayola said she had just received an email from the public health department offering her 300 vaccines that were left over from their original deployment.
“Can you take them?” it asked. The main problem, officials said, is that the state is now receiving fewer vaccines than it had even a few weeks ago.
Nevertheless, on the surface at least, the data they shared seemed promising. It showed that 43% of residents of King County 75 years and older had been vaccinated with at least one dose and 38.8% of those between the ages of 65 to 74.
However, questions raised by APDC members revealed that the data did not reflect racial disparities. Race and ethnicity are not required data entries when vaccines are deployed, leaving no indication of what proportion of those vaccinated come from marginalized communities.
“It was optional putting in race and ethnicity data,” said Batayola. “So many people are not filling that out.”
Officials could not guarantee that collecting data on race and ethnicity would become mandatory. But they said they were hopeful it would.
The data did, however, reveal economic disparities in deployment of the vaccines. Areas such as Bellevue and Issaquah had much higher rates of vaccination than areas such as West Seattle and South Seattle. It was not clear if the apparent negligence on the part of the health departments was isolated to their handling of marginalized communities or was part of a larger failure to engage with some of the most distressing parts of the pandemic.
Mental health professionals treating COVID “long haulers,” those with long-term debilitating impacts from the contagion, recently expressed outrage that the Washington State Department of Health would not include information related to their behavioral health traumas in a PowerPoint presentation for officials and professionals around the state, according to one of those involved, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the information (the presentation was obtained by the Asian Weekly).
During the briefing, there also seemed to be a disconnect in understanding the reasons for low vaccination rates among marginalized communities.
While organizers in the Chinatown-International District (ID) have reported a frustrating and difficult series of logistical challenges in organizing vaccine drives, the officials’ presentation seemed mostly focused on vaccine hesitation, including fears that they are “some form of experimentation,” “contain human or animal tissues,” or will alter a person’s DNA, said Naisha Williams, Planning Section Chief at King County Department of Health.
She described a newsletter the state was developing to address concerns about the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines and to explain how mRNA vaccines work.
One APDC member asked whether the newsletter would be in multiple languages, an ongoing concern of community activists. It was not clear if Williams saw the question. However, another official showed multiple languages available on an existing county website providing great detail about the pandemic and the vaccines.
But the speed of changing information makes maintaining the site “a challenge,” said Meredith Li-Vollmer, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine and a risk communication specialist at Public Health-Seattle & King County.
In seeking to share information about the vaccinations, the state has funded 41 community organizations, 27 media outlets, and 21 community-based organizations, said Hang Ngo, Community Outreach Consultant for the Washington State Department of Health Equity and Engagement COVID-19 Vaccine Planning Team.
The team initially had only two members, but as of next week will expand to 11, she said.
It was not clear if officials saw a reporter’s question about the grants, and their distribution raises questions about the team’s awareness of community media.
Chinese Radio Seattle appears to have made the most of a small grant. Xiaoyuan Su, founder and CEO, said he had received $15,000 from the state and had used it for three 30-second radio ads promoting the mask mandate, social distancing, and vaccine registration, as well as daily on-air and online updates about COVID-19. He is also interviewing health care workers and professionals twice a week, sometimes visiting them on-site, and providing daily updates on social media. Chinese Radio Seattle has four Cantonese programs on Sunday. He did not have the exact numbers of listeners in the ID, “but we know there are many,” he said.
But Seattle’s only Chinese-language television station may have fared worse. AATV is watched by 80% of residents in senior housing in the neighborhood, according to David Cho, the former owner who now works as an engineering and operations consultant. Despite changing hands, the station still has one hour of Cantonese programming daily. But, said Cho, “From my understanding, no ad revenue was provided.”
Uncertainty about a promised call center was another concern shared at the briefing. Matias Valenzuela, Equity Director at Public Health-Seattle & King County, said staff were trying to get it going as quickly as possible, hopefully “by the end of the week.”
Amidst other concerns, frustration about the tardiness of the response was echoed by John Kim, Executive Director at Pacific Hospital Preservation and Development Authority, another APDC member. But he said he wanted “to express support for locking in the equity efforts of the moment so we are not back here again with the next crisis!”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.