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Massachusetts releases grants to improve vaccine equity, advocates say more should be done

 Members of the Vaccine Equity Now coalition at a press conference on June 29, 2022.
Vaccine Equity Now coalition
Members of the Vaccine Equity Now coalition at a press conference on June 29, 2022.

The Massachusetts governor's office this week announced another $7 million in grants to address vaccine equity in the state — part of more than $50 million in overall allocation.

The money is meant to help community organizations reach underserved populations. People of color have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and hard to reach with vaccines.

The New North Citizens Council in Springfield received about $50,000 dollars in the recent round.

Milagros Rodriquez, who runs the vaccine program there, said many people in Springfield still don't trust the vaccines or have religious objections.

She said the new funding will help with door-to-door outreach.

“They see what are the clients’ needs,” she said. “Do they have food? Do they have electricity? Do they have running water? Do they need a ride?”

Rodriquez said her staff focuses on two sections in Springfield — Mason Square and the North End — but she would like more funding to spread out across the city.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have turned to trusted community-based organizations who know their communities best,” said Public Health Commissioner Margret Cooke in a statement. “They continue to tap their knowledge and relationships to expand and support our Vaccine Equity Initiative by addressing the unique health equity needs of the populations they serve — needs that continue to be exacerbated by COVID-19.”

Despite the new grants, a coalition of health advocates is criticizing the administration’s work on the issue.

“Vaccine Equity Now” gave Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration a poor report card for its efforts to get the COVID-19 vaccine to low-income and communities of color.

As one example, they said 43 percent of white residents in Springfield have gotten a booster shot, compared to only 17 percent of Latino residents and 25 percent of Black residents.

Coalition member Carlene Pavlos, with the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said while intentions were good, the government did not set clear benchmarks for vaccination in underserved communities and did not sufficiently publicize data by demographics.

“This makes it incredibly difficult to understand and address the true toll that each COVID 19 wave takes on our traditionally marginalized communities.”

In response to the criticism, the governor's office said that Massachusetts ranks extremely high on racial equity in vaccination by several national polls and organizations - including first in the nation for vaccinating Black residents by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and first for racial and ethnic equity by the Commonwealth Fund.

The governor's office also said it publishes detailed data on vaccination rates in 20 communities considered highest priority for equity work.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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