Equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccine: State Deadlines and Social Media Ethics

As the October deadline for states to submit their COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan to the CDC approaches, public health officials across the country are feeling the pressure. Questions about storage, dosing, and the uncertainty of an authorized supplier continue to plague immunization managers. While it is a virtual certainty that frontline healthcare workers will be among the first to receive the vaccine, the distribution scheme beyond the folks in scrubs becomes a delicate ethical question.

In early October, the National Academy of Medicine revealed its recommendations for this very dilemma in a report commissioned by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The framework in the report recommends a four-phase distribution plan prioritizing health care workers and first responders as well as older adults and those with pre-existing conditions as predictable initial recipients. However, it also makes novel use of the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) to ensure equity in vaccine allocation. The SVI uses U.S. Census data to map fifteen social factors—including poverty and crowded housing—which are then used to estimate the type and amount of a resource needed by a certain community. 

While a valuable assessment tool for analyzing community vulnerability, some argue the SVI Is not robust enough, failing to capture rates of pre-existing health conditions known to increase the risk of mortality for COVID-19, and the capacity of community healthcare systems. In order to more accurately and comprehensively assess vulnerability, the Surgo Foundation created the COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index (CCVI). The CCVI expands on the SVI foundation to offer a six-theme calculation for community vulnerability, which policymakers can rely upon when making decisions about where to direct resources.

Understanding COVID-19’s specific relationship to community vulnerability is essential. On a national level, the virus consistently has a disparate impact along race and class lines, as well as on individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Various state guidance publications all spell out a version of the same vague plan, deferring to CDC guidance and prioritizing “high risk” groups. Given that the CDC has the greatest influence over how vaccines are used and distributed by health departments in the U.S., it should promote and incorporate the robust analytical framework created by the Surgo Foundation as a socioeconomically conscious improvement on existing CDC guidance. Presently, the CDC includes the Surgo Foundation’s work in its COVID-19 Research Guide as a secondary data and statistics source.

The CCVI could be used to create community risk profiles and to overcome the infrastructure barriers to health access, like the strictures on telemedicine implementation in rural communities. Whatever needs are addressed by use of the CCVI, COVID-19 has exposed the inequity of the systemic healthcare structure in the U.S. as more dire than previously thought, and only an equitable approach to distribution will bring equitable relief.