• Brittany Evans

The COVID-19 Health Disparities Action Act



The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many existing health disparities to the world's attention. Socioeconomic, racial, educational, and financial disparities have further divided our societies during this pandemic. An article on PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) states that “the COVID-19 pandemic is not only displaying health disparities but it is reinforcing and magnifying them." In order to help reduce these effects of the pandemic, Senators Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Benjamin Cardin of Maryland brought the COVID-19 Health Disparities Action Act of 2020 to the Senate in July of 2020. This bill sought to fund campaigns to promote vaccination in vulnerable populations and to promote transparency of the vaccines and disease severity.


Unfortunately, this bill did not receive any votes in Congress in 2020. However, in February of 2021, Senators Menendez and Cardin reintroduced a revised version of the bill, now called the COVID-19 Health Disparities Action Act of 2021. The following quote from the bill expresses how it is expected to be used amongst medically underserved communities:


“The Secretary, acting through the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in coordination with the White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, the Office of Minority Health of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Surgeon General, the National Vaccine Program Office, and, as appropriate, in coordination with the relevant Offices of Minority Health in the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, the Indian Health Service, and other relevant Federal offices and agencies shall award competitive grants to State, Tribal, and territorial health departments to support public awareness campaigns about COVID–19 directed at racial and ethnic minority, rural, and other vulnerable populations that have experienced health disparities during the COVID–19 public health emergency related to rates of vaccination, testing, infection, hospitalization, and death.”


In short, this bill is aimed at reducing health disparities amongst racial and ethnic minorities, low-income areas, and socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals by transparently communicating about the COVID-19 vaccine, test sites, and severity of the infection, through collaboration with several local, state, and federal entities. The PNAS article also states that "if the recovery from COVID-19 is similar to past disaster recoveries the same minority communities will have a harder time recovering than communities with access to relief funds and recovery programs." The COVID-19 pandemic has some similarities to prior natural and economic disasters in terms of disparities according to the study, which compared the effects of COVID-19 with that of Hurricane Katrina, the Chicago Heatwave, the Buffalo Creek Flood, and even the Great Recession.



Senators Menendez and Cardin and their co-sponsors wrote a letter to the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator on February 25th, 2021 urging that the COVID-19 national dashboard be updated to improve transparency and communication in vaccine distribution and administration. The letter stated that the dashboard should include "Federal distributions of vaccines to states, territories, and tribes; information on the number of vaccine doses distributed and administered; new data points for novel vaccine administration, such as a single-shot dose; demographic information such as race/ethnicity and age/sex; and where states are sending and dispersing vaccines." Including information on the demographics of vaccine recipients and where states are sending the vaccines can help inform how federal funds can be directed to the communities that need the most assistance.


The House version of this bill is being led by Representatives Tony Cárdenas of California and Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey. If passed, this bill could change the way that the United States approaches the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Other co-sponsors of the bill in the Senate include Senators Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Ed Markey of Oregon, Tina Smith of Minnesota, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Residents of any state can reach out to their own state Senator(s) for more information on how this bill might affect them.

 

Speaking Plainly:

  • The COVID-19 Health Disparities Action Act of 2021 is intended to increase the transparency of information around the COVID-19 vaccine, testing, and infection rates.

  • It is an updated version of the COVID-19 Health Disparities Action Act of 2020 which did not receive any votes in Congress in 2020.

  • The minority, rural, and similarly vulnerable communities that have suffered from disparities through many disasters over the years are likely to suffer similar outcomes following the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • This bill aims to address that by improving transparency and communication about vaccine distribution, which would inform where federal funds are needed the most.

  • Reach out to the Senator(s) in your state with questions about the Covid-19 Health Disparities Act and how it might affect you.