White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki faced a question, Wednesday, over whether the White House’s decision to pressure states to allow teachers and other school staff to jump the line and receive the COVID-19 vaccine ahead of other groups violates the Biden administration’s commitment to “vaccine equity.”
The question Wednesday echoes criticism from health equity activists including Dr. Celine Gounder, who called the move “anti-equity.”
One reporter referenced Gounder in her question.
“Dr. Celine Gounder called the move to prioritize teachers ‘anti-equity’ since most teachers are white and it’s taking away from those people who are underserved,” the reporter noted. “What is the administration doing to make sure teachers and these people who are underserved will have the same access to vaccines?”
Visibly taken aback by the question Psaki noted that “first, we simply disagree, and not just me or the president, but the head of our equity task force and our health and medical team for a couple of reasons.”
“One, it’s critical to remember that the program is beyond teachers and includes bus drivers, janitorial workers, childcare workers — a workforce that is…incredibly diverse,” Psaki said
Psaki then seemed to disagree with the larger messaging of major teachers’ unions, which suggest that returning to in-classroom learning can be considered problematic and, in some cases, even racist. “Second,” she said, “getting kids back to school is one of the most equitable steps we can take because what we’ve seen, statistically, is that black and Latino students are disproportionately experiencing learning loss for a variety of reasons.”
Psaki went on to note that those reasons include “internet interconnectivity” and “parents who are disproportionately front line workers.”
She concluded by noting that sending students back into schools is the most equitable thing that the Biden administration can do for communities of color amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have noted that it is not, in fact, necessary for all teachers to be vaccinated in order for in-person instruction to resume. In fact, studies appear to show that teachers are not at an increased risk of contracting the novel coronavirus in a school setting, meaning it is, in fact, unnecessary to prioritize teachers in order to achieve equity.
The Biden administration has been clear that it views a strict vaccine calendar, that prioritizes individuals by health factors only, is itself problematic, and to correct the “inequality” that occurs simply by shipping vaccines directly to states and allowing states to determine who receives the COVID-19 shot, they would send a certain number of vaccines directly to community clinics that served specific underserved individuals.
“Equity is core to our strategy to put this pandemic behind us, and equity means that we are reaching everyone, particularly those in underserved and rural communities,” the White House’s COVID-19 response specialist told CNBC. “But we cannot do this effectively at the federal level without our partners on the state and local level sharing the same commitment to equity.”
In some cases, though, that equity focus has caused delays. In California, officials specifically blamed the state’s equity program for complicating vaccine distribution and the process of getting shots into arms, according to local media.
Dr. Gounder referenced the change in administration policy towards vaccinating teachers as creating further hurdles, particularly given that vaccinating teachers ahead of other high-risk groups is unnecessary and not a prerequisite to returning to schools.
“This doesn’t make any sense. High-risk teachers (i.e. over 65 and/or with chronic medical conditions) would be vaccinated as part of those groups. Young, healthy teachers don’t need to be prioritized. Schools are among the safest in-person workplaces,” she wrote on Twitter.
“Retail pharmacies told to prioritize vaccinating teachers but not getting extra supply. This means taking vaccine away from higher-risk persons & communities of color to vaccine young healthy teachers. This is an ANTI-EQUITY move,” she said.