Vaccines

Optics can be important during the coronavirus vaccine rollout.

Clatsop County’s elected leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to model responsibility and civic sacrifice with the vaccine rollout.

In January, The Astorian noted a county spokesperson as saying that some county commissioners were vaccinated because they make up the county’s governing body — an integral part of keeping the county functioning and directing services and programs.

By contrast, state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, quipped in a January piece, “I can sure as hell tell you I’m not going to get a vaccination before every person in an assisted living facility gets one.”

Sen. Johnson is on the right track.

Those of us in positions of privilege and influence may assess our relative utility to the community while at the same time working to ensure the most marginalized individuals receive vaccinations first.

Inexplicably, the federal government does not mandate vaccines be distributed or administered equitably. Local entities are therefore left to their own devices, which naturally tend toward upholding systems of inequity — and even racial injustice.

Indeed, a February piece from National Public Radio stated a fact most of us are now well aware of: Even though communities of color are far more likely to face higher rates of mortality due to COVID, they continue to receive less access to the vaccines.

Following the seafood processing plant outbreaks last spring, Michael McNickle, the county’s public health director, wrote to the Oregon Health Authority, “Unfortunately, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected our Latinx community; especially those working in jobs labeled ‘essential worker’ ... Clatsop County desires balanced protections for the most vulnerable while supporting the operational needs of essential businesses.”

McNickle emphasizes county government’s commitment to serve the public first. Nowhere is that commitment more imperative than in addressing racial disparities.

Those of us holding white privilege, as most of our local elected officials do, have an opportunity to both step aside from our place in line for the vaccine as well as to call attention to the issue of racial inequity in vaccine distribution.

Unlike front-line essential workers, who, according to NPR, disproportionately represent people of color, county commissioners need not work directly with the public. Meetings are now conducted online, communiques can be exchanged by phone, email or otherwise.

What exactly was the necessity for some commissioners to receive the vaccine before more vulnerable members of our community? With one exception, these are not front-line health staff, teachers, bus drivers nor essential food production workers. The county spokesperson notes the move to vaccinate county commissioners was a way to reassure the public that the vaccine is safe. But if this was the intention, why did we not hear commissioners shout this messaging from the rooftops? Where is the coordinated campaign to use their privilege as early vaccine recipients — and their pulpit as elected officials — to tout vaccine safety?

Finally, on a very basic note of human curiosity, was no one evaluating the optics of such a move?

Still, the year is yet young. We have plenty of time to look for our local elected representatives to address racial inequity in purposeful ways. The revelation that some elected officials saw fit to vaccinate themselves before their most vulnerable constituents also serves as a reminder that we, the electorate, have an opportunity to consider our own complicity in upholding inequality in our everyday lives.

Our silence on these matters amounts to complicity. On the contrary, let’s get loud.

Jen Munson is a disability rights advocate and social worker.