The Washington State Department of Health lets providers deny vaccines to white people in a race-exclusionary system they claim creates equity and removes barriers. It does neither.
The African American Reach and Teach Health Ministry (AARTH) is a vaccine provider in Washington state. Eligible recipients can sign up for vaccines using their online scheduler. But if you’re white, you’re not able to access any open vaccine appointments.
By default, white people are put on a standby list — one of two lists segregated by race — for vaccine access. They will only provide their online appointments to people of color.
Given repeated opportunities over the course of several days, the state DOH would not directly answer whether or not this practice violates the law. Instead, the DOH repeatedly deflected, arguing that they’re taking necessary steps to provide equitable access to the vaccine. But it’s only equitable access if you have the right skin color.
If you try to sign up for a May 1 pop-up at Fred Hutch in Seattle, via the AARTH website, you must identify as either a person of color or as white.
“Part of the reason we ask that is because of the funding that we receive,” AARTH consultant Twanda Hill told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “They want to know. … We have funding because we are able to reach people of color. Federal funding, state funding, county funding. They want to know who are we serving.”
If you’re a person of color, you can move forward and schedule a vaccine appointment if there is an opening. But if you’re white, you are automatically placed on a standby list. This bars you from continuing the process. AARTH says they will contact the white person if there is an opening.
But this isn’t the only list.
The first list, according to Hill, is a waitlist for people of color, should a vaccine appointment open up. If the waitlist is emptied and vaccine availabilities eventually open up, only then will a white person on the standby list be contacted.
This policy effectively bars white people from accessing taxpayer funded vaccines set up through the state. Hill argues their system isn’t truly exclusionary. A small percentage of white people on the standby list make it through. She also notes that people who lie about their race won’t be turned away.
Hill could not specify which governmental agency AARTH received its funding from for this project. Public Health — Seattle & King County tells the Jason Rantz Show they do not have a contract with AARTH.
State DOH spokespeople refuse to directly answer whether or not vaccine providers may discriminate on the basis of race. They were given four opportunities over email to directly answer the question.
Instead, they frame their race-exclusionary vaccinations policy around prioritizing communities of color. It is DOH policy that white people, or anyone the department deems at less risk than others, “may not be able to participate in a specific event or get an appointment in a specific block of time.”
Spokesperson Franji Mayes told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that they’re looking to connect with communities of color because of “systemic inequities” in health care.
Kristen Maki, another spokesperson, explains “prioritization is designed to address current inequities and barriers to accessing vaccine, and get the people who are at highest risk vaccinated first while federal vaccine supply remains limited.”
But under the current process, an older white person with obesity and cancer is at a higher risk than a young and healthy Black person. Yet the white Washingtonian would be denied access based exclusively on his skin color at AARTH. Why? Because, according to Mayes, “dealing with racism is a stressor that is bad for health and life expectancy.”
AARTH consultant Twanda Hill provided the Jason Rantz Show a detailed explanation defending their race-based online scheduling system. Like the DOH, Hill points out purported inequities within the health care system. And her process aims to even the playing field.
“Because we’ve been able to focus on this group [people of color], now to come back and have to worry about are we being illegal … while the state, you know, the health care system in general, if they could service brown people and people of color, this wouldn’t be an issue,” Hill explained.
When I asked about the legality of a race-exclusionary system, Hill noted she was trying to “figure out a balance” only to be told “no, we have to make it open to everybody. Is that what you’re thinking? That it has to just be totally a free for all and whoever comes in, comes in? And if that’s the case, then why would the Black church do it?”
First, AARTH already offers the vaccine to more than just Black people. They’re only excluding white people in their online scheduling. Second, do Black churches not want to help more than just Black people? Do Black churches not have members in interracial marriages? One might think they’d want to offer help to as many people as possible.
Hill compares people complaining over a race-based vaccine appointment policy to those who complained about the more general phase-in eligibility tiers. Early on, for example, only seniors were eligible for the shots due to their vulnerabilities and low vaccine supply.
“Even if it’s not the ethnicity, it could be the eligibility, they’re right on the borderline,” Hill said. “So I’m not quite sure what the answer is because it almost feels like you’re saying that since we have a focus on a targeted group, that we should just open it up and let everybody in. But if you or another person is not getting in, isn’t that a bigger issue for the state? And why aren’t there more appointments?”
The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle will hold a clinic for AARTH on Saturday, May 1.
For employees, the policy on discrimination is clear: You cannot discriminate on the basis of race. But it does not seem to apply to the AARTH event, even though white people were barred from directly signing up for open appointments online.
A Fred Hutch spokesperson did not directly respond to questions on whether or not the AARTH online process aligned with its anti-discrimination policy. They did not dispute that the policy is race-exclusionary, either.
The spokesperson did, however, offer the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH boiler plate language expressing their support for “diversity, equity and inclusion.” They note that they “recognize the importance of prioritizing communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic.”
Ignoring bumper sticker talking points about equity and an eagerness to virtue signal, the topic of access is important.
The DOH appears to assume that all people of color are poor, thus have inequitable access to vaccines. If you’re white, the DOH presumes you to have privilege, thus easy access to vaccines. But the truth is people of all races experience access issues due to their socio-economic status.
It’s certainly true that more Black and Latino populations are lower income than white and Asian. But a low-income white person is no less disadvantaged from accessing health care than a low-income person of color. It’s precisely why programs should target low-income communities, not base its program exclusively on race.
Spokespeople from both King County and the City of Seattle say they do not allow their partners to offer or withhold vaccines on the basis of race.
Instead, they offer targeted pop-ups in neighborhoods with higher at-risk populations and outreach to community organizations to better promote available vaccine events. This way allows the county and city to reach an ethnically diverse group of people most likely to be low-income and experience access issues, without leaving out white people experiencing the exact same problem. This is how it should be done.
But the DOH doesn’t seem to understand.
“This prioritization is similar to an event like free breast cancer screening for people without health insurance,” spokesperson Kristen Maki explained over email. “If event organizers place someone who does have health insurance and wants a screening on standby, that person isn’t being denied a screening. They don’t experience the same barriers to getting health care as the people the event was created to help, and placing them on standby means they aren’t getting a screening instead of someone whose only access is through the event.”
What if only white people without health insurance were able to access this program? Would the DOH be OK with that? Of course not. Yet they’re OK when white people are shut out of vaccine access on the basis of their skin color. Apparently, the DOH believes privilege grants white people magical access to limited vaccine appointments.
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